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Why you ignore "pretty design" at your peril - whatever you build

posted by Alex Hens
28 April 2009

My founding partner in crime, Tony, came across this post and whilst the original is very much worth the read I wanted to pull out the conclusion of this very astute and powerful piece. For us it's nice to read a comprehensive and intelligent reasoning of what we knew in our gut to be so, which is why our SaaS platform, HARBOUR, has had designer input right from the moment it first started to take shape. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but whether you're talking brand resonance or system interface usability, as humans' beauty is a hard wired influencer that we simply can't rationalise out and one we certainly ignore commercially at our (or our clients) cost.

In Defense of Eye Candy

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 to me explain.

You remind me of…

Product personality influences our perceptions. Think about how quickly we form expectations about someone simply based on how they dress or present themselves. 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 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?

Put it all together and…

Why should we really care about perceptions? Consider these findings from research presented at CHI 2007:
“…users judge the relevancy of identical search results from different search engines based on the brand…Participants in the study indicated that the results from Google and Yahoo were superior to identical results found through Windows Live or a generic search engine.”
What is a brand but perceptions? In this study, functionally identical results were perceived as better due to brand attributes such as trust, personality, and perception. What’s rational about that? Hold that thought.

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? 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 flexible and more likely to find workarounds to difficult problems. In contrast, when we are frustrated and tense, our brains get a sort of tunnel vision where we only see the problem in front of us. How many times, in a fit of frustration, have you tried the same thing over and over again, hoping it would somehow work the seventeenth time around? Another explanation: We want those things we find pleasing to succeed. We’re more tolerant of problems with things that we find attractive.

Stitching it all together

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:
“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.” [Frank Spillers]
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 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? But user interface development is still maturing and catching up to what other disciplines already know: the most direct way to influence a decision or perception is through the emotions.

So, is “pretty design” important?

When we think about 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.