What app designers can learn from the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement

July 30, 2013

The industrialization of the 19th century brought with it an enormous rise in consumer goods. Where before, a specialized craftsman made every broom, cupboard or plate in a house, the factories now mass-produced household goods at cheap prices. Result? People stuffed their houses with low quality items. 

As a reaction against this clutter, the Arts and Crafts movement was born. The first exhibition of this art and design movement in America took place in 1897 in Boston. There they launched their credo: 

“This Society hopes to bring Designers and Workmen into mutually helpful relations, and to encourage workmen to execute designs of their own. It endeavors to stimulate in workmen an appreciation of the dignity and value of good design; to counteract the popular impatience and the desire for over-ornamentation. It will insist upon the necessity of sobriety and restraint, or ordered arrangement, of due regard for the relation between the form of an object and its use, and of harmony and fitness in the decoration put upon it.”

The rise of awful software

The situation with 21st century software development is remarkably similar. Before let’s say the 1980’s, software development was in the hands of specialists. As coding became more accessible, the growth of software skyrocketed. The backlash of this evolution is that a lot of mediocre to downright awful software saw the light of day. Riddled with bugs, difficult to work with, and with so many functions, buttons and drop-down menus that users would have to take a deep breath before starting up their enterprise software in the morning. 

How tablets initiate a back-to-basics movement

The wonderful invention of the tablet has initiated a back-to-basics movement. Not by choice, but by necessity. A tablet screen is too small to show a dashboard with 35 parameters. Furthermore, the touchscreen limits the amounts of clickable links or buttons, due to the size of a fingertip.  

“User interface”, that part of the software that you see on your screen as a user, was once somewhat of an afterthought in the process of creating software. From the black or green screens with a pulsing cursor and plain white text of the first software suites, to the brightly colored and feature-packed dashboards of the more recent applications, the value of the software was based on what it could achieve.

Nobody cared if users liked working with it or not. For tablets, user interface, or UI, has to come first. The mouse has gone, the keyboard has gone, the different tabs or views have gone. The user interface of an app, is a synonym for the whole software. What you see, is what you app. 

How about the return on investment of a good user interface?

Therefore, a good user interface or UI is incredibly important in app development. And not even in the first place to give the user a pleasant experience when working with the app. No, without good design, sobriety, restraint and ordered arrangement, an app cannot function.

If you want to reach the holy grail of ROI, you better make sure the user interface and the user experience, or UX, it creates are up to scratch, or your app will not even get a chance to prove its worth. Mobile experience is fast-paced by default, users don’t take a couple of days to figure out how something works.

How does a good user interface create return on investment? First of all, when user experience is at the table from the very first stages of app development, it saves on costs. Changes that have to be made after an app has launched, cost a lot more than when they are engineered in the product from the beginning.

Secondly, an easy to use, user-centered product has more chance of being well received. Good early reviews lead to good sales. Thirdly, mobile apps need to be easy to learn, even more than traditional software. An intuitive user interface is key to easy of use. When your business app is easy to learn and quick to use, you help people towards job satisfaction. Their trust in the product will help when renewal or upgrade time comes around. 

Let’s not overlook the importance of the relation between form and function, another Arts and Crafts favorite. Nowhere is form and function as closely intertwined as with tablets. The sleek glass pane of a tablet gives you immediate access to its core functions. It is an interface in the true sense of the word. Man to machine by the touch of a finger.

The decoration that is put upon it, in the form of icons or other visual elements, has to be in harmony with its use. An app has no room for over-ornamentation, as every pixel serves a purpose.

A touch of William Morris for app development 

As William Morris, the leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, once said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Similarly, I suggest to spray-paint on the wall of every developer “Have nothing in your app that you do not know to be useful, and believe to be beautiful.”

Anabel De Vetter is a content creator at Showpad, a mobile application provider that lets businesses create and manage customized sales and presentation apps, distribute content to tablets, and get insights in user activity and content usage.


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