Pretty Please With UX On Top

I’ll let you in on an embarrassing secret. Before any job interview, I belt out “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. I do this for a few reasons. First of all, it’s an incredible musical. Second of all, it loosens up my vocal chords. Third of all, it’s awkward and goofy as hell. It kills some of my nerves. But lastly, and most importantly, it inspires me to be confident and brave, and sure of myself.  

“Make it work pretty” has been the header of my "about me" bio for a while now. It was the name of the talk I gave when I spoke at my company conference over a year ago.  It was a phrase jokingly thrown out by another designer within days of me starting at TechSmith. There was a reason I fell for it. It sums up how I feel about UX and UI design in quite possibly the most simplistic sense. “Make it work” comes first. That’s all that really needs to be said. But there’s something so wonderful about the awkward quirkiness of the word pretty tacked on at the end. There’s something magical about the notion of this perfect balance of phenomenal UX and inspiring UI. I’ve sought after that balance since the moment I transitioned from a graphic designer to a UX designer, but I find myself in troubled, misunderstood times. 

So this article came out… and then, quite frankly, all hell broke lose.

In an instant, pretty was being used as a negative term around the office. Within hours, it was right up there with delight in the list of overused, misconstrued design terms. Panicking, I looked up the definition of the word, and stopped dead in my tracks at the noun description. 

an attractive thing, typically a pleasing but unnecessary accessory

Talk about having the wind knocked out of you. It was like the pain of a hundred x-acto knife cuts endured through years of design classes all at once.  But then I looked up the term beautiful, and I got back up again. 

 pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically
of a very high standard; excellent

Now that's more like it. Salesforce recently did a huge living design system rollout. They spoke about it at the Future of Web. Their four design principles were clarity, efficiency, consistency, and beauty. That was also the order of importance, and how they would make any given decision. So while beauty did not trump any of the three, it was still fundamental to the experience. Their reasoning for beauty was “to demonstrate respect for people’s time and attention through thoughtful and elegant craftsmanship." I found that quite powerful. Now back to the Apple article…

“Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty.”
- Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini

I guess I don’t recall learning that belief in college. And there’s that word again, pretty, a scarlet letter slapped across the stark page. While I'm still incredibly inspired by a lot of what Apple does, and what third party apps do on iOS for that matter, my “make it pretty" talk wasn’t about where to download the thinnest weights of a condensed san-serif, or how to pick this years sexiest color palette. It was meant to empower coworkers that struggled with presenting things creatively or visually. It was about using visuals to excite, and make concepts seem tangible. It stressed using legible fonts, accessible contrast and colors, and purposeful and logical grid structure and alignment. I wholeheartedly believe that beautiful design doesn't need to lead to this assumption that workflows and usability must have been sacrificed to get there.

We don’t have separate UX and UI roles at my company. Our position is all encompassing. While I accept and appreciate that challenge, I recognize that I am not a graphic designer anymore. Pretty visual design, to me anyways, is design that provides positive emotional and psychological influence, trust and confidence. Layout and hierarchy and read patterns (largely visual decisions) all give the perception that software is easier to use, providing balance and order and structure, brand familiarity and recognizable patterns. And yes, at the end of the day, some of it is about making your app positively delightful, giving your users all the feels. And would I occasionally love to throw in headers with a 100 weight and 300 tracking? Sure. But good design is about nailing the balance of beauty and function. As Rahul Varshney, Co-creator of puts it:

“A UI without UX is like a painter slapping paint onto canvas without thought; while UX without UI is like the frame of a sculpture with no paper mache on it. A great product experience starts with UX followed by UI. Both are essential for the product’s success.”

Here’s my Thanksgiving related interpretation of that. If my mom sets out two pieces of pumpkin pie, and one has a delicious mound of whipped cream on it, I’m going to take the whipped cream piece every single time. Yes, it’s more appealing to look at, but guess what? I love whipped cream, and she knows that. It’s a lot easier for me to devour that piece of pie when it’s smothered in whipped cream, and it was pretty damn thoughtful of her to go that extra step.

Samantha NovakComment