At the risk of sounding superficial, or worse, ignorant, I must admit that before reading Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (DOET), I thought design, and even user experience (UX) design, focused exclusively on the way something looked.
I was truly humbled when I checked Webster’s dictionary and found that only one definition of the word design even mentions aesthetics.
My self-esteem lifted ever so slightly however, when I learned I wasn’t alone in my preoccupation with visual appeal.
In fact, studies have found that people are actually more tolerant of products that don’t necessarily work well as long as they look good. The misperception that things that look better work better — the aesthetic-usability effect — was first observed by Japanese researchers at the Hitachi Design Center nearly 25 years ago and explored in depth by none other than Don Norman in his 2004 book Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things.
But as in life, good looks will only get you so far. The Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g), preeminent leaders in the field of user experience research, warn that aesthetic-usability effect has its limits, “A pretty design can make users more forgiving of minor usability problems, but not of larger ones.”
Still, aesthetically pleasing interfaces are undoubtedly important; users are more likely to interact with designs simply because they look easy to use. However, the NN/g stresses that form and function must work together. Especially on the Web where users are quick to leave a site or abandon a shopping cart if something is difficult or takes too long.
Precisely why when Norman coined the term “user experience design” in the 1990s, his intention was to “cover all aspects of the person’s experience the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual.”
And while the term is relatively new, and is typically associated with digital applications and websites, UX design is actually an ancient practice.
The Fascinating History of UX Design: A Definitive Timeline, traces the origins of user experience design all the way back to 4000 BC to the Chinese practice of Feng Shui, which focuses on harmonious spatial arrangements to optimize the flow of “chi” energy. The ancient Greeks, Toyota, Walt Disney and naturally, Don Norman, are among those credited with contributing to the practice of user experience design.
Thanks to Norman and the many others before him, I now understand that aesthetics are one of the many factors that play a part UX design — the deliberate design of an all-encompassing, multi-sensory experience that is both meaningful and useful for people.
/@coffeeandjunk. “The Aesthetic-Usability Effect: Why Beautiful-Looking Products Are Preferred over Usable-but-Not-Beautiful Ones.” Medium, Coffee&Junk, 26 Apr. 2019, medium.com/coffee-and-junk/design-psychology-aesthetic-usability-effect-494ed0f22571.
“The Aesthetic-Usability Effect.” Nielsen Norman Group, www.nngroup.com/articles/aesthetic-usability-effect/.
Freeman, Patrick SpennerKaren. “To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Aug. 2014, hbr.org/2012/05/to-keep-your-customers-keep-it-simple.
“The Fascinating History of UX Design: A Definitive Timeline.” The History of UX Design – A Definitive Timeline, careerfoundry.com/en/blog/ux-design/the-fascinating-history-of-ux-design-a-definitive-timeline/.