In Defense of Eye Candy

by Stephen P. Anderson

69 Reader Comments

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  1. No, you did buy gas there, which proves that people do things out of convenience, like buying gas at the station closest to your house and using a website that loads faster.

    Also, you can’t take something like a Search button and showcase it out of context like that to draw conclusions. A Search button on its own is meaningless. It needs a form to be functional. You can’t just present a button with a gradient and a shadow and call it more attractive. It’s all about context. A gray, linear, boxy site would look horrible with that fancy button, and definitely much better with a simple gray button.

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  2. @M K – Um, no. I have not purchased gas from there in over 2 years. They are the most conveniently located gas station, but I do drive an extra mile to the less conveniently located gas station precisely for the reasons I mentioned. To your point though, yes, load time, performance, reliability and other considerations are all equally valuable considerations in designing the overall user experience. In fact, I agree with this recent comment from an email thread: “people like “pretty” when you ask ‘em, but they use “fast” when you measure.“ That given, it’s not always a tradeoff decision between different considerations. And when it is, the “right” response will vary with context, business and user needs, etc. My argument is that “eye candy” needs to be considered a critical business requirement just like other critical business requirements (read: technical requirements), and not given lesser treatment as “icing.”

    And on the topic of context, you’re correct. Context is of course a consideration—“a huge consideration”:http://www.poetpainter.com/thoughts/article/ia-summit-2009-the-fundamentals-of-experience-design- , but… It was only because of context (placement within the page) that I was able to infer that the yellow box was in fact a button—what extra mental energy was required to understand that this was in fact a button? Could that have been improved with aesthetics? Certainly! As far as the gray button vs the “pretty” button go, of course these need context to determine the actual style. My point in isolating the button element was to simply point out that stylistic decisions are more than decorative, they affect function.

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  3. “Context is of course a consideration— a huge consideration” should have linked to http://twurl.cc/tqm

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  4. Stephen,
    You can’t measure mental energy. You can measure what was clicked and how fast. If a form had more than button, then that is a design failure. I guarantee you that a form with one button, regardless of design, would get clicked equally fast. Heck, I could leave the button blank, use an arrow, whatever, and people would still click it because they understand that a button on a form means that they are submitting it. Even if I had no button at all, most people would still be able to submit because they know what their Enter button on their keyboard does.

    Also, context is part of design, probably a larger part of design than aesthetics. That’s why information architects work before designers do. Separating the form from the button is like deconstructing a painting and finding arbitrary flaws. Should I slice out the Mona Lisa’s nose, perfect it, then attempt to reattach it to the face?

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  5. I remember seeing this in your previous blog (poetpainter) – definitely useful info then and now!  Thanks for sharing…(and updating!)

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  6. Hey, Stephen. Thanks for your informative and thought-provoking article. It’s difficult to find the right balance between aesthetics and functionality, but your examples help point us in the right direction. I hope you’ll have more to say on the subject.

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  7. In the same vein:

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=building-around-the-mind

    “Scientists are unearthing tantalizing clues about how to design spaces that promote creativity, keep students focused and alert, and lead to relaxation and social intimacy. The results inform architectural and design decisions such as the height of ceilings, the view from windows, the shape of furniture, and the type and intensity of lighting.”

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  8. @M K You wrote context is part of design, probably a larger part of design than aesthetics. – It certainly should be! “People, Activities and the Context of those Activities”:http://twurl.cc/tqm should drive design decisions, whether “design” is about an aesthetics choice or weighing the relative merits of a new feature request. I’m not suggesting otherwise by using the button to make my point. Also, be careful about assuming what design patterns people are and aren’t familiar with—certain contexts might reveal something different than the assertions you make. Example, I’ve watched plenty of users who still don’t know that you can click enter at the end of a form!

