Why Beautiful Things Work Better

By Deane Barker on October 10, 2003

Last year, I wrote a short essay wondering how the look of a site affected its usability. I said:

To what extent will the ‘look’ of the site help or hinder it from achieving reaching its goal, whatever that may be? […] Can simply re-skinning a site fundamentally change the user’s perception of the site and its usefulness?

I think I’ve found the answer. Don Norman is a principal in the Nielsen-Norman Group (yes, he’s one of Jakob’s cronies), and he’s written a book called “Emotional Design” that’s due to be released in January 2004.

He’s published the first chapter on his site. Most of it is pretty boring (very scientific, as those folks tend to be), but it includes this extended passage that I found fascinating. In fact, I sat there nodding my head as I read this — I’ve always known that beautiful things work better, I just didn’t know why. I’ve added emphais to this text, to point out the bits that hit me the hardest.

When you feel good, Isen discovered, you are better at brainstorming, at examining multiple alternatives. And it doesn’t take much to make people feel good: all Isen had to do was ask people to watch a few minutes of a comedy film or receive a small bag of candy.

We have long known that when people are anxious they tend to narrow their thought processes, concentrating upon aspects directly relevant to a problem. This is a useful strategy in escaping from danger, but not in thinking of imaginative new approaches to a problem. Isen�s results show that when people are relaxed and happy, their thought processes expand, becoming more creative, more imaginative.

These — and related — findings suggest the role of aesthetics in product design: attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively. How does that make something easier to use? Simple, by making it easier for people to find solutions to the problems they encounter.

With most products, if the first thing you try fails to produce the desired result, the most natural response is to try again, only with more effort. In today�s world of computer-controlled products, doing the same operation over again is very unlikely to yield better results. The correct response is to look around and see what alternatives exist. This tendency to repeat the same operation over again is especially likely for those who are anxious or tense. This state of negative affect leads people to focus upon the details that are giving trouble, and if this fails to provide a solution, they get even more tense, more anxious, and increase their concentration upon those details.

Contrast this behavior to that of people who are in a positive emotional state, but encountering the same problem. These people are apt to look around for alternative approaches, which is very likely to lead to the appropriate response. Afterwards, the tense and anxious people will complain about the difficulties whereas the relaxed, happy ones will probably not even remember them. In other words, happy people are more effective in finding alternative solutions and, as a result, are tolerant of minor difficulties.

What Norman has written here really establishes the need for a good interaction architect and designer when putting together a Web app. I keep coming back to a point which I articulated several months ago: great applications do not come from great code; great applications come from great design and usability.

(The ironic thing is that Norman really needs to talk to Nielsen about the state of Nielsen’s Web site. I remember when I first looked at Nielsen’s site, I told a designer friend of mine, “He’s got the biggest usability problem of all — his site is so ugly, I don’t want to read anything on it.” Now I know I wasn’t just being snobbish.)

This post is dedicated to Kara, who, for a long time, made all my apps look better, and — it turns out — work better too.

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  1. I love this. I working on an learning theories assignment and came across you website. I have saved it it my favorites file. I enjoy hearing your voice in your writing. Well done…keep writing! Deborah

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