Functional Beauty: How to Find the Balance between Aesthetics and Usability in Websites
You might not notice this but we make judgment calls all the time every time we go out. This probably applies to women more than men, but even men sometimes have to make decision between being comfortable and looking sharp, even if it's to a much lesser degree compared to women. I have several lovely, made-to-order oxford shoes that I wear only to the most formal of occasions. They look great but they're by far the least comfortable pair of shoes I have right now and if the function I'm attending requires a lot of standing around, and they almost always do, I usually just leave them at home.
This balancing act, between beauty and comfort, between aesthetics and usability, is embedded into the fabric of our everyday lives and I'd argue none more so than in the world of web development and design. As a digital representation of your business, you'd normally want your website to look good or at least respectable but since website also serves a functional purpose, to provide information about your business, you also want your website to be coherent. Knowing where the ideal middle ground is then is a challenge for businesses.
The beauty of functional design
The first time I understand what it means to have good design is when I first held in my hand the 1st generation iPod Mini and its brilliant click-wheel design. Even as a mostly clueless 14-year-old kid, I knew I was holding something special when I first borrowed my brother's iPod Mini to listen to The Killers' seminal 2004 debut album, Hot Fuss. Apple's minimalist leanings were already obvious by the time the click-wheel first made an appearance but I'd argue that the click-wheel represents one of the best representations of minimalism.
It was ridiculously easy to operate and its uncluttered design, combined with the iPod's unassuming appearance, made for a striking combination not in spite of, but because of its simplicity. Remember that while the iPod Mini was pretty limited in memory, 4GB was still more than enough to hold hundreds of songs and navigating through that large amount of data can be difficult, a problem the click-wheel managed to solve using the click-wheel's touch sensitive ring. The click-wheel's popularity was also helped by its lack of learning curve, thanks to its simplicity.
If we define usability as the easiness a user can complete a certain task under a specified amount of time and aesthetics as the visual appeal of a certain object, I wouldn't hesitate to put the iPod's click-wheel interface as exhibit 1 of an interface that manages to hit the perfect balance between the two. Of course, the iPod is a pretty simple device that was originally designed to do one thing and contemporary websites can be decidedly more complex than that. There's also the fact that aesthetic can be quite subjective, which makes this balancing act pretty difficult in contemporary web development.
Gaudy is rarely beautiful
I am not immune to the charms of English period drama of the Pride and Prejudice kind and I'd readily admit that ornate can be beautiful. But just as how Coco Chanel revolutionized women's fashion with her little black dress during the roaring twenties when fashion were nominally much more colorful, beauty doesn't have to be ostentatious. The iPod Mini was aesthetically pleasing in its simplicity and the Bauhaus school of thought, which enters its centenary year in 2019, is never short of admirers.
What I'm trying to say here is that keeping your aesthetics to its barest essential doesn't necessarily imply an aesthetic, shall we say, disadvantage. There is of course a fine line with barebones design and minimalism, excessively minimalist design could lead to ambiguous design, as I've repeatedly seen with ambiguous toilet signs. It's in here that usability concerns have to be taken into consideration to make sure that the design can be easily inferred the way iPod's click-wheel can be easily understood
Bringing clarity to a website's aesthetic
Let's say you've logged in to a fashion e-commerce site and you are then taken to a landing page with two boxes on display. The top box has the image of a man stylishly posing in front of a yellow background while the bottom box has the same but the man replaced by a woman. It's easy to infer from this description that clicking on the top box would lead you to the men's section while clicking on the bottom box would lead you to the women's section. Consider how would you feel if you don't have the text description however, how would you make of that website?
This analogy shows how even a simple text would help provide extra clarity to the design. With a simple text saying 'Men' and 'Women' added to the boxes, the vague, ambiguous nature of the design would be cleared up. Adding text for clarity is just one way of adding accessibility but you also have to do this in a way that doesn't distract from the actual aesthetic. Minimalism prides itself in the lack of unnecessary elements so when you add text or any other contextual elements, they have to be just enough to provide clarity without diluting the sense of minimalism in the aesthetics.