    @Andras I am citing the correct study. However, as you point out, that study only validates my argument for a relationship between aesthetics and perceived usability. So now we’re left to consider the second claim—between aesthetics and actual usability. The argument is thus: “attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively. “(Norman, Emotional Design, 2004) Being in this “creative” mode allows people to more easily find solutions to difficult situations. This correlation between mood and performance has been tested in multiple studies, with the conclusion that “even mildly positive affective states profoundly affect the flexibility and efficiency of thinking and problem solving.” (“Emotion in Human-Computer Interaction” Brave & Nass). While the ATM study complements this assertion, it doesn’t prove it. Thank you for pointing this out! I don’t think my point that there is a relationship between aesthetics and actual usability is any less valid though, as there have been studies testing specifically (1) success at solving a problem (Isen, Daubman & Nowicki, 1987) and (2) arriving at the right conclusion more quickly (Isen, Rosenzweig & Young, 1991). I’d also reference the exercise of brainstorming where it is critical to get everyone in a relaxed, at ease state in order to “get the creative juices flowing.” ;-) (So yes, that’s an admission of error on my part!)

    @Ravi Thanks for sharing that link! I hadn’t come across that one yet. Interestingly enough, just today I was using the example of office environments in a conversation about aesthetics!

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  9. I completely agree that aesthetics are critical in terms of design for the Web. My work is in the online marketing space coaching clients in making good decisions about their online marketing campaigns. Every project that I work on includes design and I depend greatly on the advice and direction that I receive from designers that understand design strategy.

    In the SEO world, my goal is to balance a search and user friendly Web site, keeping in mind that search is related to action. My job is to bring awareness to the Web site and to increase the chances that a visitor will take a desired action such as filling out a contact form, signing up for a newsletter, downloading a whitepaper, etc. Copy and design create visual cues that bring visitor one step closer to a desired action.

    Oftentimes I find that designers assigned to a project understand aesthetics but not design for business (design process.) My project brief includes understanding not only the demographic but also the psychographic of the target audience. I use tools such as Totemics to enhance the emotional understanding of the target audience for all project members including designers, writers, and online consultants.

    I’ve found that developing personas help the entire project team work together to produce a Web site that is more than an online business card.

    A designer that understands the language of design stategy and design for the Web can make a great impact on a project. I appreciate a design team member that comes to the table with suggestions based on an understanding of the business goals of a client as well good SEO layout.

    The Web is an amazing laboratory where design changes can be measured in terms of how many visitors converted into potential customers. If a design suggestion makes business sense, we test it in terms of how it impacted the measurable business goals on a Web site. And we continue to measure and tweak to find what works.

    When design becomes measurable, clients begin to realize the importance of design strategy.

    http://www.avisocomm.com/category/seo-user-friendly-design/

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  10. I deal with SEO and Social Media and some site development and I almost always express first that your website must must MUST be aesthetically pleasing if you want to see major successes with any marketing campaigns.

    If a person is going to take the time to click on your link, than shouldn’t you give them something nice to look at that is represents your brand?  I think I speak for 99.9998% of people when I say that I click away from a site that looks like an asshole just because I’m unwilling to let my eyes burn by navigating through a badly designed site.

    My team doesn’t always like my attention to detail but it is crucial! It’s even better if you can pull off a design that draws your users eyes exactly where you want them to go and keep them hooked at all times. This increases their time on site, lending a hand to your rankings, and gives your conversion rate a better shot.

    Long story short, know your audience, give them what they want, and they will return in kind. :)

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  11. Our culture (as in modern, eurocentric culture that we call “the norm”) operates in a strict dichotomy.  This mandatory opposition doesn’t work but you don’t realize that until you’re in therapy (and that’s only if you’re lucky).

    If you’re beautiful, you’re not smart.  If you’re smart, you’re not beautiful.

    If you favor appearance, you must lack in intellect. 

    So if you want to show you have a brain, you better say you don’t give a damn about aesthetics.

    Thanks for a great read!

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  12. I thought your article gave food for thought. In it you say:

    “Similarly, there’s a reason good conï¬?rmation 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.”

    How do you clearly convey the goodness of green and the badness of red to colourblind users – aside from ticks and crosses? Not a smart question – I’d really like to know if you have thought about this and come up with an answer.

    Second thing I can absolutely confirm that the same results from Google are trusted way above our site search results. I have also heard that an unlabelled Google site search suffers from the same effect, so it is actually just the brand name that conveys trust.

