Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Best Visual Design in the World

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I don’t do visual design. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important. I’m just not very good at it.

Even though I can’t produce gorgeous visual designs, like every other person on the planet, I know what sorts of visual design I prefer. I don’t have one particular style that I’m in love with, but I have pretty strong reactions, both positive and negative, to different “looks.”

Recently, I worked with a company that had a visual design I didn’t like. Now, since I’m not a visual designer, I’m not going to speculate on whether it was badly designed or just not to my taste, but I will tell you that when I showed it to many people in Silicon Valley, they didn’t like it either.  

In fact, enough people reacted negatively that I stopped showing it to people in the Valley. I even found myself apologizing for it, despite the fact that I didn’t design it, and I don’t love it.

And then I did some user testing on the site. And do you know what? The users love it. They LOVE it. It is absolutely fantastic for this particular demographic, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the Silicon Valley CEOs and designers who were horrified by it.

I was showing some wireframes, with the usual disclaimers of “this isn’t how it will look; these are just black and white mockups of the final site; we’re not losing the other color scheme; blah blah blah.” Despite repeated statements to this effect, users would periodically interrupt the test to volunteer how much they love the visual design of the current site and how they really don’t want it to change.  

Why is this important? It’s a great example of the fact that your visual design should reflect the aesthetic of your target market and not necessarily you. Say it with me, “You are not your user.”

Designing a beautiful, elegant, slick site that will appeal to designers, Silicon Valley executives, and Apple users is fantastic…if you’re selling to people like designers, Silicon Valley executives, or Apple users. That’s not the market for this company, so they’re smart not to build a product that appeals aesthetically to that market.

Is there such a thing as bad visual design? Sure. I’ve certainly seen visual designs that interfered with usability. Buttons can be too small; calls to action can be de-emphasized; screens can be too cluttered; navigation can be hard to find. But just because something isn’t visually appealing to you, doesn’t make it a bad visual design. The only people who have to like it are your users.

In your next design meeting, remember this: the best visual design in the world is the one your users love.