David Housman

Beauty and Usability (Useless Beauty, and Where You Can Shove It.)


I was excited when I heard about the “Clear” iPhone application- a to-do list app that was based on gestures, with an ultra-clean interface and *no* buttons whatsoever. Clear promised to simplify my messy life. My first reaction when I saw screen grabs of the interface was “Wow, this is beautiful. This was some really attractive, minimalist design.” Like the other User Experience people I was working with, I was excited, and I bought the app.

  • I first felt disappointment when I started reading the instructions. Instructions should be unnecessary on something as simple as a to-do list.
  • Then I realized that this beautiful interface didn’t line wrap- the length of my tasks was constrained, so I couldn’t get all the details I needed into the task.
  • I walked away from it for a few days. When I returned, I found that I couldn’t remember how to use it.
  • At that point I abandoned it for my old to-do app that was less beautiful, but sported buttons, icons, and text- and was more useful

I love good design. Good design makes products desirable and enjoyable. Style can be a magnet to prospective users. Good design can differentiate your product from your competitors. As a User Experience professional, I want to build the most usable, attractive products ever.

What I don’t love is art. Beauty alone just doesn’t do it for me. You can build the most beautiful product ever, but if your user can’t Walk Up and Use it, then you’ve gone in the wrong direction. You want to build an app without buttons? Great! I like different. I like new! I don’t like putting being different and new in front of being usable. I don’t want to show off my to-do list or share it with my friends. I want it to help me manage my tasks efficiently. Beautiful, unusable products are best suited for museums – not utilities.

With all the hype around Clear, Realmac Software probably made a bundle in sales- hell, I bought a copy the first day it came out. And if that’s your strategy, great- I hope you’re working with some really talented marketing people. Beauty and usability are not the same thing. Pursuing one doesn’t automatically get you the other. Beauty without usability is like making a promise you don’t keep

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