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One of the things that a lot of UX research teams encounter, is when a user struggles with the UI of a product or application, only to comment on how great the overall design and look of the interface. 

Despite having encountered so many errors and challenges, the user only talks about the interface’s aesthetics. While this may sound absurd, there are a lot of these instances in usability testing. In fact, this is called the aesthetic usability effect. 

In this article, Aesthetic Usability Effect In Design, we will familiarize what this usability effect is along with the following sub-topics:


What does the aesthetic usability effect refer to

The aesthetic usability effect is where people see aesthetically designed interface as easier to use compared to the less aesthetically designed interface. In other words, people are inclined to have a positive emotional response and experience to the visual design of the interface that makes them more tolerant of its usability issues.

The usability effect is one of the reasons why a good user experience cannot just be about a good functional user interface (UI), but also it should be attracted as well. 

This has been observed in several experiments, which left significant implications on the acceptance, use, and performance of a design.


Why are aesthetics important in design?


Aesthetics influence users’ perception of the product’s ease of use 

First studied in 1995 by researchers Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura of Hitachi Design Center, they experimented with 26 variations of an ATM interface and asked the 252 participants to rate each design based on the ease of use and the aesthetic appeal.

Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori found a stronger correlation between the participants’ ratings of aesthetic appeal and perceived ease of use versus the correlation between the ratings of aesthetic appeal and the actual ease of use. 

This usability experiment conducted by Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura of Hitachi Design center concluded that users are strongly influenced by the aesthetic appeal of any given interface, even when it comes to evaluating the functionality of the product or system. 

The study was later explored more by Don Norman in his book titled, Emotional Design, where it discussed in in-depth why do aesthetics matter. In his book, it says that aesthetic designs, in general, look easier to use and have a higher probability of being used, even though they are easier to use or not in actuality. 

In comparison, the more usable but less visually appealing designs have the tendency to suffer a lack of acceptance, wherein users find more usability issues and debates. 


Aesthetics make a long-term impression of the product’s quality and use

The aesthetic usability effect bias users’ interactions with the product and are more often, resistant to change. Additionally, studies show that early impressions of a product have a long-term influence on attitude towards quality and use. 


Aesthetics foster a positive attitude towards the product

Aesthetically designed products create a more positive attitude compared to less aesthetically designed products. This, in turn, make people more tolerant of any minor usability problems. 

An example of this is the Apple products, where the design is not really 100% perfect but people tolerate the flaws more than they would be towards any other less aesthetic designed product. 

It is also common for people to develop feelings of positive attitudes towards great designs, and rare for people to feel the same for less aesthetically pleasing product design. 


Aesthetics creates feelings of affection, loyalty, and patience

Aside from fostering positive feelings for a product, appealing aesthetics also evokes feelings of affection, loyalty, and patience, which are all important factors in the long term usability and success of a design. 

You may have noticed that car lovers often have a strong affection towards their cars, that some people name their cars and treat them like the cars are their babies. Thus, even with some flaws, they still love their cars and treat them like their children or pets. 


Aesthetics promotes creative thinking and problem solving

Since aesthetics build positive relationships between the user and the design, it also results in an interaction that helps promote creative thinking and problem-solving. 

On the contrary, less aesthetically pleasing designs can result in narrow thinking and stifles creativity. Like for example, if the taxi booking app always crashes at a very important time for the user, it will result in bad feelings, and in the long term, the user may start hating the app for no reason. Thus, aesthetics play an important role on these occasions, where good design can make up with usability issues. 


How to spot and interpret the aesthetic usability effect during usability research

How do you spot, understand, and interpret the aesthetic usability effect in your research? 

When it comes to the aesthetics effect, it is always a good thing when users experience this phenomenon in real life. However, when it comes to encountering this usability phenomenon in visual design during user research, it can prevent you from uncovering usability issues. 

This, it is very important that you can easily identify any this usability phenomenon by paying close attention to what users do and how it relates to what they say. 

For example, in an in-person qualitative usability test session, we observe a participant struggling through a few tasks. However, in his final feedback, it says a vague comment on the good aesthetics of the interface even when they try so hard to use the interface. 

If you encounter such feedback, try to evaluate these possibilities:

  • The participant is pressured to comment on anything. This is especially true for first-time participants, who are often finding it easier to provide feedback ratings of aesthetic appeal.
  • The participant is pressured to say nice things. These out of place compliments happen when participants believe you had a hand in creating the site.
  • The aesthetic effect is taking place. This can only be the reason when you rule out the first two possibilities above. That there are some problems to be fixed, however, the design may be doing a good job. 

So, once you have identified the “why” the user is giving positive feedback about the design despite the negative experience, you can now easily work on the problem with these solutions:

  • You can promote a low-stress vibe early in your session to reassure participants that what they are saying is helpful. 
  • You may also try to distance yourself from the participant and emphasize that you did not design the product. 
  • You can add that all comments are helpful, whether it be positive or negative feedback.  
  • You can tell users to look and think beyond the visual layer of the interface. 


Final thoughts

While there are a lot of positive things to say about the aesthetic usability effect, bear in mind that it also has its limitations. A visually appealing design can be forgiving of minor usability problems, but not for major ones. This is true in any kind of UI, including a aesthetically pleasing eCommerce website, where poor usability will result in no sales since the law of eCommerce states, “if the user cannot find the product, they cannot buy the product”. That being said, form and function should always work together. 

It is good to invest in aesthetically pleasing UI, as good design can make a positively appeal to users with the perception that the interface is in order and well-functioning. 

However, the aesthetics advantage is at its strongest when aesthetics also supports and enhances the functionality of the product.

Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

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