In Defense of Eye Candy
Issue № 282

In Defense of Eye Candy

We’ve all seen arguments in the design community that dismiss the role of beauty in visual interfaces, insisting that good designers base their choices strictly on matters of branding or basic design principles. Lost in these discussions is an understanding of the powerful role aesthetics play in shaping how we come to know, feel, and respond.

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Consider how designers “skin” an information architect’s wireframes. Or how the term “eye candy” suggests that visual design is inessential. Our language constrains visual design to mere styling and separates aesthetics and usability, as if they are distinct considerations. Yet, if we shift the conversation away from graphical elements and instead focus on aesthetics, or “the science of how things are known via the senses,” we learn that this distinction between how something looks and how it works is somewhat artificial.

Why aesthetics?#section2

For starters, aesthetics is concerned with anything that appeals to the senses—not just what we see, but what we hear, smell, taste, and feel. In short, how we perceive and interpret the world. As user experience professionals, we must consider every stimulus that might influence interactions.

Perhaps more importantly, “aesthetics examines our affective domain response to an object or phenomenon” (according to Wikipedia). In other words, aesthetics is not just about the artistic merit of web buttons or other visual effects, but about how people respond to these elements. Our question becomes: how do aesthetic design choices influence understanding and emotions, and how do understanding and emotions influence behavior?

Aesthetics and cognition#section3

Cognition is “the process of knowing.” Based on patterns and experiences, we learn how to understand the world around us: What happens if I push that? What does this color suggest? Cognitive science studies how people know things and aesthetics plays a critical role in cognitive processing. In the example below, which one of these is clearly a button? And why?

Search buttons

Here, aesthetics communicates function. The example on the right resembles a physical button. The beveled edges and gradient shading remove any doubt about its function. In this case, these are characteristics of affordance, which are aspects of design that help a user to discover how they might interact with an object. Translation: if it looks like a button, it must be a button.

Similarly, there’s a reason good confi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. When designing, we must consider how our brain interprets the meaning of color, shadow, and shading. We rarely notice these aesthetic choices, except when people get them wrong:

Question was successfully completed

In this example, the visual language confi‚icts with the intent of the message.

What we are discussing here is how our brain interprets the meaning of things such as color, shadow, shading, and other natural occurrences. Just pick up a piece of paper and watch how the shadow changes as you bring the page closer to you. It’s these kinds of natural occurrences our brains observe every day in the real world. When we use these cues on a screen, they carry with them the same real world properties.

But, there’s more to aesthetics than just communicating function, and more to styling than mere enjoyment.

Aesthetics and affect#section4

When we talk about “affect,” we’re talking about feelings and emotions—not about the “I feel positive about your brand” sense of feelings and emotions, but about the ways in which they influence perceived and actual usability. Let’s revisit our button example, with a slight change:

Search buttons, revised

Cognitively speaking, both of these are obviously buttons. Neither button is “wrong” as in our previous example. However, research into attention, persuasion, choice, happiness, learning, and other similar topics suggests that the more attractive button is likely to be more usable by most people. To get an idea of where this perspective might come from, consider this comment on emotions from neurobiologist Antonio Damasio:

“…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.” [1]

In many design conversations, there is a belief that applications are made enjoyable because we make them easy to use and efficient (interestingly, whether it’s stated or not, these conversations value the role that aesthetics plays in cognition). However, when we talk about how emotions influence interactions, it’s closer to the truth to say things that are enjoyable will be easy to use and efficient. Allow me to explain.

You remind me of…#section5

Product personality influences our perceptions. Think about how quickly we form expectations about someone simply based on how they dress or present themselves. This is something the automobile industry has known for years, as they spend money to create products that express a specific personality people might identify with. Why does a Dodge Ram seem more durable? What makes a Mini Cooper seem zippy and fun? While there are certainly performance features to support these mental claims, we can also see these attributes expressed in the car’s form.

Similarly, the UI design decisions we make affect the perceived personality of our applications. In the example below, which window is friendlier? Which one looks more professional?

Different window UI designs

Products have a personality. Why should we care? Consider this:

  • People identify with (or avoid) certain personalities.
  • Trust is related to personality.
  • Perception and expectations are linked with personality.
  • Consumers “choose” products that are an extension of themselves.
  • We treat sufficiently advanced technology as though it were human.

…and so on.

