What exactly is the wow factor in design?

What exactly is the role of design? Is it to impress, seduce and wow us, or does it go deeper than that? Are we approaching design with the right attitude?

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I was up in London attending a pitch meeting. As is often the case I found myself sitting in a large board room with impressive furniture and tasteful art on the walls. The room was full with suitably serious looking executives all furiously taking notes as I talked.

Finally, the head of marketing (an American woman with an extremely brusk manner) turned to me and said; “this is all well and good, but we need a design that wows us.”

Fortunately, I was ready for this. It’s not uncommon for clients to look for the wow factor. What this factor is, they always struggle to say. However, it is not the vagueness that frustrates me or even the fact that a design should not be impressing the commissioner of that design, but the final audience. No, what frustrates me is the idea that the role of design is to wow people.

Is that really all design is about? If a design causes you to take a sharp in-take of breath, does that mean its job is done? I don’t believe that is the case. Although having a big emotional impact is a part of its role, I actually believe it is normally a relatively small one.

Web design is not traditional marketing

The problem is that people’s assessment of web design is heavily coloured by traditional marketing. Traditional advertising such as brochures, TV campaigns, direct mail etc all had to fight for your attention. They had to shout louder, be more in your face, generate a stronger response.

But the web is not traditional media. People choose to go to a website, you don’t need to scream at them to gain their attention. The fact that they have chosen to visit your site shows they have already given you their attention. Yes, you need to hold that attention, but that is a different thing.

Don’t forget that online consumers are a savvy bunch that no longer respond well to traditional sales techniques and are not impressed by snazzy graphics. These are the banner blind generation who are more interested in customer service, user experience and efficiency. The wow factor has to come from interaction with the organisation, more than design. A fancy design cannot mask weaknesses in customer service and communication.

It’s also important to note that the web is an interactive medium. Users have to navigate and engage a user interface. They are not as passive as they are when encountering other mediums like print or TV. This need to facilitate interaction changes the role of design on the web.

So what is the role of design online? What should have that brusk, American, marketing executive actually have been looking for?

What the role of design should be

For a start she should have been seeking a design that engaged users, rather than dazzled them. It should have been human, approachable and open.

It should be honest too. I have come to believe that good design does not overstate the benefits of the product it is promoting. Instead it lays them out in as clear and transparent a way as possible. Consumers have long since grown cynical about overstated claims and respond better to the simple facts.

However, most of all the design should facilitate the user. It should be there to help. It should adapt to their needs and ensure their experience is as pleasurable and painless as possible.

In short, I believe design should be like a good waiter in a nice restaurant.

Design should be like a waiter

I remember going into a restaurant with my wife while travelling in the states. It was a lovely restaurant with great food and a great atmosphere. However, the entire experience was ruined by an overbearing waiter. He sat down at our table to take our order and put huge pressure on my wife to try the oysters, even though she made it very clear that she wasn’t interested. At one point he even decided to show us a card trick, despite the fact it was obvious we were trying to have a romantic meal!

He was obviously trying hard to get a good tip from us but in the process drove us away. In his attempt to wow us, he simply alienated us.

Compare that to a good waiter. A good waiter is friendly but not overly personal. She treats her customers with courtesy and is sensitive to their needs. She offers her opinion about what is good, but never contradicts the customers selection. She fills your glass with water without you asking and removes dirty plates without interrupting the flow of conversation on the table.

To me that is what good design should be like. It doesn’t need to be invisible, but it should be unintrusive. It should predict the users needs and adapt accordingly. It should make suggestions, but not push them at users.

In short, it should not wow, but instead create a memorable and pleasurable experience.

“Portrait of beautiful girl with great dreadlocks.” image courtesy of Bigstock.com

  • Okke Tijhuis

    Depends on your definition of wow.

    Something that a lot of people (often marketing) associate with having a wow factor regularly creates a terrible experience and is memorable because of all the wrong reasons.

    Often people look at the initial wow factor, the impression you have when you first see the design.

    To me a user should be ‘wowed’ by the use of the site/application. The whole experience.

    And often a user might not even notice how good the design was until they go somewhere else, because it let them do what they came for as easily as possible and got out of their way.

    Yes, looks matter. But it should support the whole experience and not draw all the attention to itself.

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