One of my major pet peeves is when aesthetics override usability in a design. Don’t get me wrong, aesthetics are important. They speak to a user’s emotions. Done correctly, they can improve usability – if something is pretty, it makes you happy. If you are happy, you are less likely to get frustrated. Patient users make any interface more usable.
The problem comes in when the design team’s sole goal is to make something pretty. There are design choices you can make that do look good, but make things nearly impossible to use. In Donald Norman’s classic Design of Everyday Things, He talks about a large bank that had front doors with no visible handles or hinges. It looked good – the front of the building was all seamless glass. But, there were no “affordances” – looking at the doors, you had no idea which side to push or pull, let alone whether to push or pull. That’s bad design.
Here’s a pic of my widescreen Samsung monitor at work:
You may not be able to see it, but the monitor has NO BUTTONS! Instead, the bottom right corner’s controls are touch activated. Not only can you not use them without looking/in low light – they are practically invisible in the best light (a slightly lighter gray than the black they are on). The first day I got the monitor, it took several minutes just to get the thing on. Months later, I still struggle touching exactly the right spot to turn it on – and cannot use any of the other adjustment “buttons” without my eyes being a few inches from them. I don’t care if my monitor is pretty if it doesn’t work.
I think that web designers can learn valuable lessons from things in the real world like this one. In fact, I remember a time when I was trying to help with a problem on one of the custom sites we do for a client. No one was using a new feature. That feature was a tab on a fairly well used screen. The problem? Throughout the site, the current tab (the one you were on) actually looked like a tab – it had a rounded border, was easy to see, etc. Other tabs had no border (and seemed to “float”), were a grey text, weren’t underlined…basically it was something your eye naturally skipped over when scanning the page. Sometimes you have to compromise your personal style and conform to some standards to make sites work – tabs should be recognizable as tabs, links should be recognizable as links, buttons should be recognizable as buttons.