Your Site vs. a Honda Civic
Posted by Nick Anderson on February 11, 2016
If you're sitting near window, go look out of it and see if you can spot some cars. Maybe you're at home and it's just your car; maybe you're on the tenth floor of an office park and see dozens of 'em churning through lanes of congested downtown traffic. Maybe you're reading this from jail, in which case I've attached this handy reference image:
Image Courtesy of heitingandirwin.com
Now let's compare that to what we thought the cars of today would look like back in the 1960's:
Image Courtesy of metatroniks.net
The curves! The colors! The . . . well, that helicopter one looks kinda stupid. But I'm willing to bet that most of us would still take any of these zany contraptions over, say, the 2016 Honda Civic:
No turbo jets, no dorsal fins, and you can't even drive it underwater. Why do people buy these things? Luckily, that's just one of many choices. Here in the US, we have access to around fifty brands of cars, from over a dozen manufacturers. Let's take a look at the options:
Cool. Awesome. We're living in an age of 23 different styles of Air Jordans and 102 Doritos flavors, but this is the best we can do for midsize sedans? How'd we end up with an endless sea of Honda Civics clogging our freeways?
The answer lies in a grey area of design - Form vs. Function. I could write pages on the intricacies of this issue, but it boils down to this:
Function is what the object in question is designed to do.
Form is the way in which is does it.
The Function of a car is to move human beings safely from one place to another. Different vehicles have different functions - some are small and only transport a couple of people a few miles, others move cargo long distances or through particularly rough terrain. For each need, there's a change to the car's Form - Jeeps are built high off the ground so they won't get stuck, minivans have multiple rows of seats for maximum capacity.
It's a general rule of design that Form must follow Function. If you built a school bus with, say, a turbo engine like the Batmobile, would it be able to transport a dozen elementary school children to school safely? Probably not. How about a glass dome top with gull wings? Cool, yes, but not very safe in the event of a crash. The school bus I rode in as a kid actually had the windows locked permanently because someone kept reenacting scenes from The Empire Strikes Back with action figures and dropping Luke into oncoming traffic. When you think about it, school buses are basically mobile cages; the fewer escape options the better. The more flair you try to add to the bus' Form, the more you jeopardize its Function.
Move the conversation to commuter vehicles, and you'll see how quickly the gaudy hopes of the 60's disappear. Could you imagine the response team required to rescue someone who had driven a submarine car to the center of the Atlantic and then run out of gas? Or how long it would take to change the back tire on that this thing? Factor in the need for safety features like airbags, modern crumple zones, roll cages, seatbelts and - ta-da:
The Honda Civic is boring as hell. No one is going to deny that - but it sells well because it does its job - safe and easy human transport - very well. It's not the glamorous, turbo-charged dream we had in the 60's, but the tradeoffs we've made have been worth it - they're safer, easier to drive, and have new technology like GPS and anti-lock brakes.
In a lot of ways, it's better than what we dreamed of - just not as unique.
So what does this have to do with web development? Believe it or not, I actually use this car example all the time while designing websites. One of the most frequent requests I get as a designer is to make a website "unique." I understand the internal logic - it's how business works. You attract customers by differentiating yourself in a crowded market, where only the unique survive. White noise is a death knell. It makes sense, then, to assume that if your website blends in with every other website, you're doing something wrong.
But you're not. In fact, some of the most important advice I give to clients is to lean on established design patterns and follow trends. This is because your website isn't an ad, a business, a personal statement or an art piece - your website is a utility. And the good news is, there are literally thousands of other business beta-testing those boundaries for you. Check out this rocket-bus, for example:
A+ for uniqueness; it certainly attracts attention. The artwork is eye-catching; as a static design it really works. But let's talk Function. What are you visiting this site to do? Retrieve information? See samples of work? Honestly, I've been clicking around for an hour and still have no idea. Whoever designed this site didn't ask what Function they wanted it to perform - they asked, "What should it look like? How can we make it different?"
It's easy to succeed in only one area - on the other end of the spectrum are sites like Craigslist, which sacrifices all aesthetics for hardboiled functionality (though at least Craigslist is easy to use). The difficult part has always been finding the compromise between pure Form, and pure Function. You want your website to be recognizable and easy to use, but it still needs to be yours.
At the center of your business is something truly unique and of value. It's what's allowed you to build your company and thrive. What I encourage my clients to do is to dig until they find the core of what makes them special, and then hold it up to the light. For Jill Green, it's her photographs - take a look at her gorgeous photography portfolio site. No colors, no graphics, no bells and whistles - because it doesn't need them. The work speaks for itself. This website does an excellent job of being a website - it fades to the back, allowing the user and the content to take center stage.
So let's talk about what truly makes cars special. Not just unique, or eye-catching, but good. In 2009, I was forced to buy a new vehicle when the Daewoo Lanos I had been driving for ten years burst into flames on a major highway. When I purchased a used Volkswagen Rabbit to replace it, it was like driving a spaceship. The steering was tight, the windows were positioned better, the radio worked. I had gotten so used to driving that hot piece of garbage that I was simply blown away by the luxury of an entry-level hatchback.
Earlier this year, my father purchased a Cadillac and spent an afternoon proudly showing me all the features in his driveway. If my car was a spaceship, this thing was a Star Destroyer. I was amazed by the way it glided over broken pavement and blared alarms as I almost backed into a curb. And yet, it looks like this:
By no means an ugly car - but is it really that far distinguished, from say - the 2016 Honda Civic?
Image Courtesy of columnpk.net
Form only gets you so far. Function is what grabs and holds the attention of users. It's what creates trust and proves your value. If you can get that much right, great Form is an easy next step.
Nick Anderson is a UX Developer at BlueModus, and writes about design for Paste Magazine. He rides his bike to work even when its super cold.