I’ve helped inspire a fundamental shift in how we approach projects at Metova: we believe the technical implementation of software projects will become more and more commoditized over time. Ingenuity and creativity in product design has increasingly become what our customers and end users expect. We’ve restructured the way we approach design and development to accommodate this change.

Sometimes, however, function is much more important than form. You certainly want a well-designed and easy-to-use application, but sometimes the beauty of a thing can detract from its utility.

Take, for instance, system health dashboards.

Metova Lineup Dashboard

It’s crap, right? Well, it’s supposed to be!

This dashboard, Metova Lineup, shows me the health of every recently updated project at a glance. Every time someone on my team touches an application, Lineup runs it through the gauntlet. Required libraries, code complexity, test coverage, build status, and many other code quality metrics are examined for each project. The result of all of this examination is what you see: a basic, ugly, dashboard with big bold-colored boxes. If a project passes all of these code quality checks, its box is green. If there are some issues that need to be addressed but the overall project is okay, its box turns yellow. The box turns red if the project is in really bad shape.

So why would I take the time to build something which examines our projects so thoroughly but spend so little time on making it beautiful? Beauty is easy to overlook. Hideousness – a massive block of red pixels on my screen – can not be missed.

The rudimentary design is extremely effective. The dashboard displays on my third screen, just at the edge of my vision. Even while it sits in the periphery, I quickly notice when a block of red rears its ugly head.

A beautifully designed dashboard might show me a simple list instead, or at best a little splash of red: an icon or a thin strip of color. Perhaps much more aesthetically pleasing, but harder to notice. And much less valuable.

Metova Lineup Dashboard Proposed Redesign

A designer took it upon himself to redesign my ugly dashboard. What he made looked great: it was simple, it was sleek, it was light and pleasant. I hated it. It required paying attention to the screen. The last thing I wanted to do was pay more attention to a screen.

Should you care about what you are building, your work should do two things: take care of your user and evoke an emotional response. The stronger the response, the better. Comfort is not as good as surprise, or excitement, or sometimes even disgust. For a project health dashboard like Lineup, I expect to experience two strong emotional responses: celebration (“check out all the green!”) and alarm (“my god, look at all the red!”).

Some of my developers recently heckled the ugly design. I told them the design team would have my blessing to give it a face-lift if everything stays green for a solid week.

Understand what you are building and why your users need it. Otherwise, you might make something beautiful and useless.