The UI Beauty Contest

Sadly this blog past has been in draft mode for over 6 months and since then it seems everyone is coming out of the woodwork to say the same thing – user interface (UI) design isn’t everything. Lately, it’s been a beauty pageant of sorts when a new product comes out, everyone says “wow, looks great and the interface is awesome” then the next question is “what the fuck does it do?” and that’s the problem.

Something might look beautiful but if it has no real purpose…who cares how great it looks. You’ve heard this same story before in the context of dating, “he is really good looking but talking to a door knob is more fun” or “she is a California dime but absolutely dumb as a rock.” Instead of focusing on the needs of a customer, many startups are spending way too much time on packaging (user interface, funding sources, PR, etc…).  A great example of this is, it received a ton of press because it was funded by Sequioa for $41 million and when the application was released people were clueless about its usage. Since then they have gone back to the drawing board for version 2.

Some of the comments from the web that really got me to think about this user interface debate:

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Ron Conway is a legend in the VC space and you can’t really argue with his track record but I disagree with his comments. Not only that, but I’m pretty sure you can’t have IP rights to the way something looks.

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Design might be a competitive advantage if there are many players in the same space, but it really depends on the category. Facebook had a pathetic website when it launched in 2004 when compared to Friendster. But people gravitated towards Facebook because it served a social utility, gradually over time the Facebook interface got more polished.

An example of an interface that is absolutely horrible to look at is Tally – an accounting software for the Indian markets. Most people still use the MS-DOS version and it’s reported it has 90% of the market in India. Why does it dominate the market? Because it does one thing really well – calculate numbers.




  1. Glad you brought this up. 
    To me, design means the overall experience the user gets from your site as well as from your product (app). Today, there is no room for shoddy/mediocre design. The question is – does my design enhance the value of my product?Obviously, you cannot have a shitty product and an amazing site. 

    You also have to see the target audience. Tally can get away with it cause it’s  target audience probably doesn’t care about design. Or even if they care, they have paid for the software and probably there are no other alternatives. Yeah, so you can get away if your software looks average, works like a charm and your target audience doesn’t care about the UI.

    BUT, the average web user is getting smart and will want a similar experience (functionality + design) from your business app as his consumer apps (facebook, twitter etc.) is providing him/her.

  2. True, but look at MakeMyTrip vs Cleartrip. True UI fans, Apple fans, design fans all will say Cleartrip is the travel site of choice. But, that is a small subset of users. MakeMyTrip is much larger and gets away with a lame UI because it is perceived as cheaper and hence gets more business.

  3. UI is about how a user interacts. Then I guess “design” would fall under UX (user experience), how one feels about a product, system or service.

  4. To me a good design and user experience does matter a lot. From my experience, talking to people who use badly designed products, in most cases it was because “they thought that was the only way to do it or the only tool available”. Put forth something which is better designed and does something similar and people are likely to switch.
    A case against Tally, would be that “almost everyone” else is using Tally, so the perception that Tally must be the best tool available, makes more people consider it. Tally got the market share initially, and those who tried it then, stayed, even if it meant having to deal with a badly designed product. Give them something which is better designed and has a good user experience and easy data import option, I am assuming most people would switch.

    I often also talk with friends / family who use IRCTC / Makemytrip, rather than Cleartrip. The reason they choose to book via IRCTC is because “it’s from the official source” and they are less worried about things going wrong. What they don’t realize is Cleartrip is also a official travel agent. Make them realize that fact and now, most of them book via Cleartrip. They tell me, it’s much easier / faster to book tickets than using IRCTC.

  5. B2C might get away with it. I don’t pay a monthly subscription to Cleartrip or Makemytrip. But, for the business apps that I do I would want them to give me an exceptional overall experience – function + design.

  6. Sunil,

    I agree the Tally example was a bit unfair because it’s almost like a commodity since people don’t know about other products. It’s like Windows, most people don’t know anything outside of the Windows operating system. But, once they find out about other platforms some tend to crossover.

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