Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Form Vs Function: Why You Should Not Separate Usability From Web Design

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When you design a Web site should you design first for being functionally effective or you should design first for achieving aesthetic balance?

Ben Hunt, the Web Doctor, has just published an early excerpt from the introduction to his forthcoming book "Web Design from Scratch - the book".

The argument that Ben elegantly brings forward is the secular one heating up around the issue of form versus function.

The Web Doctor

Ben writes: "The web design community thankfully seems to be wrapping up the "design vs. usability" argument. In case you missed it, the conclusion was: "Not either/or but both, and it depends.

Design leaders have proved that web sites can be both usable and beautiful, but we lack a vocabulary to talk about this new standard.

The question now is not "Which is most important?", but "How do we deliver what's most important?"

Ben Hunt introduces in this essay the "Sphere of Design", a simple conceptual model illustrating the possible states of equilibrium between form and function, when it comes to Web design.

"In the early days of the web, people realised that using most sites was difficult, and applied the term 'usability' to describe how easy a web interface is to use.

A web usability testing industry emerged, which has taught us a lot about where things go wrong by watching real people using web sites and comparing the ease-of-use of different design solutions.

We had a long-running "design/usability" debate, with different people arguing that one is more important than the other. This argument created more heat than light, and was based on a false idea that design and usability are opposing forces. They aren't.

Separating usability from design is no longer helpful.

The problem is a design problem.

"The purpose of visual design is to facilitate communication.

When designing products that have a communication function, usable design is simply better design, because it makes a product better at its job. Usability is a central element to successful design. There is no either/or.

While it's certainly useful to test how successful a web site is, there's little point in discovering that your design doesn't work after you've built your product.

Testing can not give us new, creative solutions to design problems, or tell us how well a site achieves its non-functional goals. Excellence can only be achieved by building in usefulness in throughout the design process, and applying user-testing at key points to test success and to help polish the finer detail.

Why beauty/art isn't the new standard

What most designers mean when they debate 'design versus usability' is really 'graphic art versus design'. The argument generally revolves around the relative merits of aesthetics and function ('looks' over 'works').

Visual design is a discipline that applies graphical techniques to solve a communication problem, whereas Art uses many of the same skills for their own sake.

Art has its place and it can be part of great web sites, but creating a successful web site is all about design - finding the best solutions to solve communication problems.

Your web site can be both visually appealing and easy to use.


"There is a natural trade-off between functional and aesthetic richness.

You can't have something that is at the same time both an excellent high-functionality application and a great work of online art.

That point falls outside the sphere of design. The reason for this is that things that have the highest aesthetic beauty and impact cause you to stop and look at them, while things that are most functionally effective help you to do the job you want to achieve without being looked at. The two can't happen at the same time.

The most functional web sites are those that are information-rich, quick to load and totally obvious to use. While they can also be pleasing and attractive, their focus on function would be compromised if they were extremely visually impacting.

Likewise, the most beautiful designs - the ones that make you stop and stare - are rich in visually-stimulating elements. While they can certainly also be highly usable, they cannot also feature the weight of highly functional features that would also put them at the very top of the functional quality scale."

Ben's got it right. And most of his work shows that.
Check out what HE considers interesting reference examples of great balance between form and function. (at the end of his article)

What are yours?

RSS updates from WebDesignFromScratch:


Ben Hunt, aka the "Web Doctor", is a UK-based interaction design consultant who has been designing software, web sites, and web applications since 1996.
He publishes 'Web design from Scratch' to share his passion for designing excellent user interfaces with a worldwide audience.

See also: Form vs. Function: Finding the Balance by Nick Finck - Digital Web Magazine

Reference: WebDesingFromScratch [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2004-11-17 13:24:07

Marilyn Langfeld

I agree that usability and web design go together. The best web designers have learned to respect usability guidelines and love web standards. But it doesn't seem that usability experts have much respect for visual design yet.

I remember a book I once designed for an international organization. The editor confided that the content wasn't stellar, but was politically worthy of good design. So I designed the book.

Later, I learned the book went through several reprints, to the editor's chagrin. She credited the design with enhancing the credibility of the content.

And the design was basically text only, so we're not discussing fancy graphics and photos.

So let's learn to respect one another and work together.

posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, November 16 2004, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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