What Designers Can Learn from Bad Design

As Explained by UI Experts

March 22, 2018

Where do we draw the line between good design and bad design? The tug of war between form and function is always a tricky one. First and foremost, a product or app must work well. As design lovers ourselves, we hate to admit that having a beautiful design is merely secondary. So what exactly can designers learn from design that is far from aesthetically pleasing, but works like a dream?

The King of Bad Design

With a valuation of nearly $1 trillion, Amazon has taken ownership of the online shopping arena, cloud storage, and book sales (just to name a few.) And this didn’t happen by accident. Amazon is a calculating company that proves that successful design doesn’t have to be good design. Their website is a bit cluttered, as it packs so much information in. However, it is easy to use to order products and their revenue numbers prove that customers across the world agree with our assessment.

Amazon and other websites, like Craigslist, have made it clear that design can be an afterthought—and from the standpoint of usability, still be considered good design. If the product works well, serves its purpose, and is intuitive for the target user, then technically it is designed well. Just because it doesn’t meet current design standards doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with it. At the end of the day, the definitions of good and bad design are highly subjective.

All designers need to refer back to what they learned during user testing to make sure that each design choice is effective in the eyes of their target market. Frills, animation, and motion design may be lost on most of the population, so understanding what your users need is important in order to design something they will find useful.

An image of a person drawing a straight line in a notebook with a ruler.
Sometimes simple design is the best design.

What is “Bad” Design, Anyway?

If you went out to a new restaurant and reported back to friends that the meal was bad, it is much more likely that you meant the food didn’t meet your expectations, compared to your disinterest in the flatware. Restaurants seek to serve food that customers enjoy. Whether that food is tasty, or cost effective, or trendy, there is some reason that each diner walks in the door. The ambience of the restaurant and the bowls and plates the food is served on are secondary, compared to the quality of the food. However, a restaurant that is designed well, with food that is artistically plated, and delicious—that kind of restaurant is destined for great things.

Design works the same way. Bad design has a different definition for everyone (as does good design), because users have unique needs. But the core is that it doesn’t work the way it is supposed to. Aesthetics must follow form: an app that works amazingly, but hasn’t won an Apple Design Award, may still own the top of the iOS charts. There is something about it that users can’t get enough of, and design might not have anything to do with it.

Trey Hardin, Senior Art Director at Avex Designs, explains why bad design can work so well: “Bad design is successful when good design is unnecessary. We’ve all wasted countless hours of our lives filling out government forms for everything from drivers licenses, to visa applications, to income taxes. Without fail, these are some of the most cumbersome and poorly-designed materials in existence, but they are a necessary part of our lives as citizens. Their system is fragmented, uninspired, and outdated – but it works. What does the government stand to benefit from redesigning all these forms? Their existing design is successful not because it’s beautiful or because it’s thoughtful, but because it is enough. They have achieved results that are designed just well enough to be usable and moved on to other (debatably more important) government tasks.”

An image of a United States passport on a wooden table.
All the forms are worthwhile when you have your visa ready to go in your passport.

As much as we’d like to live in a world where form and function always match up, sometimes design is meant to be “good enough.” If it gets the job done, then no matter what it looks like, it counts as good design. Amazon is a prime example of a company that doesn’t have to update its user interface to meet the latest design trends, simply because it works so well. Shoppers have grown used to how it works and first-time customers can also easily get the hang of it. While a design refresh might placate the design community, Amazon competitors have never posed enough of a logistical threat to the behemoth to make it change its look substantially.

Why Don’t Form and Function Always Add Up?

The interface of your product is often what draws potential customers in. But if they are disappointed with the way it works, they may never return. Jesse Fishman CTS-D, DSCE, Senior Systems Designer at The Sextant Group, told us, “Form is what brings us in, while function is what keeps us there. On the web, if a user starts to struggle, they’ll just go to a different website to get what they want – they won’t stick around to try and figure out the problems with the interface.”

On the other hand, a product that doesn’t look amazing, but is intuitive to use will keep customers coming back. Form and function don’t have to always match up. If an app is functional, form will take a backseat and not concern users as much. But having an app that works well and looks great is still the holy grail in product and app design.

What Can New Designers Learn from Bad Design?

As a designer that is new to the field, you may be tempted to put form over function. But user experience comes first no matter what. “Good design” is easier to define. Italian designer, Massimo Vignelli once said that “Styles come and go. Good design is a language, not a style.”

An image of an invoice app on a smartphone, on top of a folder.

Designers may put features in different orders, as writers put different words in a new order. But at the end of the day, good design stays true to the function and makes the main goal of the product or app easy to accomplish. Bad design, however, can be defined as a philosophy that ignores functionality—whether or not it is up to par design-wise.

Hardin added his perspective, “The most important thing young designers can learn from this is that even more important than how you design is what you design. Design blogs and art schools can at times be insular environments in which everything revolves around aesthetic, but as you become a professional designer and work with different types of companies and people, you quickly learn that form can only ever be as valuable as the function it serves. To be truly happy with something you create, you must also be happy with the function it serves. For young designers, this idea can influence the types of jobs you apply for, the way you create user experiences, the route you taking for building your career as a designer, and much more.”

Joe Tucker, Creative Director at Solodev offered a different take, “Young designers need to remember they can always come back and do the polish and shine at the end. But having a plan beforehand is crucial to design. They should always know where they want their end user to end up after experiencing a design feature. Ultimately, your clients want people to get something from the website or piece of work – enough for potential customers to be driven to action. The last thing you (and your clients) will want is potential customers saying ‘oh wow, that’s so pretty’ and then never invest in the company.”

Bad design is twofold: it can be a design that doesn’t meet user needs or a design that doesn’t meet design standards. While the former constitutes failure (although failure can serve a purpose), the latter is just a symptom of being exposed to consistently great design. After seeing delightful interfaces, it’s easy to gain high standards. And having high expectations for apps, websites, and other products is a great thing, especially for designers. But staying goal-oriented is key when designing an experience. Does your new app meet the needs of users in an intuitive way? If you are able to say “yes” confidently, then you have achieved your basic goal. Next, if you have more time, you can add in all the bells and whistles you’d like—as long as they don’t interfere with the core functionality.

What have you learned from bad design? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio lets anyone build mobile app prototypes that feel real. No coding or design skills required. Bring your ideas to life quickly! Sign up for a free 15-day trial of today and get started on your next mobile app design.