The 3 Elements of Good Design: Usability, Utility and Desirability

wrote this on in . 90 reactions

It's no secret, Google has let loose their designers. You may have noticed them making changes to things like Gmail and the results page, among many more. After years of focusing solely on utility, the search juggernaut is finally letting design drive action.

Recently, Jon Wiley, lead designer, talked about how design is integral in Google's reboot. In a Fast Company article on Google's overhaul, Jon says that design can be thought of in three ways:

When I think of design and creating great user experiences, I generally think of it in terms of three things: usability, utility and desirability.

He goes on to say that Google has been very good at the first two, not so much on the third. For the search company, that means they have to be more of an application and less of a basic web page.

Let's break down this concept of usability, utility and desirability.


We've said it before and we'll no doubt say it again, products have to solve problems. They can't just be pretty pixels on a page. They have to be usable. After all, people want products that they can use. If it is, then they won't care as much about simplicity and a ton of features.

We have to focus on the core of the product and ensure they work for users, then we can layer complexity and features later.

In the end, when it comes to usability, the principles of effective design still hold true today. Our designs have to be intuitive, they have to focus users' attention and they have to communicate the action we want them to take.


Almost hand-in-hand with usability is utility. Products serve a need. They solve problems for users. Just as much as an overall product does those things, so must the functions that go along with it.

Take for instance our app Notable, speaking of core features. The feedback tool had, at one time, allowed users to provide code, copy and SEO content as well as make annotations.

We strayed a bit with those additional features, discovering that not many people were using them. It wasn't a utility that users wanted to use in Notable. So we dropped all three and focused on the annotation aspect of the tool, which was what users found the most useful.

In other words, features, like the overall product, must be usable and useful to users. If not, they become superfluous to your product.


Let's go back to Jon and Google. He states that mobile creates "a whole new level of this need for desirability." That's because in mobile you can touch and manipulate objects. Much more than that, it removes barriers and allows for more experimentation, as Fast Company points out.

But desirability doesn't have to mean how the aesthetic makes a user feel about a product, which is at least how it's been viewed before. After all, we can't control a users' feelings, but we can certainly understand and influence them.

Desirability should be how we can drive a user to take action through design. Using visuals, content and form elements, we can make a page more desirable to use. To simplify it:

  • Visual design provides context
  • Well-written content guides decisions
  • Form elements, such as buttons and sign-ups, finalize actions

By driving users to take action through these elements, users are more inclined to use our products.

The Final Word

Google is on the right track, delving deep into how they can use design to meet their users' needs and influence their behavior. It's also great to see them considering mobile as part of that process.

However, the main lesson in all of this: without usability and utility, you can't really create desirability. Those two are the initial steps. If you just throw up a bunch of pretty pixels and visuals, you aren't really creating a product that users will have the desire to use.

Swing and a Miss
You're Design Thinking Too Much
Design pot
Design or Get Off the Pot