Blog: Secrets from the Chef

Visual style: uniform or custom-tailored?

Yegor GilyovAuthor: Yegor Gilyov
19 May 2006

There is an opinion that non-standard theming is a property of an entertaining, non-serious application suited, in any case, for home, non-professional use. Moreover, this opinion is carved in the holy testimonies of Windows UX Guide:

As a general rule, application theming is appropriate for programs where the overall experience is more important than productivity. Highly themed applications should be immersive, yet only used for short periods of time. This rule makes theming suitable for games and kiosk applications, but unsuitable for productivity applications.

Non-standard visual style equals enemy of productivity. This is gives as an axiom. Is it really so?

In his books “About Face” and “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” Alan Cooper draws our attention to the conflict of interests: it is profitable for the OS developers to set limitations on the application developers’ freedom, making them “wear the uniform” under the threat of taking away the “platform compatible” product status. Is it profitable for application developers? While I hold with the developers in this conflict (of course, until Microsoft commissions us to design the next Windows visual style), I allowed myself to doubt the fact that non-standard visual style always obstructs the work.

It’s actually worth thinking: why the question of strict standardization of the controls is not a pain for web application developers? In the broad web world no one holds such weight as OS developers do in their own little worlds. Try to imagine a consultant telling the Bloglines, Basecamp or Blinksale developers to come to a unified standard in the design of tabs, which would be assertedly beneficial for the users. He will be ridiculed, and that shall serve him right. It’s the same as one would try to make a unified standard for door handles. Their innumerable shape variations (to say nothing about the color and texture) never prevent us from productive opening and closing of the doors.

Tabs: Bloglines, Basecamp and Blinksale

Carefully, properly and nicely created visual style not only does not decrease the productivity, but on the contrary, helps increase it. Naturally, while working on the visual style of a certain application we know more about its users, and about the application on the whole, than do designers at Redmond and Coupertino. What controls are there in the interface? Which are the most frequent? How dense is the information output? Does the user work with the keyboard more, or with the mouse? Or, does he/she have a laptop with a touch-pad? What kind of monitor does he/she use? How often is the application launched? How many hours a day does the user look at it? How old is the user, what is his/her education? Gender? How experienced a PC user is he/she? In what culture was he/she brought up? If we know the answers to at least some of these questions, we can create a more suitable design for a certain interface, than a standardized, fit-for-all solution by Microsoft or Apple (I’d like to let the reader think, in what way can the answers to the above questions influence the visual interface design).

The ideal interface can be created only for one user. The smaller the product audience, the closer we can get to the ideal:


Unfortunately, the abundance of thoughtlessly created “skins” make us appreciate the standard themes of Windows and, in particular, of MacOS X. It would be, however, incorrect to reject the very idea of non-standard visual style due to the low qualification and false priorities of certain designers.

The architect Tatlin once said: “not to the new, not to the old, yet to the needed”. Paraphrasing his words, I shall say that the visual style of interfaces should not be non-standard for non-standard’s sake, and should not be standard just because Microsoft or Apple says so. It should be just like your users need it.

Mind you, I have not spoken about branding yet — just about the productivity.

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