The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Aesthetic-Usability Effect

– March 6th, 2005 –

The Aesthetic-Usability Effect is a condition whereby users perceive more aesthetically pleasing designs to be easier to use than less aesthetically pleasing designs.

Now that the design industry, particularly for the web, is beginning to understand - and be more focussed towards the user, usability is becoming somewhat of a ‘given’. I think, in part, we’ve got the likes of Jacob Nielson to thank for this. Pioneers of Usability have raised it’s profile over the last ten years to the point that now even the clients seem to know more than you do. However, in my opinion this has been to the detriment of design. 

As the web industry has matured we’ve seen Usability move from the labs of HCI universities into mainstream development process. An unprecedented move in any industry, given the time it did it in. Usability gave the industry quantifiable evidence as to whether or not a website was doing it’s job. This is exactly what the clients wanted. Sure, they want their logo in the right place, the marketing department want to make sure the companies branding is correct, but the MD has read “Designing Web Usability” and wants to make sure the site does what it should, often at the expense of eveything else including design. Thankfully, those days seem to be behind us.

Usable conventions

At the moment I think the industry is deep in a period of consolidation. We’re seeing a period of reflection on the mistakes we’ve made, a maturity on the part of clients and agencies to take into account the users needs as well as the clients. Everyone is beginning to work to standards - both design conventions and technical standards (css, xhtml etc). Are we in danger therefore of diluting the design of the web into “usable conventions?”

This period of time is an exciting one for designers. It’s a period when design is the thing that defines, and differentiates, a product.

Audi or Skoda?

Let’s just shift to Car Design for a moment.

Cars have been around for ages - since Ford’s little black number. They all pretty much do the same thing and look similar. Four wheels, seats, they go from point A to B. Why do people buy one over the other? One word. Design.

Aesthetics and Car Design have been fused for many years. It’s what defines a car, it’s what gives a car it’s personality and importantly for the manufacturers, it’s what gives the car it’s competitive edge in the market place.

Let me give you an example.

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What car would you rather have - a Skoda Octavia Estate, or an Audi A4 Avant? I’d rather have the Audi actually even though it’s much more expensive. Don’t get me wrong, the Skoda is a nice looking car but the company has never really shifted the stigma attached to the brand, which was brought about by bad, cheap design. Why did I pick those two cars? Well, they’re both the same really. Same chassis and parts, they both have four wheels, good fuel economy and safety, it’s only the design and brand which sets them apart.

The Aesthetics of the Audi make it a more desirable product and i’m sure if you did a survey you would find people thought they could use it better than the Skoda.

Look after the design and the usability will look after itself

I hope that illustrates my point. Good usability is inherent in good design because people think well designed things work better, whether they do or not. Focus on good design and you will make the product more usable by default, you will also give it a competitive edge. The MD will thank you… eventually!

Filed in: design.

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