Bootstrap, Foundation and other CSS frameworks have provided the means to backend-oriented developers like myself to gain some independence from their creative counterparts. We might have overlooked an important downside.
The “bootstrappy look”
I’ve come to realize that I have an unconscious negative bias towards websites
and applications that I can see are built using a popular CSS framework,
Twitter Bootstrap being the easiest to spot. While the application itself
might function perfectly, and have nothing negative about it, no show-stopping
bugs or terrible UX, the “prêt-à-porter” appearance always throws me off,
and not in a good “noticing a cameo in a movie” kind of way.
The bootstrappy look gives me the impression that the owner
did not have time, bugdet or both to assign to visual identity and
Unfortunately, despite (or maybe because of) having used those frameworks
extensively, knowing their remarkable quality and the advantages they provide,
their being prominently visible creates an amateurish feeling that is
very difficult to overlook, and a cognitive bias that will make me judge a bug
or missing feature more harshly.
I am currently in the market from some services, and really on the fence
about what would otherwise be an excellent fit for my needs for this very reason.
Worse, I might actually go for a higher-priced competitor offering the same
features, but in a prettier, more professional package.
Suspension of disbelief
I believe an efficient service should work like a magic
illusion. If you know how it’s done, the effect is ruined. Similarly,
fantastic and sci-fi movies work because we allow
ourselves to suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy the story. At the very
moment we realize we can see the seams in the costumes, or the slight green
aura surrounding the actor in front of the green screen, the magic has gone,
and we’re pulled out.
A premade template, or a very present CSS framework is, for me at least, just
like seeing the seams. It ruins the magic, it breaks Clarke’s third Law.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
While a customer walking out of a movie is not that bad, a customer walking
out of your service means loss of potential or actual revenue. I would
feel very disappointed in myself if a customer abandoned my service because
the UI is not professional enough. To avoid this, everything must be done
in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief.
Maintaining the magic
While it is sound logic to postpone visual customization and further attention
to detail until after the MVP phase, developers, designers, and product owners
should not forget, in mid-lifecycle of their products, to come back to those
subjects, and put in the time, money and effort necessary to go from
working prototype to polished and refined product.
- Coherent visual identity : use the same layout, controls, navigation
across the application.
- Coherent palette: Choose a few colors and build your theme around them.
Furthermore, the same colors should always represent the same things.
- Escape from defaults: if you are using a framework, switch a few things
around. A different header font, text color, navigation style might be
enough to set you apart.
In short, I should not be able to identify your UI framework at a glance,
without actually reading the source code.
Feature not included
Another perverse side-effect of relying too much on a UI framework is the
dreaded moment when you realize you have to build something and have no easy
baked-in method available. Your first instinct will irremediably be to
twist provided features around to meet your needs.
You will find yourself trying to adhere to the framework instead of having
it suit your needs.
Eventually, the product will be so tightly coupled to its UI framework that it
will be nigh impossible to solve the above problems without a complete rewrite.
Even worse, this will prevent the product from finding and/or showcasing its
unique identity and branding.
Case in point :
Bootstrap is a required skill on job postings now.
Personally being in a situation where I might ditch a service I’m trying out because
the UI seems amateurish provided a lot of food for thought, and what I hope
will serve as a cautionary tale for myself and others.
Unique identity, attention to detail and polish are crucial in order to build
a quality product, and to offer an effective service.