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.
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.
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#section2
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?
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 confirmation screens have a check mark and are likely to involve some shade of green: Green is good. Red is bad. Yellow is something to think about. 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:
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#section3
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:
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:
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…#section4
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 specific 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?
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 find 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?#section5
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.
I’ve stopped filling 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 final 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…#section6
Why should we really care about perceptions? Consider these findings from research presented at CHI 2007:
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#section7
Okay, so maybe perceptions are important to product design. But what about “real” usability concerns such as lower task completion times or fewer difficulties? 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 find workarounds to difficult problems. In contrast, when we are frustrated and tense, our brains get a sort of tunnel vision where we only see the problem in front of us. How many times, in a fit of frustration, have you tried the same thing over and over again, hoping it would somehow work the seventeenth time around?
Another explanation: We want those things we find pleasing to succeed. We’re more tolerant of problems with things that we find attractive.
Stitching it all together#section8
Recent studies into emotions are finding that we can’t actually separate cognition from affect. Separate studies in economics and in neuroscience are proving that:
In other words, how we “think” cannot be separated from how we “feel.”
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 first impressions, neuroscience is exploring how the brain works—and it’s kind of scary. We’re not nearly as in charge of our decisions as we’d like to believe.
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?#section9
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.
 Emotion and Feelings: A Neurobiological Perspective by Ant³nio Dam¡sio