Tom Chi  

The role of aesthetics in design

March 27th, 2006 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

I guess the reason that the recent “debate” over ugly websites has gotten so much attention is that it goes against common sense. In emotional design, Norman argues that people will go to great lengths to adapt to the requirements of products/services that meet their aesthetic preferences. This would indicate a kind of aesthetic primacy, especially for products/services whose markets are well established.

Now, in the peculiar case of these “ugly” websites, a different sort of mechanism is at work. In most cases, the winners of the web these days are sites that are able to draw and sustain vibrant communities and/or solicit interesting user-generated content. Whether it’s Craigslist, or MySpace or IMDB, by being the first in the space they were able to capture the community and the net result was that early success lead to later success.

This is the oft-cited effect of “community lock-in.” It’s simple really — people go where the people are. And they will go whether the site is ugly or not. So the key is not that ugliness was a hallmark of their success, but rather that with significant community lock-in aesthetics matter less and less. Now if we were to fast forward into an alternate future where Ning tech (or some equivalent) makes the creation of social networks simple, and some of these networks are designed with better aesthetic considerations for their audience, then ugly will start to be a big negative. In this way, even large communities with significant lock-in can get overturned.

A simple example today is eBay. EBay has huge community lock-in effect, but in some smaller niches they are losing ground to people who specialize in the niche. For example, Blue Nile sells diamonds and competes quite well with eBay on this front. It’s not because their community is larger, but because their user-experience (and aesthetics) have been tailored for this niche buying experience, they can out-maneuver eBay who must create a generalized (and sometimes ugly) buying experience for all types of goods.

So simply put, ugly!=good, but ugly doesn’t hurt that much until your market is mature enough for people have choices by which to exercise their aesthetic and user experience preferences.

13 Responses to “The role of aesthetics in design”
Christian Montoya wrote:

Good point, Blue Nile is a great example. Obviously a lot of talking heads are getting the wrong idea about the design debate.

Then again, if it means that clients will pay for ugly websites, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. I could charge more for a lot less work :)

Alex wrote:

I agree that for these types of sites (at least at the beginning), being first counts more than being pretty, but I think it’s a mistake to equate ‘ugly’ with ‘unusable’. They’re not the same.

Craigslist may not be pretty, but it is easy to use.

On the other hand, even though eBay is equally homely, parts of it, like adding a new listing, are complicated.

There’s also a difference between “plain” and “ugly”, and those also shouldn’t be confused either! A plain looking site’s aesthetics don’t help or hinder its usability, but a truly ugly site can use colors, fonts, etc. that impair usability.

Leon Chandon wrote:

Agree fully!

Early adopters have the “community lock-in” factor working in their favour. I HATE theeBay interface, but hey, what am I going to do? Where else am I going to go?

Ugly websites can definately succeed, however I would argue that they could become so much more powerful if they improved their UI. Targetting, personalisation and improvement in the task process can only make a website more successful.

Stu wrote:

Ugly design goes much further than the web. Take a look at Wal*Mart. Their logo is atrocious, but being somewhere ugly makes people feel more comfortable; most people could never make their stuff look as good as Target, but better than Wal-Mart is no problem. People want the bar to be set just as high as they can achieve. When things look too good or too designed it becomes intimidating. The design term for this is vernacular.

Remember Biz Markie? He made it based on his horrible voice, and American Idol is pretty popular these days.

Gordon Ross wrote:

I agree with Alex on the fact that ugly doesn’t mean unusable. Ugly is part of the aesthetic domain, an aspect of visceral design to use Norman’s term — and certainly not an absolute, as it’s subjective and culturally constructed. Just look up the definition of ugly in the dictionary

And usability is part of the behavioural design realm. And even usability doesn’t have a firm grasp on technology adoption, whether something will be used and continued to be used by any group of people. What is the reason behind community lock-in? Someone must have seen some value in order for the technology to be adopted in the first place, right? It’s not simply that lots of people are using something is the reason… (although later in the adoption of a technology like ebay, the user community and millions of users is as much a feature as the search capabilities itself — see Moore, Chasm crossing, early adopters and all that…)

What drives adoption? The utility of the object: its usefulness.

Malhotra and Galletta have done quite a bit of work in this area with their technology acceptance model and their research. We do battle with aesthetically non-pleasing and functionally non-usable things all day long, as long as we see utility and purpose in the object.