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  13. There’s certainly a point to be made, that “beauty” affects our experience of things and processes. However, there is enormous variation in the definition of “aesthetics”, both as a strong philosophical discipline and subjective taste. The idea that design in digital material can be enriched by being attentive to people’s experience is certainly valid, but “beauty” is, to be slightly banal about it, in the eye of the beholder – and beauty is certainly contextual. Take the gas-pump example – the trashy looking pump encountered on dusty desert drive across the US is very meaningful and “true” – gives a lively and interesting “experience”, while the generic Shell station (which is all over the place here in europe) communicates a dull, predictable (lack of-) experience. Not that I don’t want the correct charge on my card, but again the contextual thing: where I live that has nothing to do with the gas tank in itself, but about the financial and state-based institutions that secure and guarantee credit card transactions. How does this translate to e.g. web, mobile, or tangible interactions: Well, for one, are people looking for generic, predictable, – dull? interactions? Sometimes, yes, often even, perhaps. But I do think that “beauty” and aesthetics might more usefully be discussed as features of experience, rather than as a set of tools that we can use (e.g. rounded corners, 3D shades etc.) – we cannot DESIGN experience, but suggest them and allow people to actually HAVE exeriences through designs…

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  14. I definitely agree, with the right testing you can increase conversions. “generator

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  15. People are just naturally drawn to nice/attractive visual candy – as long as it doesn’t effect the user experience on the website will only make their visit stay in their mind longer

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  16. I’ll agree with what some others have said.  The metaphor of “eye candy” really means “empty aesthetics.”  If candy is food with a lot of “empty calories” (little nutritional value), eye candy is a visual element that doesn’t contain any substance.  I think the article does a good job of discussing the purpose of aesthetics, but I wish the title made it more clear.

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  17. I believe the title’s job was to spark interest in the article. He’s not defending eye candy (meaningless frippery), he’s debunking the very idea that aesthetics are meaningless, hence “eye candy” in quotes.

    I would add that aesthetic design best-practices should be integrated into the wireframing stage (even if it’s just relative size, position and color). Furthermore, it’s entirely possible to then quantify which design works best, using either a/b testing or more complex multivariate tests (different combinations of design, copy, headlines etc.)—Google Website Optimizer is a really helpful tool, and different stats vendors like Omniture offer similar services.

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  18. I was disappointed but not at all suprised when browsing up the first few comments on this article and seeing folks self-identified as designers getting excited over the prospect of printing this article out and pinning it up on their cube’s (office’s, house’s, etc.) outer wall.  (Maybe a stretch but you see what I’m getting at…)

    Several commenters have already expressed something simliar to what I’m about to, but it bears some repeating/refining: when it comes to warm artistic form vs cold efficient functionality, it’s not a matter of one side winning over the other, it’s a matter of balancing the two.  The goal is that the sum of the form and the function is greater than each separately.

    I think professionals on both sides of this constant designer vs developer arm wrestling match are guilty of pushing a little too hard (or much too hard) from time to time; what we do doesn’t happen in a philosophical vacuum, there’s a myriad of interpersonal and psychological factors that impact a project that have nothing to do with layout, colors, code, or business logic, and have more to do with ego and pride.

    What I took away most from this article and the subsequent discussion is that the ‘arm-wrestle’ between designers and developers on a project is absolutely necessary to achieve this balance, and should be welcomed as a positive part of a project process instead of a battle.  If it’s too adversarial then it’s far too easy for one side to run amok and wreck a site.  Yea, you need to push back, but a draw should be the goal, not destruction.

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  19. I really didn’t realise that there is a link between graphics and how we react to it emotionally. Your article just lighted a “light bulb” on top of my head. Come to relaise it does make sense. Great article!

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  20. All of the points you raised are excellent – i really liked the gas station photo’s. As a gfx designer myself its hard to get the point across sometimes to the powers that be – ill be sure to refer them here in future! thanks again.

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  21. This article reminded me of a good book I read – “The Architecture of Happiness” by Alain De Botton.  Worth the read!

