Aesthetics and Usability

Ph.D Dissertation

The philosophical study of aesthetics has been around for centuries, but within human-computer interaction (HCI), aesthetics has been largely ignored until recently. Interface design has traditionally been interested in improving the functionality, efficiency, and effectiveness of applications. In fact, developers have been explicitly warned to not allow functionality to suffer because of aesthetic design.


It is well documented that when a person is observed, the perception of that person is influenced by the person’s appearance. These opinions are formed very quickly, at the first observation, and they tend not to change after more exposure or interaction with the person. Dion et al. proposed that there exists a “what is beautiful is good” stereotype between people in social interaction and most HCI research on aesthetics and HCI, cite the paper by Dion et al. as the basis for the proposition that one’s perceptions of a computer interface can be influenced by aesthetics.

Since humans are susceptible to the influence of the aesthetics of another person, it is not surprising that the influence also pertains to objects. Bloch makes a strong statement about aesthetic product design, saying that the “physical form or design of a product is an unquestioned determinant of its marketplace success.” Similarly, Postrel says that “in a crowded marketplace, aesthetics is often the only way to make a product stand out.” These sentiments are echoed by Coates who says, “the expressions, postures, and gestures arising from a product’s shapes, colors, textures, and all other aspects of its visible form shape what and how we feel about it more than any other factor.”

Research Focus

In HCI research, most definitions of usability center around effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction. The categories may be named differently, but in general, most evaluation categories relate to those three standard concepts. Satisfaction only receives a passing note in most definitions and with the exception of a few definitions , aesthetics or other user experience attributes are left out entirely.

This focus on functionality over form has caused designers to ignore or downplayed the importance of aesthetics. But it is important for designers to study aesthetics because it has a strong influence on the opinions people form about the products they use.

Current and past research in the area of aesthetics and usability, centers around aesthetics’ influence on perceptions and how those perceptions change before and after use. Research shows that the aesthetics of an interface can influence pre-use perceptions and in many cases influences perceptions during or after use. Some research has shown that this influence can overshadow usability problems that exist in products and can cause the user to perceive the product as better than it really is.

These results from studies conducted by Tractinsky et al. led them to propose the existence of a ``what is beautiful is usable” stereotype that parallels the work by Dion et al. on the influence of aesthetics on perceptions in social settings.

It is clear that designers should improve the aesthetics of their interfaces to achieve these gains in user perception. But what about experienced usability?

There has been little or no research into the influence aesthetics has on actual use. This is an important question, especially with the increased prominence aesthetics has in design considerations. Most notably, there has been no work in the area of aesthetics and learnability, memorability, and errors, which are important aspects of usability. Also, the components of efficiency and effectiveness have not received sufficient study. Clearly, there needs to be more research into aesthetics and its influence on interaction. My work extends the work done in the area of aesthetics and usability by going beyond perceptions to the previously unexplored area of aesthetics and experienced usability.

Future Work

Most methodologies used to study aesthetics revolve around gathering opinions and preferences from users. This is problematic since asking users about their behavior, opinions, or preferences can influence their thought process and may alter their responses. It is also the case that many times people do not recognize that they are being influenced and cannot explain what caused them to behave the way they did. These are problems that are inherent in opinion-based methods. This research will use measurement and monitoring of the actual use of a system to determine whether aesthetics has an influence on usability. The usability attributes of efficiency, effectiveness, and errors are easy to track through measurement of the users’ performance. Based on previous research that showed how errors and efficiency change over time as users learn how to use a system, learning and memorability can be evaluated through monitoring errors and efficiency. In addition to these measurable attributes that have not been studied before, satisfaction is important and will be studied in this research. While it is not the focus of the research, it will be interesting to see if the previous results related to perceptions can be replicated.

This work will extend the work done in the area of aesthetics and usability by going beyond perceptions to the previously unexplored area of aesthetics and experienced usability. In reverence to the social stereotype of ``what is beautiful is good” that started this chain of research, this future research will ask if beauty is only skin deep.