The Gray Area between Aesthetics and Functionality

2 03 2011

Don Norman’s “Attractive Things Work Better” makes a persuasive case that aesthetics play an important role in a product’s usability. He makes the conclusion that visually appealing things improve one’s mood, and that people will be more tolerant when things go wrong if they are in a good mood. Norman presents findings from his studies showing that a brain in positive mood is more open to learning, distraction, and creative thoughts. On the other hand, a brain in a negative mood has a very narrow range of processing, making one concentrate harder on the task at hand. From these studies he concludes that if something looks attractive, the designer will be able to get away with more, and users will find it easier to use.

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 Norman’s article provides much to think about. Can the attractiveness of a website really have that much of an effect on it’s usability? Louis Lazaris of Smashing Magazine seems to think just the opposite in his article. He argues that the plain looking, older version of the Facebook homepage is just as usable, and perhaps more so than the newer, flashier homepage. Another article from Smashing Magazine highlights some websites that focus solely on attractiveness, but have huge usability issues. Clearly aesthetics alone cannot compensate for poor design.

Who’s side should you as a designer choose? Even Norman states that “there is no simple set of rules”. All of us have different tastes and preferences and it’s impossible to make everyone happy. It is clear that pushing too far in either direction will not provide the best results. Norman’s article does not say that we should ignore usability completely, but rather points out that enhancing the visual aesthetic of a product can aid users and create a more positive user experience. Functionality should remain a priority in design, but evidence like what Norman is putting forward makes it clear that designers should not forget the essential role aesthetics plays in the user experience. There appears to be no clear answer or formula here for acheiving that perfect balance, leaving yet another grey area for us designers to manage on our own…