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0375424431?ie=UTF8&tag=michashomepage&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0375424431

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  22. @Helen I have not thought about this and come up with an answer—to be honest, I’m usually the one being reminded by my team about these accessability issues! Ticks and crosses, icons, etc. can reinforce the message being communicated with color choices. Shapes, as well—I’m thinking about the “STOP” signs at the end of each section of a standardized SAT test (these reference driving associations). Also, things like type choice or even all caps can convey a lot of meaning. Of course, cultural context would have to be considered in these discussions. I hadn’t though about white labeled versions of Google and trust—good comment!

    @Mads You are exactly right! Context is a critical (overarching) consideration for all decisions—aesthetic or otherwise. Have you seen “my thoughts”:http://twurl.cc/tqm on the subject? There is ongoing debate about a “universal aesthetic” vs “subjective aesthetics,” (I won’t go there!) but your point is also about how context governs our response to a certain aesthetic. I’m so glad you mentioned this! The “trashy looking pump encountered on a dusty desert drive” would be part of a good narrative experience. My context for the gas station is a fairly well-off suburb where this kind of inattention sends a terrible message! To be clear, my goal for writing this is simply to legitimize the consideration of aesthetics for a set of reasons not usually addressed—I’d hope these considerations would be filtered through an awareness of context and the overall experience! As far as predictability goes, that’s a tricky one, as I’m sure you know. In some contexts, we don’t want things to change; however, as humans we also thrive on novelty, surprise, serendipity, etc. Though as you point out, designing for these things can be quite tricky.

    @A.J. Yes, thank you for clarifying the title for me! Also, you wrote that “aesthetic design best-practices should be integrated into the wireframing stage”—Yes! Yes! Yes! As far as the A/B testing goes, I wish more designers participated in these practices—seeing metrics from a well-constructed test can be quite eye opening, and also the shortest route from “I think I know what works” or “this is what I like” to “here is what works.” This “ALA article”:http://www.alistapart.com/articles/designcancripple/ is a great one of the subject.

    @Chris You wrote: “…it’s not a matter of one side winning over the other, it’s a matter of balancing the two. The goal is that the sum of the form and the function is greater than each separately.” I’m glad you add this. I’ll clarify even more—sometimes it’s a balance, sometimes it’s a tradeoff, other times it’s a prioritization. The key, as you indicate, is to be clear about the objective/end goals that a project is supposed to accomplish, and then make decisions accordingly. My goal in writing this article was to present a “rational” argument legitimizing the functional value of aesthetics, especially where there is heavy interaction (software applications for example). As I allude to in the opening sentence, I’ve seen way too many conversations defending or dismissing aesthetics for the wrong reasons. In writing this, I hope to deepen that conversation, and provide a framework by which to understand the different viewpoints on the value of design. If there is to be arm wrestling over design choices, I hope that folks (on either side) are arm wrestling over the relevant merits of aesthetics. Since entering the field of UX design more than a decade ago, I witnessed the constant tension between usability engineers, development teams, designers (“at all levels of maturity”:http://www.bplusd.org/2005/10/19/a-rough-design-maturity-model/ ), business folks, marketing groups… Each has something quite valuable to add to the equation. But, it’s frustrating when we don’t value each group’s contributions or understand how to orchestrate these different interests to work together to create value for business and value for customers.

    You also write: “there’s a myriad of interpersonal and psychological factors that impact a project…“ My experiences in both design and strategy roles has been leading me more and more into the realms of psychology, neuroscience, social sciences and other “human” focused disciplines. My most “recent presentation on Seductive Interactions”:http://www.poetpainter.com/thoughts/article/the-art-and-science-of-seductive-interactions is an example of where this focus is leading me.

    @Michael Thanks! Added to my reading list.

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  23. Pretty nice article, but as some readers point out, when it comes to web design is not that easy as it seems, at least not when the designer in charge has no clue about how back ends work, or how a “simple” layout change can complicate things more than required, or how to work together with developers, web is not the same as magazines!

    As you probably have guessed by now, I’m a programmer, but coming from a musical training before, I’m inclined to see thru the details, in this case visual details, and enjoy doing design work too, not only code stuff, so most of the time I notice when some design needs more work, or it’s overworked… and this is my daily scenario:

    The boss (senior designer) wanders around and sees an unfinished website on a comp screen, probably an online game if it’s my computer, and starts with the round of suggestions… “that button could look better if you do it like this”, “why don’t you move that box over there”, “I told you I don’t want to display the score in this screen”, “make that ship to jump instead of slide”, or even worst: “hey, let me do it”, etc. you can imagine the rest :), all pointless if he stop for a second to remember it is UNFINISHED work!.

