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“Attractive things work better”

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?

One of the most widely cited studies associated with the “attractive things work better” argument is cited in the opening chapter of Donald Norman’s 2003 book Emotional Design.

Researchers in Japan set up two ATMs that were 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. In both Japan and Israel (where this study was repeated to test for cultural differences), researchers observed that subjects encountered fewer difficulties with the more attractive machine. A point of clarification: if you read the original studies, you’ll see that people perceived that the attractive machine actually worked better. This is a slight difference, and a small detail that in no way diminishes Norman’s argument that attractive things work better.*

The explanation Norman offers cites evolutionary biology and what we know about how our brains work. Basically, when we are relaxed, our brains are more flexible and more likely to find workarounds for difficult problems. In contrast, when we’re frustrated and tense, our brains get a sort of tunnel vision where we only see the problem in front of us. Sound like the the candle problem (see Chapter 2)? It should. 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?

Norman offers another explanation: we want those things that we find pleasing to succeed. We’re more tolerant of problems in things that we find attractive. How many of us have tolerated faults in a person due to their attractiveness? You don’t have to answer that question.

Following these ATM studies, a number of other researchers have explored connections between visual aesthetics and usability. While many of these have proven a correlation between attractiveness and perceived usability, a few recent studies are finding more direct correlations between visual aesthetics and actual performance.

In one study, described in the article “A Blessing, Not a Curse: Experimental Evidence for Beneficial Effects of Visual Aesthetics on Performance” (Moshagen, 2009), volunteers completed a series of search tasks on a site that provided health-related information. “Four versions of a website were created by manipulating visual aesthetics (high vs. low) and usability (good vs. poor)” The results? Good visual aesthetics did compensate for poor usability, improving task completion time, and reducing errors.

Another study, “The Influence of Design Aesthetics in Usability Testing: Effects on User Performance and Perceived Usability,” (Sonderegger and Sauer, 2009), presented adolescents with one of two mobile phones, an attractive one, and one less so. The conclusion? “The visual appearance of the phone had a positive effect on performance, leading to reduced task completion times for the attractive model.”

Not only do aesthetics affect perceived usability, they also influence actual performance. However, more studies under different circumstances are needed to clarify these findings.

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