By making intentional, conscious decisions about the personality of your product, you can shape positive or negative responses. Take a look at Sony and how they applied this knowledge in the Sony AIBO. Let’s consider why they made this robot resemble a puppy.

Here, you have a robotic device that isn’t perfect. It won’t understand most of what you say. It may or may not follow the commands it does understand. And it doesn’t really do all that much.

If this robot was an adult butler that responded to only half our requests and frequently did something other than what we asked, we’d consider it broken and useless. But as a puppy, we find its behaviors “cute.” Puppies aren’t known for following directions. And when the robot puppy does succeed, we are delighted. “Look, it rolled over!” What a great way to enter the robotics market.

Consider: What kind of personality are you creating with your application? And what expectations does this personality bring with it?

Can you trust me on this?#section6

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 infi‚uences our perception of the product inside.

Below is a gas pump near my house. Contrast that with the station shown on the right.

Two gas pumps

Photo (right) by Sean Munson.

I’ve stopped filling up at the gas station on the left, even though it’s closer to where I live. Why? This kind of maintenance (or lack of maintenance) leaves me unwilling to trust them with my credit card information. Clearly, appearance does affect trust.

So, how do we create trust in our application interfaces, aside from providing the basics, such as reliable information and uptime? By being attentive to visual design, for one thing. 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.

I’ve seen many great design comps get butchered during development. Things such as inconsistent fonts, odd padding, line-heights, and over-compressed images plagued the final release. While this may never come out during functional testing, how might these sloppy UI details affect perceptions of your product?

Put it all together and…#section7

Why should we really care about perceptions? Consider these findings 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?

Hold that thought.

Attractive things work better#section8

Okay, so maybe perceptions are important to product design. But what about “real” usability concerns such as lower task completion times or fewer difficulties? Do attractive products actually work better? This idea was tested in a study conducted in 1995 (and then again in 1997). Donald Norman describes it in detail in his book Emotional Design.

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 (where this study was repeated) 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?

Norman offers an explanation, citing evolutionary biology and what we know about how our brains work. Basically, when we are relaxed, our brains are more fi‚exible and more likely to find workarounds to difficult 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 fit 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 find pleasing to succeed. We’re more tolerant of problems with things that we find attractive.

Stitching it all together#section9

Recent studies into emotions are finding that we can’t actually separate cognition from affect. Separate studies in economics and in neuroscience are proving that:

“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.” [2]

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

Myth of cognition

This raises some interesting questions—especially in the area of decision making. In short, our rational choices aren’t so rational. From studies on choice to first 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.

Consider what you’re doing with your interfaces to speak to people’s emotions? Industrial product design, automobile manufacturing and other more mature industries get this—with tools such as Kano modeling that have been used for decades. But user interface development is still maturing and catching up to what these other disciplines already know: the most direct way to influence a decision or perception is through the emotions.

So, is “pretty design” important?#section10

When we think about application 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. Frank Lloyd Wright changed this phrase 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.


[1] Emotion and Feelings: A Neurobiological Perspective by Ant³nio Dam¡sio

[2] “Emotion as a Cognitive Artifact and the Design Implications for Products That are Perceived As Pleasurable” by Frank Spillers

About the Author

Stephen P. Anderson

Stephen P. Anderson is an independent consultant based out of Dallas, Texas. He spends an unhealthy amount of time thinking about user experience design and intrapreneurial teams—topics he loves to speak about. Stephen is also the twisted mind behind UX Roast.

68 Reader Comments

  1. I generally agree in the point, that aesthetics play a great role in perception of an UI as professionel.

    But I think the given example with “Export for Clip Notes” and “Your points balance” confuse more than help.
    If the point was to illustrate that eye-catchy windows like the second one are better, I disagree. It looks like an ad, and would have me turn away at once. And the first one, is an good example of how to much functionality can make an UI hard to decode.

    If it was to point out the difficulties in deciding which one is more professional, as the author asks, then it is unfortunately not followed up by any comments, and leaves the reader in doubt of the authors intention.

  2. Hurrah!
    This article is long overdue. The lack of respect for creatives and visual designers within this facet of the so-called “design” industry is staggering. More articles like this are needed to start educating the more technically minded, and to remind them that their reliance on cold data isn’t always right.


