User Experience, Visual Design, and Why Both Matter

In the initial stages of a web design project, I sometimes hear: “I don’t care how the site looks, just make sure the user experience is good.” I also sometimes hear: “I want something beautiful and minimalist. Can we minimize the navigation and make the call-to-actions more subtle?”

There are different perspectives regarding the impact of visual and user experience design on a website or app. Often, one is regarded as more important and the other is forgotten completely. In recent years, UX has stepped into the spotlight as the dominant focus of any digital project; meanwhile, visual design is now often regarded as an aesthetic add-on with less importance to conversion or a user experience afterthought. In reality, the two aspects are codependent. When implemented harmoniously, both strong visual and UX design help to form a beautiful product that results in conversion.

User Experience Goals

The focuses of user experience are structure and functionality. Successful design ensures that users know exactly where to go and what to do when they land on a page. Best practices, common language, and data-driven theories are used to guide users through a process with as few obstacles as possible. When a website feels intuitive to the user they are more likely to convert because they are less likely to leave the site out of confusion or frustration. User experience design can create site-wide consistency that clearly communicates the underlying message told by visual design.

Visual Design Goals

Visual design focuses on emotional impact. Designers need to define the project beyond user interaction with the site through stories, experience narratives, humor, and visual themes to communicate a particular feeling or value. An investment in visual design can strengthen brand identity, differentiate a brand from its competitors, and drive conversion through subtle marketing. The job of visual design in relation to UX is to draw the eye to the correct functionality and show the user through graphic elements.

Attraction in Design

It should be no surprise that people prefer attractive interfaces. We know that humans are attracted to things they find aesthetically pleasing, and studies have shown that people are more likely to trust someone they find attractive. The same theory holds true for websites, apps, and other products, and studies show that users are more likely to find a website less attractive if they can’t figure out how to use it. Sometimes, utility itself is an attractive feature with both interactive and static elements.

The Impact of UX Without Visual Design

The problem with UX-centric design is that the pursuit of generally familiar and intuitive experiences leads to repetitive themes and styles. When UX is prioritized and visual design is neglected, the guaranteed result will be a website that is indistinguishable from the competition. In some cases, this might be a desirable outcome depending on the purpose of the site. To appeal to some demographics, you sometimes have to deploy cliched tactics. Best practices are designed to get the most consistent average possible, but average does not produce a compelling brand!

The Impact of Visual Design Without UX

What happens when a designer tries to create high-impact, unique visual design but they’re using dated UX best practices? The way that humans interact with their screens changes in the same way that visual design trends come and go. What was considered good UX a few years ago might not be relevant now. Dated practices can force unnecessary visual design considerations and could make the site look irrelevant. Even a site with a strong emotional impact that has a confusing or aged user interface may not be able to convey the intended brand message. The end result is frustration for everyone, decreased brand trust, and a high bounce rate.