Alex wrote:

By the way, “pretty” does have one confirmed advantage over “plain”… witness the “Aesthetic Usability Effect”, which shows that an aesthetically pleasing design (when compared to a less aesthetically pleasing, but otherwise equivalent design) is perceived as being easier to use and is more likely to be used, even if it really isn’t more usable.

Stephen wrote:

Alex - you mean like Mac OS X? ;-)


Scott Berkun wrote:

In some of these examples (Walmart, craigslist) the “ugly” guy simply works better. In many situations, for many people functional/ugly beats less-functional/pretty. Walmart has brand goods at the cheapest prices - that’s all you need to tell most Americans to get them to show up :)

Craigslist is easy to use, it’s fast, it’s simple and it’s popular. If there was a competitor that did all those things and had an aesthetic, there’d be a sound argument for lock-in, or “ugly-chic”. But that’s not the case in most of these spaces. Instead there are clear functional factors that make the difference.

Smitje wrote:

That’s very true.
Fuction comes first, if it alows people to do what THEY WANT to do, and especially if it alows them to do it effortlessly, it is more likely to be a winner.
Even if it comes second, good looking stuf works better, if the functions are the same. (there is a reference to research on this in Emotional design, by Norman)

yesterday I read an article about the suposed ‘uglyness’ of the Google home page, and logo. One of the things more or less agreed upon however was that its brutal single purpose Search functionallity, is an important part of its success. Even if other functions (Earth, Maps, etc.) are ‘hidden’.

To some people (myself included) the lack of ‘just a bit to sleek styling’ elicits trust, because it puts the functionallity on central stage, where it should be, ‘naked’ in plain sight, you cant mis it. Styling isn’t a bad thing but all to often it takes up to much atention. Both of the designers, who can better spent it on functionallity, and of the user, who needs all his attention to cope with all the impulses comming at him.

As you can probably see I am a dyslexic, so I read slow. That means I avoid it when I can, saving my attention for the stuf that matters. Like meny users if something looks vaguely like a banner it becomes invisible to me. Frequently I have trouble finding things on the internet as a result, because menus and buttons, disaprar in a haze of colourful borders along with the advertizements.

So I argue for clean and minimalist styling.

Cheers Smitje

PS. where I say styling it is to disambiguate functional or usability design with styling which is allso a part of design. I don’t imply a value judgement but there is an important diference

RBeezy wrote:

Walmart is popular because they browbeat their suppliers into providing their goods at cut rate prices.

Their look has nothing to do with it. You think Joe and Jill Sixpack give two shytes about aesthetics?

I think this ugly design thing is a ridiculous farce. I predict that it will pass quickly - just like paint drips and lens flare effects have before.

Petréa Mitchell wrote:

Count me as someone who doesn’t think Google’s root page is ugly. In fact, I think it’s the best-looking search page I’ve ever seen.

…but I use Clusty instead, even though it’s ugly, because it gives me way better results.

(I do have my limits– I hardly use Amazon anymore because its interface has gotten so cluttered and pushy and generally annoying. It’s like having a salesperson trailing me as I walk through a store. I know what I want! Leave me alone!)

gloria moss wrote:

I agree that we should shy away from talking about absolutes, and what all target markets want.

Research I’ve conducted on web design aesthetics at the University of Glamorgan with Dr Rod Gunn shows that ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and what some men like in a webdesign is very different to what some women like. By analogy, one might expect the perception of ‘ugliness’ to vary from person to person.

If you take this a step further and define ‘ugliness’ as ‘the opposite of what people like’, then you might ask whether people are really likely to prefer ugly over attractive (to them) websites. Food for thought ………

John C wrote:

I think people are getting this whole “Ugly” vs “Pretty” thing wrong….

I think it boils down to “Ugly” = “User easily understands how to get results” and “Easy to navigate” vs “Pretty” = “A work of art”….. where “Art” having all the connotations of interpretive, mystical, Impractical, Un-Usable etc….. as well as the simplicity of “Compatible with my browser”

I have seen plenty of Simple “Ugly” sites that were totally useless — You couldn’t find anything
….. The advantage is that you can tell a “Worthless, Ugly” site instantly….. But, that makes them simple, which is easy to understand quickly…. which is good.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?