Bobby Smith

Bobby Smith

Experience Designer.

Form IS Function

13 September, 2013

Form is important to us. We create stereotypes based on visual information. We buy things based on advertisements and pay premium for mint condition. We judge books by their covers. In everything we do, we are highly influenced by our first impressions, which are often created in a single glance. It doesn’t matter if we are looking to buy a car, choosing a neighborhood to live in, or meeting a person for the first time. We’ll always look at what’s on the outside first when making our judgments.

And therein lies a paradox.

Form has become a critical (dare I say “functional”) element of any product. It conveys information, like the amount of time that went into something, the quality, or whether or not it is durable. Form speaks louder than any instruction manual or user guide. In this regard, form has a powerful purpose. The classic example is comparing the packaging for Apple products to Microsoft products.

Apple v Microsoft
Apple vs Microsoft Packaging. Which one would you buy?

Which media project would you rather buy?

With the web, the line between form and function becomes even more blurry. Websites and web services live and die on their design. For example, in the old days it was a pain to find the right flight at the right price and the right time. Then Orbitz.com and other travel websites came along and put (almost) all of that information in one place. But they botched the interface so badly it allowed Hipmunk.com to enter the market simply by being easier to use.

Likewise, it used to be a pain to find the right movie at the right theater at the right time. If you had three theaters within driving distance, three friends with different movie preferences, and some timing issues, it was hard to narrow down the choices. Then Fandango.com and other movie websites came along to put all of that information on one website. But they botched the interface so badly it allowed Wigglehop to make a space for themselves simply by being easier to use. (It’s both a website and an app for iPhone and iPad.)

Many more botched interface markets are waiting to be exploited:

TiVo does a great job for television shows but I think there’s still another level of Interface improvement out there waiting to happen in that field.

GPS is wonderful technology, but I haven’t yet seen a wonderful GPS user interface. They all seem tedious and wordy to me. That’s a botched interface in my opinion.

Correct me if I’m wrong: where anyone has an opportunity to jump into a market by just looking at a great web service with a terrible interface and providing the same service with a better interface, they can win. First impressions are critical on the web. Think about it… how likely are you to buy a book from this website? While “function only advocates” would be more concerned about the site’s utilitarian function, function doesn’t even matter if users aren’t going to stick around to click a few links.

The paradox is that form isn’t “just form” anymore.

In todays world, form is function.

If you’ve ever tried to use software that’s nearly impossible to figure out you understand what I mean when I say that a poor interface is a functional issue. It makes the work more time consuming and frustrating. It affects the quality of the work you can do. Form and function are two sides of the same coin.

Even flowers which appear to provide no functional benefit are miracle workers if given while apologizing to your wife, or making your girlfriend feel special. In this case, the beauty of the flower IS what flowers are all about. It’s the same with an oceanside view or a stunning sunset. These things have value despite the fact that they perform no task. Beauty is their task, and aesthetics has inherent value.

The design led competitive advantage is no surprise when you think of how swiftly and strongly a design experience shapes our opinion of that brand, company or store, for good or bad. For instance, we know quickly when a website is _bad. _And we associate this feeling of frustration, or worse, disappointment with that brand.

Design-oriented organizations invest in thinking this stuff through. They put design at the heart of their company to guide innovation and to continually improve products, service and marketing. They recognize that a great design leads to differentiation, brand loyalty and higher profits.