Usability vs. Creativity

by Christopher Gee

It's very interesting that a huge debate is brewing in the field of web design right now. Design vs. Usability. Creative Freedom vs. Guidelines and Standards. Flash vs. HTML. Graphics vs. Text. Of course, there is nothing really new about this debate. Most of us who studied design had the Bauhaus philosophy of "Form Follows Function" thoroughly drummed into our heads. What does it matter how wonderful a design is if it fails at the goals for which it was created?

Enter the usability specialists. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with conducting some sort of user testing depending on the site being built. Designers/developers are often too close to projects and therefore things that are obvious to us may not be obvious to our intended audience. However, too many usability specialists seem to be crossing the line from consulting about practices that help overall site usability to trying to dictate style and design.

There is a fine line between stating that a site's design should not take on so much importance that it becomes difficult to use and making statements like "most people do not use the web for visual stimulation" or "Flash is 99% bad".

Clearly most people do not use the web solely for the purposes of visual stimulation just as most people do not use their cars solely for the purposes of visual stimulation. Similar to web surfers, most people get into their cars every day in order to get from one place to another, however, car manufacturers understand that one cannot build a car that is merely function and not pay ample attention to the aesthetics.

Why? Because car manufacturers acknowledge what many usability specialists do not — people are emotional beings and not simply functional robots. We make purchases based on any number of factors and usability is merely one of them. If that were not the case, no one would ever buy a sports car rather than a station wagon and SUVs would not be more popular than mini-vans. People would, like Albert Einstein, own several pairs of the same items of clothing so as not to spend time deciding what to wear. After all, one style of clothing serves the function of covering and protecting your body, right? What function is served having different styles?

Of course, those in the usability camp are quick to point to heavily trafficked sites such as Google and Yahoo as proof that one need not have a fancy design in order to attract users. One could argue that sites like Google and Yahoo are really gateway sites and not destination sites. Most people don't start out with the intention of staying on Google for any length of time. If their search is successful, they will quickly be exiting Google to get to their destination site, where they may stay for either a very short or very long period of time. And Yahoo's style of minimalist design has come to almost stand out as a brand in and of itself, not unlike the "No Frills" products in the supermarket. On the web, that minimalist visual language is so well known that it is instantly recognized as Yahoo. Other, lesser-known companies dare not to imitate it.

Not to mention that, very quietly, Yahoo has been slowly punching up it's site design. If one takes quick visit to they will find a bit of color, some graphics and folder tabs. DESIGN! This is not your IT Director's Yahoo. Someone go and tell Jakob Nielsen!

Style, brand, look and feel are all very important elements of daily life and the user experience. The usability camp cannot fall so in love with numbers, quantifiable results and tests that they throw out what we know about consumers and how people make decisions based on visual criteria. First of all, tests don't tell everything. We all know former politicians who failed re-election bids despite favorable polling numbers. We all know advertising campaigns that failed despite the fact that their ads tested very well in focus groups. And right now there are new TV shows that will air, and bomb, on network television this fall despite the fact that they tested very well with test audiences.

To be sure, if user testing reveals that most people cannot find a site's subnav, try to click on items that are not clickable or appear frustrated trying to perform simple tasks, those results need to be weighed and given serious consideration with regard to modifying them. However, we also have to acknowledge that the web is not made up of a monolithic block of users whose main goal is to get in, perform a task, then get out.

Design, when it's done well, is like architecture and combines the best of form AND functionality. The legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "Form follows function - that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union." Successful website projects can help brand a company just as famous architectural structures help brand city skylines. When you think of London, you may think of the Parliament building. When you think of Paris, you may think of the Eiffel Tower. When you think of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Petrona Towers. And of course, one glance at the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building or now fallen World Trade Center Towers instantly brings New York City to mind. All are sound and very functional structures that did not simply toss out aesthetics in favor of bland, straightforward design.

So perhaps usability specialists will work with designers to help create highly functional sites that look great? Leaving the design to the creative professionals and working WITH us best achieve this.