Lately, every app is “beautiful”. If you read tech news, you’ve seen this pageant: Beautiful charts and graphs. Beautiful stories. Beautiful texting. Beautiful notebooks. Beautiful battery information.
When I started designing in the mid-’90s, we called it “user interface design,” or “human-computer interaction.” Software wasn’t a particularly hospitable place for graphic designers. The web was a limited medium, with 216 “web-safe” colors and a need to support 800 × 600 displays at 72 PPI. Desktop platforms were even more limited: A button looked like a button looked like a button, and few apps undertook the monumental effort of creating their own look and feel. Animation was limited to image-swap rollovers. The notion of a “front-end web developer” didn’t exist, because the platform was restrictive enough that designers with no coding experience could do it themselves.
So today, perhaps Don Norman’s insight in Emotional Design is needed in reverse. Beauty is wasted when our products don’t address real user needs in a usable manner. Again, perception is subjective: The product gets uglier if it fails to meet user needs or becomes confusing. It’s like falling in love at first sight, then falling back out after a brief conversation. Your crush looks less attractive now; you can’t even recall why you were so captivated in the first place.