What’s the Role of Visual Design in UX?

November 27th, 2018

For UX designers, usability and facilitating a better customer experience is everything. Whether they’re wireframing a prototype product design or laying out the user interface for a website or mobile app, the goal is to identify and meet the user’s needs and wants at every turn. This emphasis on practicality can sometimes border on obsessive, and it comes through in the principles of iterative design and minimally viable products that aim to get something in a user’s hands as quickly as possible to start generating the valuable feedback that will lead to even better designs.

But do those designs look good?

More importantly, does it matter if they do or not?

For many UX designers, visual design is a bit of an afterthought. It represents the “bells and whistles” or “coat of paint” that will be applied at a much later stage in the design process after all the “important” usability questions have been answered. There’s some degree of sense in this. Good visual design isn’t going to salvage a poorly designed user experience (a terrible movie with great special effects is still, after all, a bad movie that nobody wants to watch). But bad, or even mediocre, visual design can absolutely undermine a well-designed user experience.

Appearances Matter…

Imagine someone has two mobile apps to choose from that deliver an identical service. Everything about these apps could be comparable. They offer the same degree of functionality, control, and options. But if one is more visually appealing, it will likely draw more attention and get more use. Maybe the less appealing version looks unprofessional and therefore less “trustworthy.” Or maybe it simply draws more attention. While the old saying that “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover” may be true, there’s a reason the publishing industry devotes a large chunk of their production budget to make sure a book’s cover looks great.

There’s a subtle bias at work here as well. If good visual design communicates a level of expertise and professionalism, it stands to reason that it will earn more initial trust from the user. Take the above example of the mobile app. Both versions may encounter some of the same problems around a particular function, but the visually appealing version is more likely to get the benefit of the doubt, which leads the user to give it another chance. While this may not make logical sense, UX designers already know that user decisions are often driven more by what people feel than how they think.

Good visual design isn’t about being the peacock with the prettiest plume of feathers

…But It’s Not “Just” About Looks

Good visual design isn’t about being the peacock with the prettiest plume of feathers. Take a look, for instance, at how the visual design of Apple and Microsoft’s branding has changed over the last decade. Both companies have gone from flashier, dynamic imagery to simpler, flatter versions of their iconic designs. While there are a number of good design reasons to shift toward flat designs (not the least of which is that they tend to load faster), the importance here is consistency.

Through consistency, good visual design creates a sense of predictability that makes it easier for people to use a product or service. The design has to feel like it makes sense to the user, creating a sense of commonality across every touchpoint. Once a consistent aesthetic is established, anything that disrupts that sense of visual continuity can be an obstacle to the user experience. There’s a reason, after all, that Apple’s website doesn’t feature fancy animated pop-up menus. Incorporating visual elements that aren’t consistent with the rest of the design is jarring and can create confusion.

Visual Design + UX Design = Good Design

All of this is a rather complicated way of saying that visual design should facilitate the user experience. As UX strategist Jerry Cao noted, it’s very significant that people “say they’re ‘looking’ at a website, not ‘interacting’ with one.” Initial visual impressions are incredibly important because they serve as an entry point into a user experience. Even for physical products, people’s first impression is almost always a visual one. When someone is asked to describe how they feel about a product, “sleek,” “elegant,” “cool,” “ugly,” “bland,” and “clunky” are inevitably among the first words they’ll offer.

Visual design, then, needs to play a role in the overall design process from an early stage. While every last detail may not need to be sorted out during iterative development, UX designers should think about how visual design can help to deliver their preferred outcomes. In today’s hyper-competitive market, strong visual design is a key differentiator for customers. The best UX designs aren’t going to amount to much if no one ever uses them, and good visual design plays a huge role in attracting the users that UX designers are so desperately trying to win over.

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