We’ve all heard the Steve Jobs’ quote, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” This mantra applies to mobile design as well.

In fact, I’ve heard it so many times that it’s become a kind of platitude that’s lost its meaning. I know its meaning is lost on people because I still hear clients say, “We don’t need design services now because we don’t need it to look good, we just need it to function.” Then I came across this chart in Oliver Reichenstein’s love letter to his profession:

Given an unlimited budget, a client will pay to create something that works all the time for everyone and is universally beautiful. Like most people on earth, our clients don’t have unlimited time and money. I’ll also assume they don’t want to create garbage. Given the constraints of wanting to create a quality product on a budget, the logical first step is to make it work, but keep it ugly. So we move to the top-left corner. However, that doesn’t mean there is “no design” being done.

If there is a designer on the project, their job is to make sure the interface works. Text should be readable. Buttons should be actionable. Navigation should be logical. Most importantly, this should be prototyped and tested with users. What problem is the project trying to address? Does the app/prototype reliably solve the problem for users? That’s how we determine whether it works.

Sometimes, clients think they can skip design at the beginning to create something in the Boldness quadrant, something that’s aesthetically ugly but works. A project manager can churn out some wireframes and the development team can make color, layout and type choices based on implementation defaults and/or brand guidelines. Design work is still being done, but it’s being done unintentionally and haphazardly. That’s not to say design is an esoterically complex discipline. Most of mobile design is common sense. But if that common design sense isn’t applied to all aspects of the interface, more often than not, you end up with an ugly and broken product.

True, the app may not crash, but that’s not the only measure of functionality to users. A user will forgive an app for not being beautiful if it accomplishes what they need it to accomplish in an intuitive and efficient way. A user will not forgive an app for being useless even if it never crashes.

Most app designers, myself included, would be content to create ugly things that work well until the end of time. If 1 out of every 10 projects is successful enough to start moving to the upper-right quadrant at some point, that’s excellent. But nobody, even the client that asks for “no design,” wants to make trash.

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