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The Evolution of Web Interfaces: Balancing Aesthetics and Functionality in Frontend Developmentby@takoevartur
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20,067 reads

The Evolution of Web Interfaces: Balancing Aesthetics and Functionality in Frontend Development

by Artur TakoevMarch 15th, 2024
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A good interface in 2024 is a world apart from that of the early days of the internet.
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Since the introduction of the internet and web pages in the 1990s, interfaces have become increasingly prevalent in our lives. Today, interfaces are everywhere, serving as a vital link between humans and ubiquitous technologies. A good interface in 2024 is a world apart from that of the early days of the internet: it has progressed from a screen with simple text to a complex solution that puts user experience first. In this text, we will look at what constitutes a high-quality interface today, as well as how visual design complements functionality, which is defined by technological advancements.

A Bridge Between Aesthetics and Functionality

While the backend of any application or software focuses on server-side logic and data processing, the frontend is in charge of the human-facing element, or interface. Interfaces combine functionality and visual design, meaning aesthetically appealing and highly usable.

What is Aesthetic Design?

Accepted truth states that a good-looking design is more appealing than a bad-looking one, implying that an interface should be aesthetic: harmonious, pleasing, simple to understand, and intuitive. This is why frontend developers collaborate with designers and follow key design principles to create visually appealing interfaces. These are the most important ones:

Hierarchy

A good visual design should prioritise the most important information, capturing the user's attention from the first second and throughout the interaction. Colours, fonts, and, most importantly, information placement on the page can all help to create hierarchy.

Groupings of elements form the structure of a page and direct the user's attention to the areas of the screen that are most important for achieving the project's objectives. The proximity principle is important in UX design because it allows you to group similar information and organise content in a way that guides the user's focus and helps them orient on the page. Here are some examples of element groupings that demonstrate how information can be presented in different ways using galleries, banners, and lists:


Examples of different layouts using element groupings to guide user attention

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Balance

Two important aspects of balance are visual weight and visual direction. The former assesses how visually appealing elements have greater potential to capture the viewer's attention, receiving more ‘weight’ in the hierarchy of elements on the page. The visual direction leads the viewer's attention from one significant element to another, ensuring a dynamic flow throughout the composition. Balance is achieved when visual elements on a screen are distributed so that both sides of a design's axis have equal visual weight. There are symmetrical and asymmetrical types of balance.


Symmetrical balance occurs when the elements' visual weights mirror each other:

The symmetrical balance

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In symmetrical balance, one side has a dominant, heavier visual element, while the other side has a collection of smaller elements whose combined visual weight matches that of the larger one.

The asymmetrical balance


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Spacing

Spacing can help direct user attention to specific areas of the screen. A 4-point grid system is an effective spacing tool for aesthetic UX design, requiring gaps between these items to be in multiples of four, such as 4, 8, 12, 16, and so on.

An example of using a 4-grid spacing system

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Scale

Bigger elements stand out more and attract user attention, so size acts as an indicator of importance. This technique can help to highlight specific areas.

The use of elements of various sizes to direct attention

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Contrast and Color

Colour and contrast are critical for establishing visual hierarchy. Bright, saturated colours and high contrast attract attention, whereas muted colours fade into the background.

The pink links in the top right corner stand out against the black ones beneath the logo

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An example of good and bad contrast colour combinations

Minimalism

When it comes to UI design, less is more. Simple-looking interfaces always outperform those that are overcrowded with elements because they are less confusing and can quickly capture the user's attention. In addition, they are typically easier to maintain. In the following example, the firm chose a minimalist design that featured the company name multiple times against a simple blue background. This approach draws attention to the company while also making the user want to learn more about it, its services, and products.

An example of a company called Immeasurable embracing the minimalist design for their landing page


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Repetition

The concept of brand voice, or a brand's distinct personality, is also an important aspect of UX/UI design. It is a collection of fonts, colours, and images that appear throughout your communications and across all interfaces. Brand voice should identify a brand while also creating a consistent link between its visual appearance and the values it promotes. In the case of Starbucks, the use of repeated font types, font and background colours, and the company logo creates a distinct brand image.

An example of Starbucks’ style guide

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What is Frontend Functionality?

After we've examined the visual appearance of the design elements, let's look at how they interact with the user and with one another. Functionality of a website or application is defined by the user's experience with it. It covers everything from page navigation and form submission to dynamic content updates without refreshing the page. Given that interfaces have been rapidly evolving over the last 30 years, today's functionality requirements are complex and demanding. Let's look at the fundamental functionality requirements for today's interfaces.

