July 19, 2010
The Age Old Debate: 'Form vs. Function'
Which aspect of web development should hold more weight: the design or the functionality?
Are you more inclined to remember a site that is visually exciting or one that gets things done? Well, that depends on the audience, the brand and the intended message.
You are not likely to need your online bank to have pretty bells and flashy whistles, as long as it helps you make informed decisions and secured transactions with the least amount of headache. You don't go to a banking website to be entertained. You go to get things done. Banks (and their web developers) know this. Is it then not part of the design in developing the site to be focused on being functional rather than being a pretty page?
Function or form. Like art or commerce, beauty or brains, maybe 'or' is the problem, not the words on either side. After all, you wouldn't do an ad campaign and ask 'should we make it look nice, or get the messaging right? Likewise, food packaging doesn’t either look nice or contain the product. When comparing design or functionality in the digital world, one is not necessarily better than the other.
Around the office, we came to agree that form often is function (and visa versa), especially in digital comms and advertising. What we typically refer to as ‘design’ over functionality is actually more a form of ‘art’ so the question then boils more down to ‘design vs. art’ rather than ‘design vs. functionality’. A common definition of art is that it is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. For sites that are used for brand awareness/brand engagement (typically consumer brands), the appeal of appearance is more heavily weighted, with the functional purpose of the site taking second place.
Thinking of digital in terms of traditional media, the term ‘website’ could be the equivalent of the term ‘book’. In which case, how do the different styles of traditional book (eg. brochure, sales leaflet, encyclopedia, art book, etc.) directly relate to the different styles of website? An encyclopedia is designed to function as source of knowledge whereas a brochure or sales leaflet is typically designed to be visually appealing first, informative second. Do you want your brand’s site be a brochure or an encyclopedia?
One specific example which, whilst highly functional has also been very design-led and heavily analyzed to create the successful site it is today. Basecamp is a project management tool used by some major B2B companies and consumer brands (such as Kellogg’s and Warner Bros.). The tool’s straightforwardness makes it extremely user friendly and intuitive whilst remaining very functionally sound and clever.
The objective was to design it in such a manner that the function would overtake the design and make it seamless. This particular example points out how design can make something functional, intuitive and engaging.
Another good case study compares the usability (beyond the visual appeal) of the Apple and Microsoft websites. It’s well worth a look here.
So, function or form is no longer a matter of ‘or’, but ‘and’: Function and form, brains and beauty. AND, the two inseparable words if you intend to maintain a successful business, sell and deliver.
What do you think? Is a website's design its visual appeal or its functional intent?