Aesthetics vs usability

Posted in User Experience | 26 October 2011

Can visually beautiful websites also be easy to use?

It’s a typical dilemma when dealing with web communication: is it better to have a well-designed layout or a well-structured organisation of its contents? A usability expert would say: “Your website must be user-friendly, fast-loading and text-oriented, with little or no space left for graphic ‘experiments’.” While a web designer would assert: “Your website must be unique, eye-catching, with extensive use of iconography and other visual elements.” Put in philosophical terms: what comes first – form or content?
This dualism is more theoretical than real, however: case studies and research show that the experience of web users is influenced both by the way content is presented and organised. A nice, original layout is indeed able to coexist with practical navigation functionality. In fact, what makes a website offer a successful (or, indeed, unsuccessful) user experience is ultimately a combination of both.
This final assumption relies on the conclusions of early 20th-century Gestalt psychologists who studied how the brain processes images – and responds to what it sees. Though complex, a brain’s response to images is nearly immediate: we barely need less than one second to decide if a web page (or any visual artifact) deserves a thumbs up or down. This is done in pretty much the same way we decide whether a meal is delicious or not: it is an emotional/affective reaction to external stimuli which are governed in an automatic, unconscious way by the lower centres of the brain. Conversely, concepts like site functionality, structure and content organisation require a cognitive response; a brain’s slower, top-down, more considered reaction.

This second judgement is influenced by our cultural views, learning, experiences and personal preferences.
As with a progressive line, we first get our irrational/emotive perception (visceral reaction). This can persist and also affect our thoughts and opinions on a deeper,  rational level – “an effect that lasts long after the slower, conscious behavioural and reflective processes come into action, making you aware of how you feel about what you see.”1
These two basic reactions elicit different aesthetic models. The expressive model emphasises the originality, creativity and visual richness of a site’s design. While “the classical model stresses orderliness and clarity in design, by using familiar web and print conventions.”2
The prevalence of one model over the other depends mainly on the intrinsic nature of the website: an e-commerce website will be judged more by its content organisation (classical model), while a gallery portfolio is more likely to be viewed and evaluated according to its visual content presentation (expressive model).
Usability experts always adopt the classical model to evaluate a website: their decision is the culmination of accurate and thorough analysis. It’s all about guidelines, tests and standards. By contrast, web designers always return to the expressive model when judging a graphic layout: they look for the right synthesis of all the visual elements – typefaces and icons, colours and pictures. However, this does not mean that we can’t attain a harmonious relationship between these two approaches. As long as the most precise usability analysis isn’t the guarantee of a successful website, a sophisticated graphic design cannot prevent a bad user experience. We simply have to find the right balance.For more information on this topic see:
Visual Decision Making
by Patrick Lynch.1,2Lynch, Patrick. Visual Decision Making