style in web dev

One of the major threads in the substance of style by Virginia Postrel, which I blogged about on October 31, is about understanding why a rational buyer would invest in purely decorative assets. How can it be that spending more on a black iPod than a white one is a good decision?

The answer comes out to a riff on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which oversimplifies to the point of being wrong or at least deceptive. The Maslow perspective on buyer goals is that they are prioritized according to how primitive they are. Breathing is more primitive than friendship, hence it gets more priority.

Maslow’s idea suggests that it’s a bad idea to put money into esthetics before you are completely done attaining more primitive goals. So if you haven’t bought dinner yet, don’t get that shiny red ribbon in the store window.

Postrel’s rebuttal is that (in my words), esthetics are a value like anything else and you will choose to invest when the economics are favorable. You need a new car and you want a red ribbon, but one costs more than you have and the other is pocket change.

She has an illuminating example about the looks of computers. Personal computers got a lot better looking in the past ten years, specifically beginning with the Sony Vaio and Apple iMac. (Tangent: blobjects). At the same time they reached a certain parity with consumer needs: the relentless progress of Moore’s law stopped making a practical difference to buyers. Buyers don’t particularly need further increments in system performance, or at least their need isn’t on par with the cost. On the other hand, they do need more attractive living environments, and the additional cost of a more attractive box on their desk is reasonable.

Consumers started to emphasize shallow looks over meat and potatoes performance because the return on investment in looks started to exceed the return on investment in performance.

What it means to web developers and makers of music products is that you should consider chrome as part of your overall value proposition. Hiring a graphic designer might do more for the user than hiring a database administrator. Visual customization to match their profile page might be a higher priority for the user than functional customization with an API. A fashionable look might matter more to them than a fast load.

You have to weigh the relative importance of looks from the user’s perspective. They may be happy to squint for the sake of a sexier font choice, but then again squinting may drive them away to a site which is more readable. There’s no one answer.

The takeaway for me is that users needs are not a strict hierarchy, and sometimes the best thing for them is to put development time and money into sex appeal.

4 thoughts on “style in web dev

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this, but try explaining it to most developers. What is it about geeks, specifically geeks in the cliched Asperger’s-ish mode, that makes them unable to see the logic in aesthetic or formal values? There’s such a strong bias against these virtues as somehow superficial or false amongst this group, like aesthetic beauty creates a false human happiness and having a faster computer creates a real one. I find this problem especially frustrating since the best of these kinds of geeks describe their pursuit of engineering perfection itself in terms of aesthetic beauty and formal correctness; they are just too narrowly focused to seek or appreciate the same values in other domains, even domains that have a much more immediate and broad impact on enormous numbers of people.

  2. One factor is runaway masculinity. Another factor is puritanism.

    Personally, I am guilty of every cliche here. My stuff is butt ugly most of the time and not-ugly at best. So I need to find a way to bring good design into my work.

    What do you think of your own work, Greg? The garishness of the old player (http://grabb.it/pages/old) had a visual playfulness that created some user value. How come you killed the walking carrot?

  3. We brought the carrot back! It’s there on the current player: http://grabb.it/ We were totally amazed at how many people cried out for its restoration when we took it away, which, I suppose it a great example of your larger point of the value of visual/aesthetic joy to users.

    As far as what I think of my own work in general? I’ve never claimed to be a great web designer, but I was an art major in college and I definitely care deeply about the aesthetics of the sites I’ve worked on. Part of the move from the comic book-colored grabb.it to the current more minimal one was a desire to take on a style that was maybe more within our limited abilities to execute well. We were very inspired by http://ffffound.com/ in that redesign which is very clean and minimal but in a way that somehow inspires you to avidly click around to new content in a way that we were trying to inspire on Grabb.it.

    Also, the main set of graphic design skills that I do have come from my background in newspaper work. Until the last few years, though, I didn’t know how to apply that work to the web. My newspaper eye had always felt that pretty much everything on the web was hideously ugly, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until I came across The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web: http://www.webtypography.net/ which is a translation of a typographical classic that all newspaper and book designers study to CSS and web technologies. Reading that I had the revelation that web design should be oriented around making reading easier on the eyes and that it absolutely should take advantage of the six hundred years of experience that are encapsulated in the best wisdom of typographers and book designers. All the crap I had to study in my newspaper days about baseline rhythm and the grid can be used on the web to acheive at least a basic level of non-crappiness even by people without brilliant graphic design sense. Obviously, web apps are more complicated multi-use texts than newspapers, but the rules of good typography can still go a really long way to helping you make things look clean and organized in a way that is the entry point for becoming beautiful. The recent projects I’ve done design for have focused on that quite a bit (an early prototype of the Grabb.it pay site: http://go.grabb.it and the current in-progress one: http://trackspress.com [often down due to work we’re doing; this is not launched yet] ) and I’ve been really happy with the improvements I’ve gotten in the results.

    One practical tip I’d give any coder looking to use the principles of good typography to improve their designs without having to take a deep dive down into typographical theory would be to use the open source Blueprint CSS library: http://code.google.com/p/blueprintcss/ It’s a toolkit that makes it really easy to acheive the basics of good typography and to even do somewhat sophisticate mult-column layouts. Blueprint CSS + a few good art elements will make your site seem well-deigned even if you don’t trust your own aesthetic taste too strongly.

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