When it comes to buzz words and phrases in the UX forum, one term comes to mind. Or, rather two phrases come to mind "Form follows function" and the other is "Function follows form". In this article, I will hopefully help shed some light on these two terms and how they apply to what we do in User Experience.
Form Follows Function
"Form follows function" is a principle that has followed architectural design around for some time. Another name you may know this by is "Functionalism". The principle means that what is created is created based on it's intended function rather than based on the intended look.
Designs born of this concept are likely to be characterized by being minimally decorated, straight angles, flat surfaces, bland color schemes, low movement, and simple. Some might consider these sorts of designs boring.
Here's an example of a building design from the 1930's where the function of the design was much more important than the aesthetics of the building.
And here's a modern day example of a program that has put design in the backseat while function drives...
Really the biggest thing to notice is the purpose of these two examples. They are both focused on getting stuff done. Getting the job accomplished. Completion or fulfillment.
They may allow the job to get done, or provide a solution to the equation, but do the users of such products want to use the products? If the user's are not invested in usage, there is a likelihood that they will shortly become discontent and seek out a product that is more appealing. Maybe they will look over the fence to see if the grass is greener over there. Maybe they will look for an equivalent that is simply more pretty, or attractive. Just because a design allows the capability to complete a task, does not necessarily mean that the user will find satisfaction in using it.
Function Follows Form
This phrase is a bit newer term that is generally used to downplay the old "Form Follows Function" term. It's basically saying that the design should come first, then depending on the design, we'll figure out what we can do with it. Yikes!!!
I don't think that I've seen this second term employed in that exact context. More often though we can see that an item may be super artistic, almost so much in fact that the design outweighs the purpose or function of the product.
Here's an example where the design is so overpowering it's difficult to determine what it is that we are looking at. What is it?! I don't know, but I want it because it's so FETCH!!!
And here's a website example. Again, the design is simply overpowering the purpose and action that the website is trying to present. While I'm watching as this website loads various fancy visual effects (which I'm very pleased to be experiencing), I'm finally left on this page. Where do I start? What do I do?
I've personally known folks that will muddle with a product that looks good for a long time even though it may not be functional. It's clear that the problem with this is that looks can only take us so far. At the end of this sort of day, the user's time has been wasted, and they must inevitably seek out a more usable, more capable solution to their goal.
It is clear that form following function, and function following form are not principles that should be adhered to completely or to any great extent. They both can lead to a product that will simply leave us wanting.
When you are designing your product combine these two principles into one. Remember that without purpose, the product is just a distraction. Without beauty, a product is boring or uninviting. Ideally we should strive to create beautiful, usable products.
Usability is the measure of how well a design meets the needs and expectations of a user without causing them hindrance or hesitation. They are likely going to expect a product to look good AND to meet their needs.