Not just a “pretty picture”

Not just a “pretty picture”: Ensuring equal contributions to create UX

When considering the challenges of designing over time and designing for context, emotion is essential to address these issues. Emotional reactions can reach deeper than intellectual experiences often do and those impressions may last longer. We may not remember the particulars details of certain experiences, but we often remember our reactions to them, how they made us feel. When considering emotion in terms of designing products and services, it often is expressed most through the visual design of the user experience.

Not that interaction design cannot cultivate emotional success, but it is not primarily measured on emotional appeal. I talked about how the emotional experience is often sacrificed when designing the user experience for many products in favor of functionality and effectiveness. The unfortunate corollary issue in visual design is what I call the “pretty picture.”

This phrase does not mean that I disregard aesthetics. Nor am I arguing against creating conceptual visual designs or the process of exploring visual identity and graphic design. The problem I see is that the pretty picture is the illusion of visual design. Where interaction design may focus too much or exclusively on task performance and intellectual alignment, the pretty picture is too often just emotional reaction and empty beauty. It is a visual design concept presented too early and seemingly complete. Attractive and visually rich in contrast to the spare functionality of a wireframe, the pretty picture prematurely fixes an aesthetically pleasing image. What makes it most problematic is that it lacks the consideration and analysis that allows visual design to contribute fully to the total user experience, a full partner to interaction design and usability. Regrettably, once a stakeholder becomes attached to an aesthetic concept, it can be very difficult to continue exploration of other, potentially more effective designs.

While great industrial design can achieve the same appreciation fine art, the success of products are not measured the same standards of emotion and visual appeal that fine art is. The best product designs are effective and affective. The visual and interaction design should be equal partners to communicate to users and result in a successful user experience. To do this, their processes and the critical thinking needed by each type of design should be equally valued and respected.

Teamwork image: Every piece counts equally to the whole

Andy Budd’s recent post “Visual Designers Are Just As Important As UX Designers” resonates with me because I do believe that the total user experience comprises interaction design, usability, and visual design (along with other elements that I omit for space here). He goes on to argue that visual designers do themselves a disservice by trying to cast themselves as UX designers, a distinction some readers objected to. While I am not inclined to join the debate about roles and titles, I agree with readers who commented that visual design should be based on research and analysis of user needs and goals and use critical thinking to contribute to the communication of the total UX.

They make an important point. Too often the processes of visual design are dismissed. The myth of the genius designer who sits alone in an office inspired only by the muse of industrial design (Applonia?) to create brilliant, award-winning, market-changing visual design without effort is perniciously persistent. That decidedly does a disservice to visual designers because it allows the role of visual designers to be trivialized by their team mates.

The pretty picture omits the critical thinking in visual design. That prevents visual design from making its full contribution to the user experience. When considering UX as communication, some level of noise always exists between sender and receiver. Sending the same informed message in multiple ways overcomes the noise to achieve a successful communication. To deliver a successful user experience beyond merely a pretty picture, all the elements of the UX need to be communicating consistently. This does not happen accidentally with any type of design.

That said, it can be difficult to avoid the pretty picture and it’s getting harder. Prototyping tools have advanced a lot and the ability to put a complete looking design in users hands early is much easier than it used to be. Users and stakeholders will tell you that is what they want: To get a sense of what the final product might be. But we need to take yet another page from architectures processes and create conceptual sketches that deliver the idea, but remain clearly unfinished and able to be critiqued. We need to help the stakeholders take full advantage of what visual design at its best can deliver and avoid selection before consideration.

Of course, there’s a time to bring a more graphically rich presentation into the design exploration. Adam Conner noted in “On Fidelity and Comparisons” that often users cannot fairly judge some concepts without the graphically rich context that make the interactions possible. He makes a compelling argument. But the timing has to be right and the assumptions managed when a more visually rich image is provided, especially in contrast with more functional explorations of interactions.

By avoiding rushing into any aspect of the UX design too soon can we ensure that interaction and visual design work together to deliver meaningful and effective user experience design. We need to fully respect the visual designer, including not just the end results but also the research, analysis, critical thinking, and sheer effort that is required. To address the design challenges we are facing as new platforms emerge and expectations for richer interactions grow, we need to make sure that the existing processes are as good as they can be. Ensuring that interaction and visual design make equally meaningful contributions to the total user experience is an important step toward that goal.

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