“That looks nice. Too bad it ruins the UX.”
Jonny Hill

Summary: Visual design is about more than keeping up with popular design trends, especially for complex apps.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I started working as a visual designer, it’s that the best visual design is entirely dependent on the context to which it is applied. In other words, the visuals that I work on every day must be fine-tuned to complement—not overshadow—the applications that they are a part of. While you can certainly be inspired by any number of design treatments and systems, the best designs take into consideration the needs of the end-user, the purpose of the application and the bandwidth of the developers in order to truly be successful.

Complex applications, the type that Expero excels in strategizing, designing and building, require an extra level of attention and intentionality with every visual element. Accessibility, contrast, legibility and ease of use are all incredibly important aspects of visual design for these kinds of applications. In many ways these elements are more vital when designing complex applications than they are when designing for web or mobile. Often, employees at large enterprise companies have to use complex internal software every day. If any element of that software, including visuals, isn’t both useful and usable, it greatly affects employee performance and satisfaction.

Just because an application looks pretty doesn’t mean it’s useful or usable for the end-user. See original at http://dilbert.com/strip/2011-02-06.

Compared to simple websites or mobile apps, complex applications are typically much more expensive to adapt, have more dependencies and are much larger in scale. As a result, it’s often hard to convince organizations of the ROI of taking risks or making dramatic design changes to the software. It’s common for the visual design of more complex software to be updated far less frequently or never (e.g., every 6 – 10 years). Because of these factors, it’s incredibly important for designers to create solutions that can be implemented quickly, offer long-term improvements and make the biggest impact overall.

From a visual design point of view, these complex applications are often very specialized to a specific industry and are not incredibly user-friendly. Being someone who loves simple, clean and meaningful design, I get excited about finding new ways to communicate information that had previously been cryptic or complicated. I love seeing users get excited about the design because it isn’t a strain on their eyes anymore, or because they can do their job more efficiently and easily. The challenge is finding ways to improve these applications and workflows while not alienating people who are used to the old design. The smaller the learning curve, the better.

I’m not saying that less complex applications are designed (or redesigned) carelessly, or that learning curves are bad in all situations. Oftentimes we get to introduce new systems or rework the navigation for these applications, and that means users will need to adjust to the changes. The main difference is that every change that is made when working with complex applications needs to have a well-defined goal and research to back it up. We often aren’t able to make all of the changes that we want to. Sometimes it’s because users don’t want a certain change, or because the developers don’t have enough resources, or because the changes wouldn’t offer a significant enough long-term benefit. There’s simply less room for design experimentation when every change needs to be meaningful and intentional.

As a visual designer, these constraints are sometimes frustrating. Often the first thing that I want to do when I start on a new project is update the visual design to make it cleaner and more cohesive overall. I want to update all of the icons, modernize the color scheme and make everything flow logically. In my mind those changes could only make the application better, but they could end up doing more harm than good if the needs of the end-user are not taken into consideration.

While applications like Apple Maps are certainly complex in some ways, they are often fine tuned to meet a very limited set of needs. Complex applications must enable users to manage and view large data sets, quickly answer time-sensitive problems and navigate easily through complicated workflows.

I wholeheartedly support making changes to create more intuitive and straightforward experiences. However, many applications today use unfamiliar icons or tuck features away in submenus in an attempt to innovate or simplify a workflow. In some situations these changes are incredibly helpful, or at the very least don’t cause significant issues for users. But as I mentioned earlier, the best visual designs take into consideration the goals of the application and the needs of the end-users. While an awareness of what design approaches might look the best or what other designers are coming up with are indeed valuable, the focus needs to be on leveraging the visual design to benefit the overall user experience.

Sometimes design standards really do need to be challenged or can be improved upon, but it takes time for these new ideas to become familiar to the average user, and enterprise applications are not always the best place to challenge conventions. Sometimes changing a fundamental part of the design can improve the user experience overall. However, even making small changes to create a more intuitive product will often result in confusion for the end-user if not implemented in the right manner. Innovation is vital in the technology industry, and designers should recognize and challenge conventions that can be improved upon, but discernment in knowing when to innovate is even more vital than innovation itself.

As a quick example, ask yourself what the icon below means.

What would happen if I clicked on this icon? Would I download something? Go to the bottom of the page? Sort from bottom to top? Save something? Change the size of an object?

The icon came up after I searched for a “save icon” image. As you can probably imagine, I had to wade through dozens of the familiar “floppy disc” icons before I came across something different. My point is that the idea of clicking on a floppy disc has become synonymous with the act of “saving” something. The floppy disc icon (abstract or literal in appearance) has become a convention that most people understand and don’t have to think about. Say what you will about whether the floppy disc convention should be challenged; I think it is clear that changing the icon would inherently cause confusion for a majority of users for some period of time.

The floppy disc icon has become, in many ways, synonymous with the idea of “saving” something. It is, oddly enough, an anachronistic convention that most users know and understand.

Changing a user’s workflow to make it more efficient or introducing a more modern UI to increase user satisfaction are challenges that Expero takes on every day. The issue is knowing how to introduce these changes in ways that won’t confuse or frustrate users, or even knowing when a suggested change shouldn’t be implemented at all.

Great visual design, whether it’s being applied to challenge conventional thinking, create new ways to understand information or even just improve the aesthetics of an application that already works well, is entirely dependent on the context. There are times when making a simple change to an application could improve it significantly, and there are times when making the same change to another application would hurt the experience. Whether you’re working with a complex application or a simple one-page website, take into consideration the needs of your users and leverage your design to provide them with the best possible experience.

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