  3. I think this is a fantastic article that I’m going to pass around to my design team.

    The only comment I wanted to make is that I personally think that there is a limit on aesthetics in web development. Every designer needs to ask themselves if the “beautiful” additions they are making to a site are adding to its usability, or simply destractions pushing people away from the desired action.

    It’s a fine line and one that is very subjective, but I’ve seen so many sites lately that add layer after layer of “fluff” while missing the essential need to establish a heirarchy and visually guide someone through the levels of importance.

  4. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to argue with non-designers about decisions I’ve made (to improve a design). It great to see articles like this validate my concerns.

  5. I always feel inclined to ignore the things he has to say when I visit Jakob Nielsen’s Anybody else think that site is just plain gross?

    Regardless, really nice to see a well informed and researched opinion on the debate. I get the feeling I’ll link this article next time I find myself having this debate.

  6. Heh. I’d say that in nature form follows function; we’re just tuned to liking those forms because we’re used to them. Unless he’s saying that nature possesses some absolute beauty, which is a big old unsubstantiated claim.

  7. Fantastic article.

    I will read this article to our team
    when we sit in a meeting again and make wholehearted attempts
    to deploy “something that looks like a user interface!”.

    I’m a total fan of simple stuff and I’m happy that the times of “ugly” webdesign are over (there are still exceptions, but they are easy to avoid these days).

    Our world is 3D – cluttered – structured – textured – colourful – shadowed – foggy – dusty.
    That’s how we should design and experience “Eye Candy”.

    I started taking photos with the lowest quality settings and it made me more happy than chasing for the “Sharpest cleanest photo”.

    “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – I have to agree.

    See you next time.
    Oliver, Germany

  8. This article isn’t in defense of “eye candy,” but in defense of good design.

    There’s a huge difference in my head. Think of the difference between good candy, and a good salad. They’re not interchangeable because they’re both good things you eat. The same, IMHO, applies to some of the examples here.

    Would you buy gas at the station that had images of rainbows and unicorns on the pumps (if that’s what appeals to you) instead of the one that’s just clean, clear, neat and functional? Will you buy the can of coke w/ the buxom model on the label (if that’s what appeals to you), or the one that simply has the logo?

    To me that’s what eye candy is: pretty, appealing visuals that don’t affect functionality.

  9. It’s true, but in my past I’ve noticed people either get this, think they get it (but don’t), or don’t get it at all. And people almost never change categories.

    Now that I have my own business I make sure to “hire” only clients that either get it or at the very least appreciate the fact that I get it.

  10. I’ve always interested in going into the business of marketing because I love psychology so much. It was when everyone told me that marketing was only about numbers (statistics, demographics, charts and graphs) that I got confused and turned away. Similarly, people tend to forget the role of psychology in design. I always found this shocking.

  11. Thank you all for the wonderful compliments!!

    @Bjørn No disagreement there! Actually, you make my point for me– these UIs each have a distinct personality appropriate for the content, the context and the audience. The example on the left has the “pro” look and its sophistication may actually appeal to the intended audience. The example on the right was a simple widget designed to track points in a rewards program. So, in each of these cases, the *personality* is tailored for the intended purpose. I’d say that your response is evidence to their effectiveness!

    @Duncan Ha! The original audience for this presentation was a group of hardcore back-end software developers (more here: )

    @Chris Very good point, and I’m glad you bring this up in the comments. This article presumes aesthetics are being applied with (1) skill and (2) attention to behaviors, patterns, context and other UX considerations. The really interesting part is being able to distinguish what is fluff for one audience (and might detract from usability) might be helpful for another (and add to usability). That’s what I like about shifting the conversation away from the design choices themselves, and to the effect of those design choices on things like behavior.

    @Samuel Good article! I’m excited to see that you commented on “why” and not just “how”

    @Ted One of the areas I don’t go into is the idea of universal vs subjective aesthetics (topic for another day!) But, would some people prefer to buy from _a gas station that had images of rainbows and unicorns on the pumps_ — certainly! (though you’d be appealing to a smaller audience which might not make good business sense).I seem to recall a dental office that was Star Trek themed! And “Chip Conley”: has been successful with his series of boutique hotels– each based on a different magazine aesthetic. Now, do these pleasurable interactions translate to more usable interactions? The research I present argues that there is a correlation between being relaxed/happy and our decision making. Also, since you mention the Coke bottle — you could get into neuromarketing and ask why our brains respond to those simple logos… What have we been “trained” to feel? And, why do we respond to suggestive images? My point with aesthetics and affect was to highlight that it’s more than just decoration that makes us feel a certain way– how we feel and how we think are tightly coupled!

