Good web design uses visual elements to enhance ease-of-use (usability) first, while being pleasing to the eye and conveying an appropriate personality second. In many years of detailed metrics analysis and testing, we have seen that trendier or more visually creative designs, while exciting, often perform worse on key metrics such as conversion or bounce rate. That said, by using style elements to enhance usability, and not for their own sake, designers can create designs that are both exciting and usable.

This often comes down to details such as precise shading, shadows, color selection, subtle animations, and/or patterns and textures. Creative layouts and shapes can be used as well. A great example is theGEICO homepage, which uses subtle arrow shapes behind form fields to guide users to begin an auto rate quote. Apple and Google have also mastered the art of subtlety in their user interfaces.

Sometimes the same type of design element can help or hinder the effectiveness of a design depending on how it’s used. In a recent homepage redesign project we included an interactive feature that uses animations to flip through several different images – similar to what Get Satisfaction does on its homepage. Seeing this, our client asked if we could also use animations to slide marketing images across the screen to draw attention to them.

Not a good idea, we told them. The first type of animation provides useful visual information to the user about how to navigate through the image content so they can easily and intuitively access the desired information. Animating marketing images across the screen, however, would only serve tounnecessarily distract the user from their intended task.

There are many different elements that go into a design. The dichotomy between form and function, style and usability, can seem to be a daunting compromise. However, with some discernment and creativity, a design can be effective and usable as well as exciting and beautiful. A great designer is one who has the ability to bring these seemingly competing values together every time.