Reasons Why Looks Should Matter for Software Developers

October 25, 2013
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Many usability experts advise that the Graphical User Interface (GUI), the visual layer that provides interaction with your software, should be designed before any coding takes place. However the need to deliver fully functioning software often means that the user interface is designed as the development project progresses, often with mixed results.

“When you’re working on end-user software, and it doesn’t matter if you’re working on a web app, adding a feature to an existing application, or working on a plug-in for some other application, you need to design the UI first.” – Rick Schaut, principle software developer at Microsoft for Office for Mac.

As a result, GUIs are often assembled piecemeal so that functions are accessible but not necessarily intuitive. Everything the end user needs can be found somewhere, so the software is fulfilling its intended purpose.

But simply having the tools available somewhere in your application is no longer enough for many users. The look of a software package is becoming increasingly important in the purchasing decision process.

Form over function

Commentators occasionally bemoan their belief that buyers are being blinded by shiny buttons, and thereby ignoring the technical benefits hidden behind your interface. This obsession with appearance means they are settling for inferior products.

“Good design is a extremely rare and valuable skill, and we’d all rather have something beautiful, all else being equal. Rather it had always been a strength of the tech world that it was driven by a ruthless Darwinian survival of the fittest, and it’s somewhat depressing to see it succumb to survival of the best looking.” – Alexis Dormandy, founder of LoveThis and former director at Virgin Group.

But the truth is that design is of great importance in making software actually usable. And even more importantly, clean design makes communication of information quick and efficient. Customers can access the data they need, when they need it, how they choose with minimal effort.

  • Half of Europeans surveyed said they waste 10 minutes each day dealing with computer and software problems. (Source: MSN.co.uk survey 2010)

Graphical User Interface design is not a case of “form over function”, but “less is more”. Stripping displays back to the bare minimum required to display pertinent data:

  • Saves your customers time and frustration.

  • Communicates data efficiently.

  • Makes the customer experience more pleasant, thereby improving loyalty to your platform.

Consumer devices like the iPhone are often criticised by technical experts for being too “restrictive and simplistic”. However, Apple’s focus on simple design has seen their smartphone and tablets move from consumer pockets and into a dominant position on the corporate network. A simple interface is no barrier to productivity, giving lie to the “form over function” argument.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” – Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple Inc.

Pleasant aesthetics break the ice

The simple truth is that if your software doesn’t look good, new customers are unlikely to be interested. When faced with a choice between suitable software packages, customers will almost always opt for the option that provides them with the information they want in a way that looks nice.

In an age where appearances are critical to capturing the attention of would be buyers, your GUI design could be what convinces them to stop at your tradeshow stand or website. Once you have captured their attention, it becomes much easier to then demonstrate the underlying functionality that delivers the data they need.

And if that means taking away elements to improve the overall visual appearance, so be it.

More is not better

If your software platform is mature, new modules and enhancements can simply be bolted into the existing interface. After all, many of these new developments will be as a direct result of requests from clients themselves.

However you may find that a new competitor comes up with a product that becomes a runaway success, despite being functionally inferior to your own. The difference? Sometimes nothing more than an intuitive interface that helps the user be more productive with less.

“40% of users said they do not want flashy [software] updates and new features but a computer that ‘just works’.” – MSN.co.uk survey 2010.

The developer’s dilemma

After spending months or years working on the behind-the-scenes code, developers become so used to working with the product that it becomes difficult to try and imagine the experience of a first time user. If you have got used to how the system works, surely your users will too? And the accompanying user manual will take care of any quirks, right?

The problem is that consumer devices like the iPhone have changed the game completely:

  • Interfaces are simple and easy to use.

  • Manuals are redundant – software clearly guides you through common tasks.

  • If the software performs badly, or is too confusing, user uptake may be lower than expected. Some software projects report employee engagement levels of just over 50% because of low takeup.

And most users bring a similar approach to computer software into the workplace. The visual interface is therefore critical to the on-going success of your software, even after the initial sale.

“[Design expert and author] Don Norman has made the case and said it one of his more recent books: “The beautiful things work better.” These software applications, when they’re pig ugly, they’re getting in the way.” – Harold Hambrose, software design expert.

Modern development techniques, which separate the display and data levels, make GUI changes simple on a technical level. Underlying functions remain unchanged, but the method by which they are called will change. Rather than spending time programming new functionality, there is a clear case for diverting those resources towards GUI and User Experience (UX) improvements.

Graphical user interface changes can be complemented by new data display add-ons such as dashboards, which provide convenient, instant access to key performance metrics. Access to accurate data is essential to making informed strategic decisions – adding dashboard functionality to your system is a relatively simple and cost effective way to improving your customer’s experience, particularly if a third party tool can be used to further reduce time to deployment.

“Above all else show the data.” – Edward Tufte – The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Adding visual data display and refining your software interface adds value to the user experience and increases the likelihood of them renewing their annual maintenance agreement. And just because it looks better doesn’t mean that your software becomes nothing more than a pretty interface.