For years I worked at a UX Design agency, and one of the most common things we heard from software executives is that they want their user interface to "wow" their users. Typically, everyone says they want a design that is "clean", "sexy", "wow", "whiz-bang", and so forth. They think of User Experience Design as being all about visual eye candy and creative features.
And it makes sense. More than ever, the user experience of your product will define the success of your product in the market. No one wants an ugly solution, they want an aesthetically appealing, creative app that users will instantly fall in love with. Something that communicates to the world that your company is breaking new ground.
The only problem is - users don't care about that stuff.
They might initially care, when they first look at the app. They might care when they see a sales demo or pass by your booth. But they don't care in the long run.
A Lesson from the Pepsi Challenge
I remember doing the Pepsi Challenge at a local mall as a kid. I was poured two small cups of cola - one was Pepsi and the other was Coke - and I was asked to pick which one I liked better. And sure enough, like most people, I chose Pepsi.
Pepsi had incredible momentum with their campaign and started to win significant market share over Coke. And then somehow, things stalled.
In his book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell presents evidence that suggests Pepsi's success was the result of the flawed nature of the "sip test" method. His research shows that tasters will generally prefer the sweeter of two beverages based on a single sip, but in the long run they they prefer a less sweet beverage over the course of an entire can. Hence why many consumers quickly reverted back to Coke.
In other words, there was some value in the initial "wow" and "whiz-bang" of the sweeter Pepsi flavor, but in the long run consumers quickly forgot about that aspect and valued other things more.
"Design Wow" Gone Wrong
We once encountered a VoIP phone application that had a very attractive visual design aesthetic and creative interactions that the industry had never seen. But it caused a lot of confusion among its user base upon release. People frequently misinterpreted the icons on the phone and would accidentally hang up their call when they actually meant to put themselves on mute! Although this is an extreme example, design "wow" gone too far can actually detract from the user experience.
Smart managers know that the best way to drive sales in the long term is to build trust with customers. Trust leads to word of mouth, which leads to more sales. The above example is not the way to build long-term trust, obviously!
Design for What Users Really Want
Now think about the software apps you use on a regular basis. LinkedIn? Facebook? Google? These are systems with a modern, clean design but I would argue that the reason they are so popular has little to do with the "wow" of their visual design, and everything to do with the value of the functionality they offer and the ease with which that functionality is presented (ie. the usability).
As I explain in my article There's No Such Thing as "A Designer", real user experience design breaks into 3 distinct disciplines:
Of all three disciplines, the most overlooked is the Design Researcher (also known as the User Researcher or, sometimes, the UX Strategist). A design researcher can be an extremely valuable asset to any product management team. They use a range of techniques to get to the heart of what users really want (and not just what they say they want, which can be misleading) and what to construct those designs in a way that will maximize usability. These techniques can include ethnography, contextual inquiry, focus groups, usability testing, journey mapping, etc.
It's not an OR, it's an AND
I've been a little unfair in this article, suggesting creative, visual/graphic design is not important. It is very important. But it's not an OR, it's an AND. Teams need to incorporate amazing visual design "wow" AND valuable features AND ease-of-use, which is something you can only get by combining all the right skills and process.
The Pepsi Challenge may not have had the long-term market penetration its execs were hoping for, but Pepsi remains a massive competitor to Coke in part because it turned so many heads by introducing their distinct flavor to the world in such a creative way.
Similarly, the “look and feel” of an app, the visual "wow", is that first impression, that emotional connection that your product can make with a user that can mean the difference between turning heads at a trade show or just getting lost in the shuffle.
People will move to a new city because they were charmed by the architecture and bustling downtown, but stay for the good schools and job opportunities. People might go on a date because of what their partner looks like, but they stay married because of common interests. People fall in love with a software product for so many reasons, and stay long-term customers for other reasons still. You need to capture all of those reasons, and the full breadth of user experience design - research, interaction and visual design, and visual "wow" - can make it happen. It's not an OR, it's an AND!