    For quite a long time, every time he did that to me we followed up with a tiresome discussion, ending with the lousy argument “well, I’m your boss so do as I say”… even if there is no reason other than him used to go with his rather limited taste on design and me finishing a less than stellar job… sadly.

    Now I know better so I stop him right away by telling, “hey, I’m not finished here, I’ll tell you when it’s done and then you can change stuff as you please, remember, design it’s easier to change and make it fit than possibly hundreds of lines of code just because this particular thing is in the wrong place”, then I can go on and finish the job with the design included and having a lot less requests for changes than if I let him do his thing as usual :)

    What’s the point you probably are asking yourself, simple answer:

    Visual stuff it’s kind of easier to understand for everybody, or it should, but when it comes to user interaction is not just about “hey, this looks amazing”, it should work amazing too.

    And you’ll find amazing design and development working together when you actually don’t notice it, and the less you notice, more work is behind… certain brand with a fruit logo comes to mind ;)

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  24. While the bulk of the design advice that says usability doesn’t have to be sacrificed in favor of eye-candy, I disagree with the general tone of the article; the opposite notion, that usability usually makes eye-candy take the back seat.

    I wrote a more indepth post on my blog:

    http://noscope.com/journal/2009/04/in-defense-of-good-design

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  25. Great observations stephen. Aesthetics and usability go together. I always believed that along with usability, aesthetics also plays a vital role in a products acceptance from the uers.

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  26. What a beautifully written piece! Powerful, convincing… and you do it without coming off like a design zealot. I agree with pretty much everything you say, but for the design crowd I guess this is preaching to choir.

    I’ve worked in the tech world (like Oracle) on both sides, and it’s not that left-brained folks like ugly interfaces. But that (like you mentioned in a comment), it’s a matter of trade-off/prioritization. Making a business case (with research, etc.) for the extra $/time for design will help.

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  27. My favorite quote regarding beauty is from R. Buckminster Fuller, who said:

    When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

    Look at a modern printed page against a typewritten page of 25 years ago or a sloppy handwritten page. Which is the most beautiful? Which accomplishes its goal best? It is the same with all things.

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  28. I agree with everything you said.  It’s difficult, but designers really do need to strike a balance between functionality and attractiveness.  Just having one without the other is enough to turn users off, and I don’t envy the designers who have to work very hard to have both components work in harmony.  However, the designers who are able to find that balance will be rewarded with happy clients and respect from their peers.

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  29. The best way for me to illustrate what I’m thinking is to give you examples up front, and go from there:

    Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon.

    The one thing they all have in common was that they had very distinctive personalities that alienated a lot of people, and carried them to war, assassination, career failure, or a combination.

    “The boring presidents.”

    The one thing they all have in common is that they all became president. Also note that there’s lots more of them than there are of the flamboyant type.

    Do you want to take the flamboyant gamble? Are you willing to pay the high price, if you’re one of the lucky few that succeeds?

    There many benefits to being utilitarian. Google vs. Microsoft Live is the best example of that in the web sphere. In 100 years, Google might be forgotten as “boring”, but Microsoft rocked the boat so intensely that it’ll be a historical highlight for centuries. Who could forget Bill Gates and the computer revolution? On the other hand, is it so bad to be Google?

    I mean, if your goal is to make money, is it better to do it the Microsoft way, or the Google way? Which personality is most likely to be avoided, as the article mentions?

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  30. How much is too much? If it’s not relevant to what the user wants then it’s just wasted space. It seems some designers just add “eye candy” to take up space. Almost like they are just looking for more things to add. Nothing beats a well laid out, easy to follow design with an easy navigation. You have about 15 seconds for users to find what they are looking for and having to troll though too much eye candy (which a lot of it slows the page down), then they are gone to the next.

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  31. Hurrah! Recognizing that emotion is an inseparable and integral part of decision making is far better than trying to set things up on logic and structure alone. This applies to selling a car, arguing a case in court, and designing a web page.

