Why Beauty Matters

This past fall, Raul Pantaleo, Co-founder of Tamassociati, accepted the 2013 Curry Stone Humanitarian Design Prize for the work his firm does designing and building healthcare facilities in war-torn areas, such as refugee camps in the Sudan and Sierra Leon. When asked why he works so hard to make his architectural designs not just functional and sustainable, but also beautiful, he explained:

"Beauty is the first message you give the patient, that you consider them as equal."

 Wooden blinds shade a public terrace at the Port Sudan pediatric clinic. Photo from  Massimo Grimaldi and Emergency.

Wooden blinds shade a public terrace at the Port Sudan pediatric clinic. Photo from Massimo Grimaldi and Emergency.

I was so moved by this notion, and it put into words something that has been hard to articulate over the years of working on highly utilitarian designs for Google, YouTube, and now Facebook. You must design something that solves a real problem and improves the lives of people. And you must design it in a way that people can access and use your creation with a minimum of confusion and strife. But companies, especially high tech companies, have struggled with whether or not beauty really matters. If you get the two first parts right, won't people be satisfied?

The answer is yes. And no. Certainly, no matter how beautiful something is, if it's not useful and usable, it won't make a meaningful impact in the long run. Sure, it may give people a fleeting sense of aesthetic satisfaction, but like a diet of high fructose corn syrup, it doesn't satisfy you for long, and you eventually realize the need for something more substantial, something more valuable and meaningful.

For decades, software was so badly designed that the bar for usability was tragi-comically low. While there were some interesting ideas of products that could add value, like word processing and spreadsheet software, they were so difficult to use that people couldn't access or realize that value. Lotus Notes, various Mircosoft products, and the first generation of search engines are all excellent examples of this. Products that weren't focused enough on their raison d'ĂȘtre, and succumbed to bloating, rendering them either unusable, or so laden with feature sedimentation that people would only access 10% of the utility. Of course, people didn't know to ask for anything better, and sometimes through nearly monopolistic market share, they didn't have a choice anyway.

I remember having conversations at Google where the design team was dissuaded from making anything too polished or "designerly". This urging seemed to stem from two motivations: by investing in polish, there were concerns that the product would be - and equally important - would appear less fast. But there was also a sense of pride in the fact that Google didn't want to appear to value beauty over functionality. By keeping our spartan aesthetic, like some kind of Amish tech movement, we could show ourselves to be more serious about power and functionality. We kept the Google homepage Doodles to ensure that we maintained a sense of levity and didn't look like we were taking ourselves too seriously, but the product experience itself was to be kept as free as possible from what some might describe unnecessary ornamentation.

And people were so happy. Because compared to the other search engines at the time, Google worked SO MUCH BETTER. In fact, people who grew up after Google made its way into the world completely take for granted how high the bar is now for search experience, relative to where it was back in the late 90s. The clarity of purpose and reliability of the Google search engine (you come to a page, there's only one thing you can do, and you type in what you are looking for, and the damn thing finds it almost every time!) was so amazing, that for a time, people didn't want more, or more precisely, they didn't know what to ask for.

And then the iPhone came along. And we had to wrap our heads around something that solved real problems (minicomputer, camera and phone, all wrapped up in one device!), worked really well (way more intuitive than any other phone on the market at the time, by a long shot), and by God, it was beautiful. Sexy. Delightful. Covetable. And all of a sudden, the software we had been using, even the decent stuff, seemed, well, ugly. Soulless. Less than we all deserve. If Google Search tried to launch today with the aesthetics it launched with in 1998, it would be a laughing stock.

Now, to be fair, the technology that we work with, which both empowers and constrains us, has improved a lot in the last 15 years. The browsers and mobile phones of today provide a much more nuanced toolkit for designers and developers to play with. So we shouldn't judge the interfaces of 10 years ago by what we are able and expected to create today. But it's also the norms which are starting to change. People who are now accustomed to the high quality of successful mobile applications are now transferring those expectations to other areas of software.

So here we all are. At the cross roads of the next phase of digital product design. How do we get software fully past the age of ugly into the age of delight? First, we must understand that delight, and even beauty, are going to mean different things to different people, depending on the problems a given product is looking to address. For all products, we want the craft of what we do to reinforce a sense of quality; that the product is well made, is reliable, and can be trusted.

In the world I am currently focused on, the design of business software, the cost of not attending to craft can be very high. If our product looks janky, our industry's favorite term for poorly crafted, then perhaps our customers might start doubting the validity of our data or the reliability of our back end system. Like a profound essay littered with typos, poor craftsmanship can erode confidence in the quality of the ideas, even though in reality those things can be quite separate.

Ultimately, we need to put our products in service of people, and not just in a functional way. We need to surprise and delight them with the small details that show that we really care. I believe if we work to make what we build valuable, usable and delightful, we can create a virtuous cycle of raised expectations.

Design icon Paul Rand once said, "The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with." It's audacious to claim you are going to prove Paul Rand wrong, but let's give it a go, shall we?