I've been of the view for many years that visual design of software and industrial design of hardware have a much more powerful effect on us than virtually any other aspect of design. I've made that point in print and in presentations and workshops I've given at industry conferences over the years. However, this point of view has typically not been well-received by professionals who are not visual or industrial designers. In fact, some go to great pains to point out that ease of use is the most important attribute of design and that visual and industrial design are unnecessary or superfluous "eye candy" and others of course point out that function and speed are the most important attributes.
I believe that the experience of the past few years has reinforced the view that visual and industrial design trump virtually any other aspect of design. Our goal should be to optimize all aspects of design but never compromise visual and industrial design because these impact attributes of products and systems that directly effect our perception. Our perceptual experience with products and systems, in turn, drives satisfaction, purchase intent, and overall brand loyalty.
A great case study on this topic is Apple. While Apple does a reasonably good job in all aspects of design of it's products and systems, it really excels in visual and industrial design. It's market success is largely due to a maniacle focus on these attributes of design. I'd like to suggest that the halo effect that has been created for the company with it's focus on these aspects of design has made people much more forgiving of problems in other aspects of their products. Many of their products, for example, are not easier to use than those of competitors, people just perceive their products as easier to use. I regularly use a number of Apple products and, like most others, love using them. However, I've been more attentive recently to the ease of use problems I've been experiencing. There are many of these problems but, despite the fact that some are quite serious, I still on balance enjoy using these products. Interestingly, Apple products have recently experienced problems so serious as to make some products unoperational but the brand loyality they have built up still serves to keep customers coming back. The power and business value of designing the perceptual experience is amazingly strong.
I'd like to reiterate that our goal should be to optimize all aspects of design -- ease of learning, ease of use, usefulness, efficiency, user assistance, accessibility, globalization, etc. -- but we should never compromise visual and industrial design because these impact attributes of products and systems that directly effect our perception and color our perception of all of these other aspects of design.