  12. I agree in the point that maybe perceptions are important to product design as it is to people appearance, but it doesn’t mean that an attractive product will be useful as well as a beautiful person will not necessarity be a good person.

  13. Agreed! The key is balance. Eye candy got a bad rep. from wide spread ABUSE (over reliance). Substance is as beautiful as form. ALSO, eye candy should not take user’s time (ref. flash animation, ajax transitions, motion “fluff” in general), except when the use of time–an element of interaction design–supports and enhances user comprehension and usability.

    Any “fluff” defenders 😕

  14. Wow! Now that CSS has been invented, I would have thought that designers would no longer try to convince their clients that aesthetics are irrelevant. I guess that’s not the case! I’m glad I’m learning design myself, so I don’t have to fight with any more programmers.

  15. I wrote a masters thesis a couple of years back, titled “The Effect of Different User Interfaces on an Internet Information Search Task in a Standardized Data Environment” which was to say that I built two web sites with identical content. The only difference – the key one – between the two sites was that one was less visually interesting that the other. I asked people to visit one of the sites (at random) and find a document that was sort of hidden on the site. The task was relatively easy if you took a bit of time, and just about everyone completed the task, and that allowed them to complete a survey about the experience.

    Without going into too much detail, it was absolutely clear that people who visited the graphically-poor site felt more negative about the whole experience, even to the extent of reacting negatively to the company that the site represented, even though all participants knew this was a research exercise, and knew that the company was fictitious. Similarly, people who visited the graphically-rich site took the time to comment positively about the company; no one who visited the other site did the same.

    While I suspected that people might, in some small way, prefer the “better-looking” site, nothing prepared for the strength of the negative reactions. It’s something I try to keep in mind daily in my business…

  16. Great post!
    I am a UX guy in Sydney and I specifically set up my consultancy to avoid a prevalent problem in a lot of usability companies. Too often the focus is so much on the interaction and IA that graphic designers are put second in line and even pissed off by the process.
    I believe that we all should be solving interface problems together. To leverage the creativity of designers (graphic and other senses) and UX people with a skill in objectivity and deep understanding of human behaviour (or at least researching it).
    If the collaboration is not there, you will miss the opportunity to be better than the next website in the list of Google results.

  17. Aesthetics and design can often drive acceptability of a product through natural influences, but often it’s just “skin deep”?. I was evaluating apartments recently and luckily stumbled upon a review of the apartments. The key point was that they used cheap construction materials to make the complex resemble an upscale Californian resort, but long time residents complained about the maintainability of such a construction and generally were disgruntled with what lay beneath the surface of said aesthetics. My point being, that the opposing force is underlying functionality, reliability, sustainability and extensibility, just to over use ibilitys. I think this article is great, but outlines ½ of the issue and if followed to the T, will end you up with a Trophy interface.

  18. I don’t get it.

    This passage looked suspicious:

    “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 (where this study was repeated) researchers observed that subjects encountered fewer difficulties with the more attractive machine. The attractive machine actually worked better.”

    … so I followed the link, only to find something not even remotely resembling what was written here.

    “In this study, seven independent, objective variables, which KK considered to be the determinants of inherent usability of the ATM layout were used. These variables reflect design strategies that were actually used by designers of the ATM interfaces to affect the cognitive and the operational efficiency of user interaction with the ATM.”

    “The twenty-six design layouts were displayed in a large classroom, using an overhead screen projector. Each layout was displayed for about 20 seconds. During that time, participants rated each layout on a 1 to 10 scale regarding how usable it appeared to be, and how beautiful it was.”

    “Participant ratings were averaged to form an apparent usability and an aesthetics score for each of the 26 designs.”

    Then, in Experiment 3, “Participants were seated in front of a personal computer. A computer program, written in Visual Basic was used to present the stimuli material, accept user responses, and measure response times. The program started with a short on-line introduction, after which participants were presented with the 26 ATM designs. The designs were displayed in a random order. At the bottom of the screen, one of the two questions regarding aesthetics and apparent usability was presented. The participants answered the question on the 1-10 scale by selecting one of ten available response buttons. To proceed to the next design, they had to select a “Continue” button. After responding to the first question for all 26 designs, the 26 designs were presented once again (in a newly randomized order) and the participants answered the other question (apparent usability or aesthetics) for each design.”