Responsiveness

In today's digital world, users interact with interfaces using a variety of devices with varying screen sizes. This trend was triggered by the release of the iPhone in 2007, which gave mobile phones the ability to compete with traditional computers. This is why interfaces now should be able to adapt to various screen sizes, ensuring a consistent and enjoyable user experience across devices. Fluid grids and breakpoints are essential in this scenario because they orchestrate layouts that change as users switch from desktops to tablets or smartphones. Interfaces should be responsive across all devices, regardless of whether the application or website is mobile first or desktop first, as shown in the example below:

Examples of responsive design layouts that are compatible with all major device formats


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Accessibility

A critical aspect of functional design today is ensuring that disabled people can easily use websites and applications. Accessibility is typically defined by the POUR principle in terms of the interface's key qualities - perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust - implying that digital content is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. Let’s take a look at the POUR principles:

  1. The perceivable principle states that content should be presented in a variety of ways for users to perceive. It entails not only using high-contrast colours to improve visibility, but also providing text alternatives for non-text content in the form of large print, braille, speech, and so on.
  2. The UX elements and navigation should be easy to use. For example, users must be able to operate the application without a mouse using a keyboard or a screen keyboard.
  3. The interface should include labels and instructions to help users understand how to use it.
  4. The Robust principle states that digital content should be interpretable by a wide range of user agents, allowing users to access and interact with it regardless of technological advances or limitations. For example, code should adhere to web standards so that screen readers can accurately interpret and relay information to visually impaired users.

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SPA and PWA

The introduction of Single Page Applications (SPAs) and Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) has altered our interactions with the web, making them critical approaches for improving user experience. SPAs load a single HTML page and dynamically update it as the user interacts with the app, resulting in a more fluid and fast user experience. PWAs, on the other hand, are intended to work on any platform that uses a standards-compliant browser, providing features similar to native apps, such as offline capability and push notifications, to improve the user experience.


SPA enabled sites to become faster and more dynamic, with app-like experiences. X, or Twitter, switched to an SPA in 2017, demonstrating that this approach has become popular. However, critics frequently point to the issue of heavy memory usage and slow performance in SPAs, urging a cautious approach to the technique and optimization for real-world use.

The scheme showing how a PWA operates

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The scheme showing how an SPA operates

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SSR

Ironically, as the web evolved, older performance practices made an unexpected comeback. One of these is server-side rendering (SSR), which renders web pages on the server and sends them to the client in fully formed HTML. This approach improves load times and SEO performance by allowing web crawlers to better index the content. In conjunction with frameworks such as Next.js, SSR combines the best of frontend and backend: dynamic data with optimized delivery.

The scheme showing how a PWA operates


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Performance

"Performance is a feature," stated Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Overflow. Websites are about delivering both aesthetics and functionality quickly. However, as businesses competed for milliseconds of improvement, some claim that the essence of the web was lost. Consider AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), which Google introduced in 2015 and promised faster mobile web browsing.

How to Balance Aesthetics and Functionality in Frontend Development?

To create a good interface, it is critical to balance visual appeal with user-centered functionality. The steps outlined below can be taken to achieve an optimal balance when creating an interface.

User Research

Begin by gathering information about your target audience's demographics, behaviors, needs, preferences, and any limitations they may encounter when interacting with digital interfaces. Collect this data through surveys, interviews, and usability tests. This can help you understand the aesthetic and functional requirements for your interface.

Purpose

Determine the primary goals of your website or application: inform, entertain, sell, or facilitate a service. A clear purpose assists in making informed decisions when selecting visual elements and meeting functional needs.

Design Plan

Follow a minimalist design strategy. This does not imply that your design should be bare; rather, each element should serve a purpose. A minimalist approach reduces cognitive load, allowing users to more easily navigate and interact with your interface.

Responsiveness and Accessibility

Design your interface so that it works well on a variety of screens and devices. Implement accessibility standards by providing alternative text for images, ensuring keyboard navigation, and using appropriate contrast ratios.

Performance

High-quality images, animations, and other aesthetic elements can have a negative impact on page load times and overall performance. Using techniques such as SSR, image compression, lazy loading, and others, optimize these elements so that they improve rather than degrade the user experience.

Continuous Learning and User Feedback

Encourage collaboration between designers and developers to create a culture of continuous learning that prioritizes consistent improvements based on incoming feedback. This feedback is invaluable in determining where the balance of aesthetics and functionality can be improved.

Conclusion

The frontend component serves as a link between technology and the end user. This is why it is critical to design user-centric interfaces that are both appealing and functional. By following the steps and techniques described in this article, you can create web interfaces that provide users with a seamless and intuitive experience.