Good design is not just the pretty picture

In the time I spend working in web development I had the chance to work on some great looking designs which were fun to work with most of the time. There is however a problem with many designs I see lately and that’s that they miss the fundamentals.

Maybe it’s weird to hear a design lecture from a developer, but I really think it’s good to see things from a different direction. I’ll give you my view on designs and how they lack some important things a lot of the time.

Good design is not just the pretty picture

Let’s do the same thing the crowd does!

People tend to feel more comfortable in crowds and will act the same when they are together. This means that a lot of cultural elements we see every day are the same in some way.

Music sounds pretty much the same on every mainstream station. Fashion looks the same in different groups of people, making them easy to identify.

I’ve been seeing the same behaviour as far as design goes. Someone will create some new concept and it will get done a million of times over, one worse than the other. Choosing to copy someone is not bad, but just for the sake of it being “the latest thing”, that’s bad.

What I am aiming at are sites like dribbble and Awwwards. You’ll see a trend growing popularity on either of them and after that you’ll see a ton of websites with the same look and functionality without even considering if it will work properly for the target audience.

You’ll not be the one using the site

And your client is also not the target audience. Your client’s clients are the target audience. So whatever you might consider “useable” or “the way to go” may not apply to the end user. You’re not here to impress yourself, your designer buddies or the client. You’re here to impress and work your magic for the end user.

A lot of stuff that we come across on a daily basis might be very logical to use web makers, but not for the end user. A super large header carousel or a huge picture with a little caption on top of it has no function at all to the end user. You might impress some hip web making kids, but the end user won’t get it most of the time. He might even get confused and skip the website he just visited, just because he doesn’t know what he has to do with it.

The best working websites are the ones that are adjusted to their end users, not their creators. Design seems to loose focus on the target audience a lot of the time.

Stop overcomplicating things

Just because something looks better doesn’t mean that it’s better. Just because an important element looks better in a certain part of the page doesn’t mean it’s logical to put it there.

A very "complicated" maze
A very “complicated” maze

A good design always starts with some sort of wireframe where the layout and structure of the website is put together. In this layout you can see where the important parts of the page will be. You’ll also get a feeling of what the user will be drawn to. Huge headers and useless elements will not help the end user is most of the cases.

Something I also see happen a lot is changing the way people have to input information in a form. Users are used to filling out forms and picking choices in some ways that you just don’t want to change.

A form should be clear and all the elements should be clear at a glance. When an end user will struggle with a slider to pick an amount or if the user has problems filling the form out in any way there is a great chance that you lost that sale, and that’s not what you want.

Changing the user interface is fine, as long as it’s not too far from what they are used to. It shouldn’t be a puzzle how to use a website or app, it should be understandable just by looking at it.

Measure your design

There are tons of ways to see if your design works. One example are heat maps which track how many times users click on a part of the page. This will give a lot of insight in the importance of buttons and might bring parts to your attention that shouldn’t be clicked on as many.

Another way is to measure the path that users follow to get to the desired end you want them to go. This will help you understand how users find what you’d like them to find. If you want users to put products in their shopping cart, then you’ll have to track how users get to the point of adding the product to their carts. This will give you insights in how the design and structure flows.

Once you find a great way to measure your design you can start to improve it on functionality. Now you can test and feel the improvements you can make for your end users and see the visitors and sales rise instead of not getting your product of the ground at all.


A good design doesn’t need a pretty picture, but it will sure improve it if the fundamentals are good. It’s a shame when great artists make such nice elements but don’t put them to great use.

I am testing out multiple ways to measure design and website performance and will share my findings with you later.

Let me know what you think on what I wrote in the comments below the article.

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5 Comments on this subject

  1. Simon said:

    I think that visual design should be a part of the process and it shouldn’t be seen as the final outcome or goal of a project.

    Too often though it is the visual design that dictates everything, disregarding usability, functionality and worst of all completely forgetting about the user. I have yet to find out why some clients are okay with that but I think that it has something to do with people liking pretty things.

    Nice pictures give instant gratification to the client, forgetting about what could happen when “the acid trip is over” and metrics (if there are any) show that the pretty product they bought didn’t work at all.

    I say: User Centric Design. Make things for the people it is meant to be for. I can not understand why that sentence is so difficult to grasp for some.

    • Gaya said:

      It’s very tempting to make the product look the way you’d like it to look. Sometimes you have to think about the functionality first and go from there.

      People who’ll use your product won’t see the difference between all the hip websites out there, but they do “feel” the difference. Look at some of the biggest webshops out there. They are certainly not the prettiest websites you come across, but they do work.

      Making designs for the user is hard just because you’ll have to do a research of your target audience. In the end it’s worth way more than the pretty picture.

      • Simon said:

        That is the thing … it is not *that* hard at all!

        Most of the time the design process struggles to “get it right”. Hours and hours are burnt trying things that wont work. Sometimes changing stuff after the entire thing is built, exponentially increasing the time it takes to change it. The ‘I have to see it finished before i can tell wetter it works or not’ mindset is a luxury that we do not have anymore.

        Asking the user first is a great filter, a starting point, gives you a goal and context. It tells you who you are making the thing for.

        If anything it actually makes things easier, not harder. The catch is that for this to work, the users have to be listened to. And the ego doesn’t like that.

        I am a developer myself and therefor considered unfit to judge about these things by some. The reality is that developers are perfectly capable to mingle in the entire HCI/UX or whatever you want to call it discussion. I find that most visual designers are instantly thinking in images, headers, parallax scrolling as soon as a project lands and try to steer the project to visual immediately. Developers I have met are far more aware of functionality and users.

      • Gaya said:

        I have to agree with you on that one. Though changing from a “visual perspective” to a “audience perspective” might take some practice.

        It would be a lot better if people choose to set aside their preferences and see stuff from the end user’s side of things.

        It’s so much more important to make stuff work well instead of letting it look well.

        Thanks for the comments, Simon.

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