Principles of Design #6 – Aesthetic-Usability Effect

“Attractive things work better … When you wash and wax a car, it drives better, doesn’t it? Or at least feels like it does.”  – Donald Norman

Designing to please

The aesthetic-usability effect is the important truth that aesthetic designs are perceived as easier to use than less-aesthetic designs. This perception is encouraged whether or not an object or service is actually easier to use, but perception is an important part of the user experience (and the two are intimately connected in the mind).  The effect has been replicated experimentally, and has significant implications for the acceptance, use and performance of any product or service.

Not only are aesthetic designs easier to use, they also have a higher probability of being used.  So even if something is designed in a very user-friendly way, if it is not aesthetically pleasing it is less likely to be used, making it’s usability of less value.

The rule means that first impressions count!  For instance, humans who are more attractive tend to be perceived and treated better, as their initial impact influences the formation of attitudes and perceptions of others.

Create a positive perception

So it is therefore vital to foster a positive attitude to any product or service by using aesthetic designs to encourage positive feelings such as patience, loyalty and affection, which will lead to much greater long term usability and success.  Such positive perceptions also encourage creative thinking and problem solving, whereas less aesthetic designs lead to negative feelings and tend to narrow thinking, and hence stifle creativity.

Positive perceptions are especially important in more stressful environments, where fatigue brought on by stress can lead to significant impairment of cognitive performance.

Questionnaires can look good too

In research, questionnaire design is critically important to the performance of a questionnaire in field – both for the interviewer and the participant.  If the questionnaire is perceived to be unattractive, it will be seen less positively and this will impact responses (and response rates).  Nothing is more important to accuracy of response than usability!

So always aspire to create an aesthetically pleasing questionnaire design, as the questionnaire will be perceived to be easier to use, and will be more readily accepted by interviewers and participants, promoting more natural and valid responses and greater openness to creativity and problem solving.  The better looking the questionnaire, the more positive the perception will be, making users more tolerant of any design problems which emerge.


Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)

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