At What Point Does Obsessing Over Design Become a Liability?

The overall quality of a website’s design is often in the details. Those seemingly-small elements such as microinteractions, typographic spacing and color accents can be real difference makers. They have the potential to transform the mundane into something that stands out.

In these cases, being picky about design is a good thing. Whether that trait comes from you or your client, the goal is the same. It’s all about improving the look, the intuitiveness and, ultimately, the user experience.

As honorable as that may sound, it’s worth wondering: is there a point in a given project where pickiness becomes a liability, rather than a benefit? Can obsessing over every last detail actually cloud the bigger picture?

In my opinion, design focus can indeed be done to death – or at least to the detriment of a project. Let’s outline a few situations where the process can get in the way.

When Design Elements Turn Overly Complex

Sometimes the focus on detail can take us to a bad place – one where bells and whistles overtake usability. The result is a feature that may look really cool, yet be difficult for the end user to figure out. In some cases, it may not even be relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish.

This is one of those classic cases of web design gone too far. We saw it a lot in the days of Flash, where high-tech splash animations were used by everyone from gas stations to law firms. Once the novelty wore off, these sorts of features were merely obstacles for users to navigate.

The modern web has its own vices. Distracting video backgrounds and purposeless hero images take up valuable screen real estate and can make it more difficult for users to get the information they need. That’s not to say these features have no place in web design – just that there’s the potential to go over-the-top with them.

Plus, pouring a lot of time and effort into these elements doesn’t guarantee effectiveness. They still need to have a purposeful existence and be easy to use. Design should be there to help simplify them.

Wires connnected to an electronic device.

When Time and Budget Are Limited

Web designers are often saddled with the responsibility of getting projects done within tight budgets and deadlines. We’re pros at putting it all together. But a micro-managing client can stall progress significantly.

Make no mistake, clients are entitled to make changes – and their opinion counts. Still, there are occasions when one gets so hung up on a particular item that it throws the entire project status into question.

This is certainly understandable when it comes to major features. All stakeholders want to make sure that things look and function according to plan – and good things do often take time. It’s part of the due diligence that comes with building a website.

But these issues also tend to pop up over the most minute details. And they are often a matter of personal preference. For example, insisting that a button look and function exactly as it does on a competitor’s site, if only for the sake of one person’s ego.

In a perfect world, we’d have all the time and budget needed to go down this rabbit hole. But in reality, this can take valuable human resources away from other critical areas that need to be addressed. Things must be prioritized in order to ensure progress.

A person using a laptop computer.

When It Leads to Constant, Counterproductive Change

The design process can often be iterative, where things are improved upon over time. This happens as we become more aware of how visitors are actually using the things we create. They help us to understand their pain points so that we can refine them.

Therefore, change is to be expected. But if things change too dramatically it can backfire. A sudden change to the UI, for instance, might confuse visitors. They have to relearn their how to do what they want – or simply move on to a different site.

Amazingly, this strategy seems to be employed by some big brands. As of this writing, PayPal is a prime example. Their account management UI changes more often than the weather. It seems like every time I log in things are significantly different. Maybe there’s a method to this madness, but it feels more infuriating than useful.

Of course, techniques such as A/B testing are very much viable. But there’s a difference between making slight changes for the sake of conversions and obsessing to the point where you can’t make up your mind. Without at least some consistency, the user experience is bound to suffer.

The words "What Do You Mean" written on a sidewalk.

Attention to Detail Is Great. Obsession? Not as Much.

Every website needs to have an end goal. Perhaps it’s making an eCommerce sale or getting a user to reach out and contact you. Whatever it is, the site’s design should be focused on achieving the desired result.

But, as we are only human beings, that laser-like focus can be incredibly difficult to attain. Instead, stakeholders can obsess over design to the point where it does more harm than good. That could mean missing out on deadlines or busting the project’s budget. It might even result in an end product that’s not as user-friendly as it could be.

With that, there’s certainly a case to be made for slowing down the design process. Ideally, it gives everyone room to breathe and create the best possible outcome. That is, as long as the time is used wisely.

All stakeholders should focus on the details – just not at the expense of the stated goals.

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