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Web Design: The Forgotten Advantage

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Web Design: The Forgotten Advantage

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Within the development community there seems to be a subtle disrespect towards the web design profession. Programmers view designers as disconnected Photoshop artists; furthermore, they consider designing to be a much easier job than programming. This viewpoint is unfortunate. Writing software is a team effort and everyone helps to make it possible. Developers must convert ideas into code, QA analysts must maintain high standards of quality, and web designers must ensure the software is easy to use and visually appealing. Without each of these working in concert even the best ideas will fail. Building an elegant website exposes a universal cognitive bias. People are drawn to beautiful, aesthetically superior things. This concept is referred to as the attractiveness bias. This concept permeates all parts of life. On the internet, this extends to the browser and websites being visited. People are not always aware of this behavior, but it is alive and well. A beautiful bride, a sleek new device, and amazing architecture all trigger this natural bias.

Some might say "Wait! There are many successful companies out there that don't focus on aesthetics." This is true, because the attractiveness bias is only a bias. It is not a golden unbroken rule. The concept of brand recognition allows well established products and companies to evade initial scrutiny. Consumers are more willing to provide a free pass, but even that has an expiration date. If a better product comes along, consumers will slowly be drawn towards it. The better product might be cheaper, easier to use, feature rich, or simply more aesthetically pleasing. Google is an excellent historical example. It started as a simple website that was more accurate, faster, and elegant than anything on the market. It beat out many established search engines (including Microsoft) and the rest is history.

Web design can and should be a product differentiator. At times a product is forced to build a "me, too" feature to match a competitor. In these situations a great design and experience can set software apart. Proper UI/UX can also help a new product get a foot into the market. Think of it as free marketing. The attractiveness bias will naturally encourage more people to investigate a product when a first glance is agreeable. On the web, visitors spend on average 2 minutes per web page. In this short time, visitors assert various judgments about a website. Arguably the most important decision they make is, "Was this web page helpful?" This drives many other feelings about a website, such as possible return visits and socialization amongst peers.

The late Steve Jobs recognized the importance of the attractiveness bias and used it as a guiding principle at Apple for decades. Even though Apple's products cost substantially more, the public still embraces the company. When people are asked why they like an iPhone or an iPad many retort with the same response: "It just feels nice." They are speaking about the physical design of the product, how it feels in the hand, and how the user interacts with the software. Even as competitors begin to offer better functionality in some areas, the broad audience of consumers are still reluctant to leave. This is the attractiveness bias at work.

One Point of Clarification
Although design is important, it is not a replacement for content or features. Even the most beautiful websites will fail if they cannot satisfy a user's inquiry. The attractiveness bias is only meant to draw one's attention, not keep it. On the other hand, sometimes companies achieve success on merit or market timing alone. This should only be viewed as a short term gain. Markets are always shifting and competitors are always lurking in the midst. Web design through proper UI and UX is important because, when all things are equal, beauty wins out.

Don't forget to take some time to thank each designer for their important contribution.


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