Usability and the Coolness Factor

By Deane Barker on September 8, 2002

Does a good looking Web site get used more than a plain one? If so, why?

Consider two Web sites: Site A is written in plain HTML / CSS / JavaScript, etc. It’s a “traditional” Web app, well-designed and aesthetically-pleasing, but no attempt has been made to engineer a slick interface just for the sake of it being cool. Site B, on the other hand, has a full-blown Flash-driven interface. It has animations, makes sounds, has a theme, etc. It’s very whiz-bang throughout.

Which of the sites will get used more? Which one will meet users expectations? Which one will users claim was more user-friendly? These questions aren’t rhetorical — I don’t have an answer for them.

Let’s distill a Web site into three parts:

  1. Content and functionality
  2. Usability
  3. Aesthetics

Assume the first two (the most important two, in my mind) stay constant. Our plain site and our cool site both have the same content and functionality, and are just as easy to use (albeit in different ways, since a Flash interface often operates very different from an HTML interface). This is important because a new “design” often presupposes changes to the usability of an app. Usability is important and it rightfully has a huge affect on a success or failure of an app.

So our only variable here is the third option: aesthetics. To what extent will the “look” of the site help or hinder it from achieving reaching its goal, whatever that may be? (Let’s also assume that the goal of the site is not just to look cool, but it has some higher purpose to it.) Can simply re-skinning a site fundamentally change the user’s perception of the site and its usefulness?

My programing group is considered doing some interesting things with Flash. We have our intranet formatted using standard HTML, but we’re playing around with the idea of delivering some content through a Flash interface. As far as I was concerned, this was only to appease the graphic artists. My loathing of Flash is well-known, but they were excited about it, so I was willing to sign-on for a design exercise if nothing else.

In preparation for this, one of the artists has been sending me examples of “cool” (his word) Flash interfaces. Some were annoying (think ConspiracyGames.com), but some we’re extremely well-done from an artistic perspective. Consider http://www.derbauer.de/ (pictured below). I have to admit that when I set my browser to full-screen and started playing with this site, I had a few James Bond-like moments. The thing was just…cool. And somewhere along the line I thought something like, “Man, if they displayed requirements documents in this thing instead of boring, old Word, I’d be a lot more interested in reading them…”

Which leads me back to my point: can a “cool-like-the-idea-of-flying-cars-was-when-you-were-nine” interface be used to get user buy-in for an application and the use of that application? I think about some of the Web apps I’ve written over the years that management wanted, but users weren’t interested in using. What if we wrapped some of those apps in a slick interface? Would we get user enthusiasm and buy-in that we were lacking with a simple, business-like design? Should we use graphic design to “sell” the app to the end user?

This is the second time I’ve stumbled over this question. I managed my companies’ Intranet Development Team some years ago. I took over an intranet that was about four years old and had a design that was old, tired, and clunky. When we were putting together the new design, it was obvious that it was a huge aesthetic improvement. Would this, I wondered, increase intranet usage? What if we left the content the same and usability was about equal to the old version? Would people be more inclined to use the new intranet just because it looked cooler? If so, why? What part of the brain reacts to this? What subconscious hotspot do we tickle when we just make something look nicer?

I’m half-tempted to do an experiment. Work up our intranet in well-formatted and aesthetically-pleasing HTML. Then build another James Bond-like interface for the same information. We’ll provide links to both versions and watch the log files for three months. Which one do you think will get used more? I honestly don’t know. Do you?

(There’s a slight epilogue here. I didn’t want to rain on the Flash parade above, but the site at http://www.derbauer.de/ has serious usability issues. Yes, it’s cool, but the reason I’m providing the URL and not the company name is because even after 15 minutes of tooling around their site, I still can’t figure out the name of the company. Additionally, there were several instances where I automatically clicked the back button to get out of something, but since it was a big Flash app and the site really only has one page, my back button took me away from the site. How much of these problems is because of Flash or just poor usability engineering is up for debate.)

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