    In each case the end goal is different. And in each case, you can get by on low costs, facts and figures, or navigation structures, respectfully, but they will only get you so far. To consistently reach the goal (making a sale, winning a case, or letting a person complete their task), the emotional components must be factored in, or you risk getting derailed. (Although admittedly, in every case emotion isn’t always applied with the best intentions for the “end user”.)

    The context of the decision and the goal to be reached will determine how deeply the emotional side can be addressed along with other factors: i.e. you usually don’t want much discussion about feelings when getting people out of a burning building. It’s a continuum of applicability, not an all-or-nothing situation. Sometimes emotional aspects of a subject or design will be highlighted front-and-center, sometimes more subtly addressed, or sometimes fall behind more pressing elements. Yet the consideration for how emotions will play in reaching the goal must be there somewhere.

    Addressing emotion alongside cognition, rather than ignoring it or putting on a separate shelf, will help you get through shaky ground and see new opportunities for both yourself as the designer and those using your website.

    Thanks for the article, Stephen.

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  32. Ya, I agree with that early comment about Nielsen’s site. It’s really terrible to look at. My HTML mentor (i.e., he that introduces me to the web) is of the same mind as Nielsen. They seem to think that if the information is useful and relatively easy to access, then why waste time making it look pretty. Well, making it look pretty makes it even easier to use, as the author of this article has argued quite well. I look at Nielsen’s site, or my mentor’s and am dumbfounded. I just don’t know what to do with the site. I’m glad that this author could put into perspective my feelings when I visit not-so-pretty sites.

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  33. This is one of the best article’s ive ever read. It’s so hard trying to explain to some clients why they should pay for “good looking design.” Most of them just don’t get it.

    I will definitely be using this article as reference for our clients.

    I’d love to see more articles on this subject. Does anyone know of any similar?

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  34. Great write up. I think the citing of evolutionary biology alone drives the point home.

    “We want those things we find pleasing to succeed. We’re more tolerant of problems with things that we find attractive.”

    This is true in all things where perception plays a role. And since perception effects every aspect of our lives, it is always a factor. A man, unhappy with his wife’s ability to communicate or emphasize with him is more inclined to accept these flaws if say, dinner is made regularly, or if he finds her physical appearance, stunning.

    As humans we both rightfully and wrongfully place our trust in things we find visually pleasing. Although in a tangible world, repeated use will eventually expose flaws. Online, would these exposed flaws not also seise to be tolerated. Where, a better option is sometimes a few clicks or a search query away.

    Although this article, is filled with great sources and examples to defend the experience layer we as designers and developers have another responsibility. To not neglect the underlying process that we are dressing up. A flaw is a flaw, an inaccessible interface is still inaccessible. It’s about the difference between user experience and user satisfaction. In many cases these are one in the same, but relying too heavily on aesthetics alone will still result in a negative perception. Somewhere down the line.

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  35. Excellent article.

    Every designer, developer and business person should read and embrace this. Knowing and understanding this will give anyone selling a design, application, product, whatever great “selling points”.

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  36. I was just having a discussion about this last night.  Graphic designers sometimes get caught designing for their own inner circle trends rather than what the hoi polloi who will be visiting a site look for.  I recently read an article that lambasted bevels, shading, and drop shadows as frivolous, yet when I showed examples much like your button example to NON-DESIGNERS, the choice was overwhelming.

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  37. Hi, thanks. This is a good article, and quite ad hoc to what we are doing now. Some months ago I got this Dilbert cartoon that talks about this topic:

    http://andres.jaimes.net/2009/03/07/is-beauty-better-than-functional/

    Thanks again…

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  38. @ Oliver “Our world is 3D — cluttered — structured — textured — colourful — shadowed — foggy — dusty.”

    I love that Oliver! I think what a good web designer does is take all these aspects of reality and package them in a neat and structured way that upholds the content.

    When people see something online that looks real, i think it sparks interest! People are more likely to PLAY with things and stare at them if they have a polished and unique look. And that’s a good foot in the door for any website!

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  39. You have put a lot of efforts to write such wonderful article and it is been pleasure reading thorough it.

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