Beauty and usability in balance

Recently at the Tekom yearly conference in Stuttgart, I heard a great presentation on the design principles around which SAP builds its products. These principles are encapsulated in the SAP Flori Design. It was not delivered by a UX or UI designer, as one would expect, but by a technical writer working for SAP. I heard plenty of talks that week but only this one had any significant impact on me. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of the presenter, but she was from Montreal. The key takeaway from the presentation was that SAP’s new design principles came about as the result of a courageous decision on the part of the company. SAP realized the UI design of SAP applications sucked! SAP knew about it and wanted to change it. So, they brought in an expert designer to completely rethink and redesign SAP UIs. The result was SAP Flori.

SAP Flori design principles

According to their website, the philosophy behind Flori is based on five core principles:

  • Role-based, which means user focus first. What are the user’s actually doing and what do they need to accomplish with the product.

  • Delightful, which attempts to make the user experience free of distracting elements that have nothing to do with the task at hand.

  • Coherent, which is to have a consistent experience across all elements of the product and ensuring each step along the way is intuitive.

  • Simple, which is to make tasks intuitive and uncomplicated by focusing on what is important and getting non-essentials out of the way.

  • Adaptive, which is to provide the same experience on whatever device a user may choose to use.

At first there was some resistance from SAP. They liked, or at least they knew, where all the functions where. That didn’t mean new customers felt that way or even some long time users. Sometimes people just accepted crappy design because that was the way it has always been. But it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Expert users of a product may know how to do things with a UI but it does not mean they are happy about it.

Consider this written by Esther Blankenship, a User Experience Evangelist at SAP SE.

“Let’s banish this myth that expert UIs by nature must look terrible. This is the lazy way out! Here are some basic design principles to which all users, whether expert or not, have a right.

  • Consistency in visual elements such as fonts and colors
  • Correct usage of UI controls (ideally following the appropriate UI guidelines)
  • At least a bit of padding and white space
  • On-screen labels and text that target users can easily understand
  • Progressive disclosure to move less important information off the screen and let the user concentrate on the task at hand
  • And finally, a design that adapts to the device being used

In his essay Emotion & Design: Attractive things work better usability guru Don Norman states,

“Positive affect makes people more tolerant of minor difficulties and more flexible and creative in finding solutions.”

In the same article, he later emphasizes,

“Good design means that beauty and usability are in balance.”

I couldn’t agree more. A user interface does not need to look terrible. Good design makes people more willing to work with a product that may have some minor problems. They will overlook a small flaw because the product is just so darn easy and great to work with.

As a technical writer, I see good design and bad design all the time. It’s part of my work experience. Documenting a product with good design is so much easier and quicker than documenting a product with poor design. In the later case, I need to be the interpreter and guide to help a user navigate poor UI design.

With good or even great UI design, less documentation is needed. Just consider the documentation that comes with an iPad. Is there really any documentation for it? Not really in the sense of a proper user guide. It is just well designed.

So, at its heart, a good product, application or even online documentation needs to be usable. And the heart of usability is basic design principles that encompass both beauty and function. This makes working with these products a joy, a real pleasure. This ultimately is the end of the matter - bringing a bit of joy into the life of someone. And what can be wrong with that?

For more information

(1) Emotion & Design: Attractive things work better

(2) People-Centered (Not Tech-Driven) Design

(3) Old people are Cool, Design for Them Sucks - upcoming 2020 presentation at SXSW