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Does function trump form in application design?

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There’s a principle of application design that beautiful means usable, but a new study out of Google suggests that’s not always the case. Rather, the researchers found, while beauty doesn’t necessarily affect perceived usability, poor usability can negatively affect perceived beauty. The study is far from conclusive, but as consumerization continues to sweep through software design, it might offer some warning worth heeding. Nobody wants a reputation as selling a product that’s both unusable and ugly.

The subject is on the top of my mind after recently writing a piece for GigaOM Pro in which I look at the evolution of user interfaces and user experiences within big data applications (subscription req’d). In that piece, I looked at the current state of the art in terms of creating broadly accessible big data applications, and how startups such as Platfora and ClearStory are looking to looking to take it to the next level by creating visually compelling applications usable even by everyday businesspeople. They’ll soon be joined by even more companies trying to make big data even more intuitive.

After reading the study (which focused on e-commerce sites, not business apps) my concern, which isn’t limited to big data by any means, is that companies striving for broad appeal might place beauty too far ahead of usability. As they design for mobile devices first, and as they do everything to stand apart from the enterprise applications and even the successful next-generation applications they’re trying to replace, there might be a temptation to focus too much on the surface level.

Even Google — the master of utilitarian design — has been guilty of this from time to time, rolling out a new Gmail or Reader interface, or search results layout, that initially has users saying it’s ugly because they haven’t yet adjusted to using it. But Google is Google, it’s entrenched and ubiquitous. Startups are not.

The study suggests the answer to effective design may be to reconceive how we think about design in the first place. Aesthetic attributes such as “clean” and “organized,” they say, might also be viewed as usability atributes, which might help explain the correlation between poor usability and the perception of bad design.

Or maybe, they note, it’s just a matter of poor usability putting participants in a bad mood: “the evaluation of aesthetics is influenced by the user’s affective response caused by the interaction experience.”

Whatever the case, the study raises some questions to ponder for anyone building applications, especially those trying to reach a broad audience with consumer-friendly interfaces. Those applications often gain traction from the bottom up, garnering more users as positive word of mouth grows, which means reputation is everything. The study suggests poor usability will make even the most-beautiful applications seem less beautiful — imagine those that are only marginally beautiful to begin with.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user megastocker.

6 Responses to “Does function trump form in application design?”

  1. Paul Calento

    No. Form and function are increasingly connected. Use of mobile apps have set a new standard for usability that most enterprise apps have yet to match. Plus, the move to a cloud computing model for many of these apps is forcing changes. As noted in a blog by Charles Bess (HP), “… The strengths of cloud (parallel processing in large volumes, remote automated/efficient compute pools, shared resources…) are somewhat incompatible with the way many applications have been written in the past.” If that’s the case, why not do both and address form.

  2. DavidS

    Not sure how Google is qualified to make any statements regarding usability.

    To cite just one example, Gmail uses a host of non-standard, often undecipherable UI elements and icons, places them in awkward positions (particularly in their mobile app versions, where the “send” button is at the top!), and otherwise departs from standard UI conventions, leading to very frustrating experiences for many users.

  3. hortron

    Honestly, one of the most usable pieces of software was Windows 95-98-XP. Was it pretty? heck no, but it ushered in the mainstream acceptance of PCs into daily life. That’s huge. Sometime about 5 years ago I realized (for me at least), that XP was superior in allowing me to accomplish my tasks – and I had been a die hard mac user (early 90s-mid 00s after OS X had become pretty solid in its own right).

    Surely this isn’t a popular opinion, and I’m pretty sure it’s losing relevance as we move into a post-pc age.

  4. Ram Kanda

    Form and function are not separate. They are the same thing. That’s the big secret. The function of a knife is not just to be sharp but to help feed you. If it’s so ugly that you’re choosing another knife, then it’s not functioning to feed you. If you think about hardware and software more holistically, then you get a better product if you push for better design (that is form AND function). Apple’s hockey puck mouse was not a case of form over function… the function was hindered by bad ergonomics so the form must be considered poor. Dividing products – both hardware and software – up into these categories gives us excuses as to their failure. Instead, again holistically, let’s think of a product as a mark out of 10. If you feel a product is 9/10 then it’s a great product… it doesn’t matter how you break up its aesthetics or mechanics. People will buy it.

  5. Matt Hately

    And so continues the long-standing debate in design over form and function. I’m happy the conversation is finally reaching software. Unfortunately we have camps in software that believe that putting lipstick on the pig means good design, and other camps that believe that if you focus on usability and forget the aesthetics, everything will work out.

    Does form follow function in software? Not unless you really work at it. As an industry, we try to treat aesthetic and usability as separate things, but they are inextricable. A great product is both beautiful and usable, and it’s successful because someone really sweated the details of both – think Flipboard or iOS. But this is a great time in software. As a design discipline, we’re finally maturing and learning from print, architecture, and industrial design.

    For more reading on the subject, check out Mike Kruzeniski’s great post – “How Print Design is the Future of Interaction” (

    – Matt Hately, VP Strategy, Macadamian

  6. ronald

    So a beautiful knife with a blunt blade will not look so beautiful anymore after you tried to use it? They had to write a research report about it?
    They know that emotions provide feedback loops to perception? Hence it’s hard to trust what people believe they saw, even lawyers know that.