The sizzle or the steak: What's more important in system design?

What features weigh the most when you can’t have it all? Do you choose user interface or functionality?

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
Credit: Lenovo

My mother always says that “decision-making is one of the hardest jobs around.”

When it comes to system design, it is no different. A high-profile client has tasked me to recommend a system that will not only improve the process and workload management, but also enhance user engagement. But, when evaluating different systems, what features weigh the most when you can’t have it all? Do you choose user interface or functionality?

When it comes to the psychology of engaging users, the look, feel and aesthetics of effective interface design is important. Of equal importance is the functionality: Your end users want something that actually works; otherwise you end up with frustrated, negative users who hate the system. It is similar to having a Lamborghini with a beautiful interior but a poor engine. Or, it’s like a comfortable ballroom dance competition dress that lacks the appeal to grab the judges’ attention.

Of course, when it comes to system design, there are many other factors: vendor culture, support, compliance, cost, etc. But if all were roughly equal and you were left to choose a system based solely on user interface versus functionality, which would you choose? It’s a very hard decision to make — a sentiment my mom would agree with.

Here are two tips to help you ensure a successful implementation when you just can’t have it all.

1. Seek to clarify why your end users need this system and what feature they value most. 

Example: When designing an aircraft, the functional aspects of the plane (its ability to get passengers to their destination as quickly as possible) are more important than the user-appeal features (comfortable seating, for example). On the other hand, for those competing in a Miss Universe pageant, it is more important for the gown to be appealing rather than functional. 

2. Make sure that end users have proper expectations. 

Example: End users should be informed how the selected system may vary from their initial requests gathered in the discovery phase. If they understand that the system has functionality limited by current technology, but the user interface makes it easier to interact with the system, they could determine workarounds until a better solution arises in the future.

If you have the budget to custom-build a system, then you may never need to choose style over substance. But, in most cases, you need to work with what’s out there. The key is constant communication with end users and level-setting — and that never goes out of style. 

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