In design, ‘boring’ is often treated as a dirty word. And it is not just in design: the boring fallacy is pervasive. The notion that ‘normal is boring’ is commonly spouted as a call to embrace eccentricity, and most of us have heard the much-quoted Marilyn Monroe mantra about how it is “better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring”.
Apparently, we as individuals are turned off by boring. But is that true for us as end users? When it comes to the products and websites we consume, do we really want artistic, unpredictable design?
The boring label may be steeped in stigma, but in terms of UX design, there is much to be said in defence of boring. Boring is not your enemy. In fact, boring can be your user’s best friend.
The Creation Complex
Both design and development are highly creative fields. There is a core element of artistry that comes with creation – whether you are creating functional code, a user interface or a brand aesthetic. This, perhaps, is where the desire for differentiation comes into play. Nobody wants their work to be boring, and most people would want their products to be beautiful.
For all that artistry, however, it is important to remember that your finished product is not a piece of art. Ultimately, a website, software solution or app is not there to be looked at. It is not there to be admired from afar by spellbound spectators. A product exists to be used.
Consider that 4 out of 5 consumers have been shopping on smartphones since as early as 2012 and that a single second delay in page-load can cause a 7% loss in conversions. Mobile does not reward slow-loading, ornamental design. Nor do impatient users.
No Frills, No Fuss
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote that: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is well worth considering when debating whether your design is too boring.
Speaking simplistically, UX design gets the design out of the way, leaving products that are as slimline and straightforward as possible. ‘Boring’ design, by its no-frills nature, achieves that.
‘Boring’ might be standard scrolling instead of parallax scrolling. It might be a classic above the fold value proposition, rather than a carousel display. It might be a product image rather than an auto-playing video. The point is: the concept of ‘boring’ is often lumped together with conventional or simplistic design, and that is problematic for UX.
Those design elements that might be classed as boring often serve as useful props for the end user; elements that they expect to see and find helpfully familiar. Where a designer might see ‘boring’, an end user sees accessibility.
Think of it this way: boring ticks core usability boxes. For your users, boring is conventional, consistent, and comfortable. No, those qualities might not necessarily induce thrill. They do, however, make for usable, accessible design: design that can be navigated, read, clicked, tapped and understood without conscious effort.
The Beauty in Boring
It is understandable why designers and developers aim for beautiful over boring. Users, do, after all, appreciate aesthetics. For example, we know that 46.1% of people assess the credibility of sites based on the appeal of the overall visual design and that 38% of people will stop engaging with a website if the content/layout is unattractive.
But boring design does not mean ugly design. In fact, there is often understated beauty in boring. Take the Google website, for example. Google.com is far from a visual feast — we see a logo, a text input field, two buttons, and surrounding white space. That minimalism does not detract from the user’s search experience: it enhances it. For all its apparent plainness, you do not register “boring” when you use Google. It works perfectly, offers the desired results instantly, and could not be easier to operate. There is nothing ugly about that.
Or take another tech leader: Apple. Apple and minimalism go hand in hand, but the brand’s aesthetics are far from uninspired. You will never find a design that aims to impress rather than serve in any Apple product or website, and the company makes simple look stunning. Just look at the uncomplicated but compelling nature of the minimising ‘genie’ effect. For such a small UX element, that animation wowed audiences and made everyone want to experience the ‘swoosh’. It was not a complex effect, it was not elaborate, but it became a magical micro-experience that delighted users.
The Void Between Artistry and User Experience
‘Boring’ will not break a user’s experience. A frustrating journey, no matter how visually pretty, will. There is always a place for design innovation in development, but that should never come at the cost of usability, and never feel like an unnecessary part of the overall user experience.
Many ‘exciting’ design elements you see in the digital space are confusing and pointless in terms of UX. ‘Scrolljacking’, for example, has become more prevalent in recent years, where the scroll of your mouse does not correspond with the movement of the page. A scroll down might see you slide horizontally, or cause a new graphical display to surface upwards.
Infinite scrolling and parallax scrolling are two more examples of added complexity to what should be a core, simple navigational experience. Both cases see users stuck in intrusive effects that slow their journey and remove power. In the words of Rami James, “If you mess with how I scroll through your website, I’m going to close the tab immediately.”
Colour-popping, full-screen interstitials are also popping up on more and more websites, as are bright, slide-in ads complete with animation. You might also be seeing more ‘brutalist’ sites that use deliberately ugly design and display a notable lack of concern to appear comfortable.
None of these elements could be described as boring. They are the very antithesis of boring: atypical, attention-grabbing and often surprising. But how many of us enjoy these ‘exciting’ elements when confronted with them as users?
Beware the Boring Fallacy
Typically, users only want provocative design if it enhances their experience. Style for the sake of showboating is ill-advised and leads to bloated visuals and journey disruption. Users do not want to be re-educated on how to use a fancy new website, and they do not want to wait for the content they need to load.
Now, this is not an attack on aesthetics. Aesthetics will always be important, even if your website or product has excellent usability and functionality. But beware the boring fallacy. Simplicity and adherence to standardised formats are not boring: they are just good UX sense. Similarly, basic design that gets users from A to B quickly and easily is not boring, and it is certainly not broken.
When something works fluently and fluidly, users do not tend to notice ‘boring’. They do, however, see annoying and intrusive. Overdone design, for all its good intentions, falls into the latter category, and becomes an uglier aspect of the user experience.
The moral of the story is to remember the user. Rules may exist to be broken, but the user is ultimately more important than design egos.
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