    Conclusion: “Thus, it can be concluded with some confidence that despite the potential method bias, people’s perceptions of apparent usability and aesthetics are quite high in general.”

    So unless I’m greatly mistaken, all the study did was ask people to rate the usability and the aesthetics of a simulated user interface, and find a correlation.

    It’s not that users had an easier time working with the interfaces they found more attractive, it’s just that their PERCEPTION was such.

    I think the article misrepresents and greatly inflates the findings of the study.

  19. All designers agree that aesthetics are important, and that all things being equal, the best looking solution works best. The problem is that thing are not always equal. Many designers make design decisions that are based on aesthetics alone, and these are frequently at odds with functionality and usability. The answer? Sort out the usability issues first – THEN make it pretty.

  20. Form *and* function are both important.

    Yes, a site needs to be built on solid foundations with a good structure, or else the underlying usability will be ineffective and people won’t use the site.

    And yes, a site needs to look good, it needs to look professional, reliable, trustworthy, harmonious, pleasing to the eye, or people will be less keen to use it and return.

    But I’m not sure that “eye candy” is the right phrase. To me, that implies decoration for the sake of decoration, rather than decoration for the sake of design. Maybe it’s just a terminology thing. And I’m sure there are sites for which decorative or even frivolous “eye candy” would be 100% appropriate!

    PS – what’s going on with all these spam comments?

  21. Great article.May be such preferences also have something
    to do with innate genetic wiring,after all human beings look
    for the best and balanced physical features when choosing their life partners.

  22. @Nigel Fantastic! I’d love to see your final thesis, if it’s something you can share. You can contact me on my site:

    @James So true! There is definitely something lost by not working in a more collaborative manner.

    @Seen I agree with you. User experience is affected by all sorts of things, some of which you mention here. Aesthetics is only one consideration. However, there is much lost by isolating it as a separate consideration. My intent was to explain why “pretty” isn’t optional, but just as vital as things like uptime, reliability, accessibility, etc. Too often, the conversation is simply about “I like pretty things” or “sexy sells” — I wanted to surface the deeper function of aesthetics, that the visual design is more than a coat of paint applied at the end. Aesthetics are just as integral to the success of a product/service as other considerations; by framing it as afterthought, something added at the end of the process, we miss out and misunderstand the power of aesthetics. But to your point, it is certainly not the only consideration!

    @Andras Let me follow up on that so I can give a proper response! Either I’m pointing to the wrong research or there is some misrepresentation/inflation in the secondary sources I used as a reference.

    @Jakob “Many designers make design decisions that are based on aesthetics alone.” Quite true, and dangerous! There are many things to consider related to user experience; aesthetics are just one consideration. That’s why I support working together, collaboratively, so different interests are all represented throughout the design/development process (or hire a really good broad and deep generalist!). I think the sequence of make it “usable, then make it pretty” is a flawed one– how do you know if it’s usable if it’s missing the aesthetic layer? Or not yet fully functional? (to be fair to other considerations). Example: You have an app with 3 buttons, one is a primary action, the other 2 are secondary actions. A good designer will use aesthetics to direct the eye to the primary action, whether by color, contrast, size, placement or other things s/he can use. Testing a grayscale wireframe or functional prototype that is missing this focus on aesthetics produces flawed conclusions, in my opinion. Having or not having considered aesthetics will have a huge influence on the apparent “usability”of the app. I think it’s more accurate to think of aesthetics as a key ingredient in a recipe, vs “icing on the cake.”

  23. 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.

  24. @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”: , 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.

  25. 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?

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

  27. 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.

  28. In the same vein:

    “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.”

  29. @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”: 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!

  30. 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.

  31. 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. 🙂

  32. 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!

  33. 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.

  34. 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…

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

  36. 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

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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!

  40. 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.

  41. @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”: 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”: 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”: ), 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”: is an example of where this focus is leading me.

    @Michael Thanks! Added to my reading list.

  42. 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 😉

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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?

  48. 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.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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?

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

    bq. “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.

  53. 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”.

  54. 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.

  55. @ 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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