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Do We Need Eye Candy?

Everyone has heard arguments dismissing the role of beauty in the design of websites and user interfaces. What is lost in these arguments is the powerful role that aesthetics play in how we come to know, feel, and respond. If we focus on aesthetics, or “the science of how things are known via the senses,” we come to realize that this distinction between how something looks and how it works is artificial.

Why aesthetics, you ask?

For starters, aesthetics is concerned with anything that appeals to our senses — not just what we see, but what we hear, smell, taste, and feel; ie., how we perceive and interpret the world around us.

Aesthetics is not just about the artistic merit of visual effects, but it is about how people respond to these visual elements. Hence, our question now becomes: how does aesthetics choices influence our understanding and emotions, and how do understanding and emotions influence our behavior?

Knowing what is what

Based on our experiences, we learn how to understand the world around us: What happens if I push that? What does this color suggest? Aesthetics plays a critical role in the processing of how people know things. In the example below, which one of these is clearly a button? And why?

Here, aesthetics communicates the function. The example on the right resembles a physical button. The beveled edges and gradient shading remove any doubt about its function. Translation: if it looks like a button, it must be a button.

Similarly, there’s a reason good confirmation screens have a check mark and are likely to involve some shade of green: Green is good. Red is bad. Yellow is something to think about. In graphic designing, we must consider how our brain interprets the meaning of color, shadows, shading, etc. We rarely notice these choices, except when people get them wrong! When we use these cues on a screen, they carry with them the same real world ideas.

How it affects us

When we talk about “affect,” we are talking about feelings and emotions — about the ways in which they influence the perceived and the actual usability. Let’s revisit our button example, with a slight change:

Both of these are obviously buttons. Neither button is “wrong” as in our previous example. However, the more attractive button is likely to be used more by people.

“...emotion is not a luxury: it is an expression of basic mechanisms of life regulation developed in evolution, and is indispensable for survival. It plays a critical role in virtually all aspects of learning, reasoning, and creativity. Somewhat surprisingly, it may play a role in the construction of consciousness.”

Good looking is trustworthy

Consider this, according to a 2002 study, the “appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size, and color schemes,” is the number one factor we use to evaluate a website’s credibility.

This makes sense. Think about how our personal appearance, our personal aesthetic, affects how people perceive us; or how product packaging influences our perception of the product inside. Clearly, appearance does affect our trust. The attention to design details implies that the same care and attention has been spent on the other less visible parts of the product — which implies that this is a trustworthy product.

Why should we really care about perceptions? Consider these findings from research presented at CHI 2007:

“…users judge the relevancy of identical search results from different search engines based on the brand… Participants in the study indicated that the results from Google and Yahoo were superior to identical results found through Windows Live or a generic search engine.”

What is a brand but perceptions? In this study, functionally identical results were perceived as better due to brand attributes such as trust, personality, and perception. What’s rational about that?

Attractive things work better

Okay, so maybe perceptions are important to product design. But what about “real” usability concerns? Do attractive products actually work better?

Researchers in Japan setup two ATMs, “identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked.” The only difference was that one machine’s buttons and screens were arranged more attractively than the other. In both Japan and Israel researchers observed that subjects encountered fewer difficulties with the more attractive machine. The attractive machine actually worked better.

So now we’re left with this question: why did the more attractive but otherwise identical ATM perform better?

Basically, when we are relaxed, our brains are more flexible and more likely to find workarounds to difficult problems. In contrast, when we are frustrated and tense, our brains get a sort of tunnel vision where we only see the problem in front of us. How many times, in a fit of frustration, have you tried the same thing over and over again, hoping it would somehow work the seventeenth time around?

Another explanation: We want those things we find pleasing to succeed. We’re more tolerant of problems with things that we find attractive.

Stitching it all together

We can’t actually separate cognition from affect.

“affect, which is inexplicably linked to attitudes, expectations and motivations, plays a significant role in the cognition of product interaction… the perception that affect and cognition are independent, separate information processing systems is flawed.”

In other words, how we “think” cannot be separated from how we “feel.”

In short, our rational choices aren't so rational. From studies on choice to first impressions, neuroscience is exploring how the brain works—and it’s kind of scary. We’re not nearly as in charge of our decisions as we’d like to believe.

Industrial product design, automobile manufacturing and other more mature industries get this. These disciplines already know: the most direct way to influence a decision or perception is through the emotions.

So, is “pretty design” important?

When we think about design and development, how do you think of visual design? Is it a skin, that adds some value — a layer on top of the core functionality? Or is this beauty something more?

In the early 1900s, “form follows function” became the mantra of modern architecture. This changed to “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union,” using nature as the best example of this integration.

The more we learn about people, and how our brains process information, the more we learn the truth of that phrase: form and function aren’t separate items. If we believe that style somehow exists independent of functionality, that we can treat aesthetics and function as two separate pieces, then we ignore the evidence that beauty is much more than decoration. Our brains can’t help but agree.


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