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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Suffering from chronic idiocy since 1977

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Design and Usability: Part 2

Andrei Herasimchuk left a
very sensible comment
on my previous entry, Design
and Usability: Part 1
. He stated that "The aesthetic quality of something
is intrinsically locked with how functional and usable it is". After thinking
about this statement for a few days I could not think of a single argument to
refute it. However, after a while, I started to deconstruct his sentence and
stumbled over the specific word aesthetics. Bluntly, looking the
word up in a dictionary yields the following definition (among slight variations):

Now, I’ve always learned that:
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", which is a paraphrase of a statement
by Plato. To me the beauty or good taste of an object (or subject) is not intrinsically
locked with how functional and usable it is.

You wish you owned one!For
example, an automobile is mainly a functional object – transportation from point
A (initial position) to point B (final destination). Nonetheless most of us
value the aesthetics of a car highly, for some it might even be their main buying
argument. But does the outer shell of a car (thus its beauty or good taste)
define how functional or usable it is? I think not. We might experience it as
being more functional or usable. But abstracting from beauty a car’s functionality
or usability is defined by how it is designed and not so much by its aesthetic
value. Aesthetics are subjective.

Returning visitors of SuperfluousBanter might have noticed that Andrei’s blog
Design
by Fire
has been added to the Regular Visits section in the sidebar. His
blog is an excellent destination to read about topics related to interface design
and usability, among others. Good content, good design, good code. Run and bookmark
that site!

Topics which
were initially planned for Part 2 will now move to Part 3. In my next post I will
try to discern some of the factors and elements related to usability and functionality.
But in the mean time: what do you think about the relationship between aesthetics,
design, functionality and usability? Discuss.

This item was posted by dhilhorst on Wednesday, January 7th, 2004.

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17 comments on “Design and Usability: Part 2”

  1. Posted by Keith on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    It’s the old form vs. function argument and you hit the nail right on the head.

    “Aesthetics are subjective.” Like I always say, when it comes to Web design (and lots of other design for that matter) there is no such thing as perfect.

    I don’t want to discount the value of aesthetics and design in usability, but

    — “the aesthetic quality of something is intrinsically locked with how functional and usable it is” — is simply not the case.

    To take your automobile analogy, if you were to sit me down in front of one of those PT Cruisers I’m pretty sure I could “use” it just fine. I could drive to work or whatever. I’m quite sure it’s a very usable and functional car.

    However, I think they’re ugly as homemade sin and I’d never, in a million years, purchase one.

    So based on my opinion is the car then useable? Obviously not — lots of people love those cars. I don’t know why, but…

    Usable design decisions are based on data, not opinion. While I do admit the value of aesthetics in making something usable — a designer would be doing themselves and, more importantly, their users, a disservice if they put the form before the function.

    A user can get by a design they don’t like as long as it’s functional, and the fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to please everyone aesthetically.

    It is possible to have a very ugly, yet very usable site. I’m not suggesting we as designers do this, but even the greatest most popular designs out there are hated by someone.

    Ok, now I’m rambling….good topic.

  2. Posted by Andrei Herasimchuk on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    I think you have to take the defintion one step further. What is “beautiful?”

    “The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.”

    That’s pretty broad, and is not specific to the surface level look of something.

    As to the previous comment, yes it is indeed very possible to have a functional, usable site that is ugly. Look at Google or Amazon.com. the point I was making, and one that I believe Paul Rand was also making to a certain degree, was that aesthetic is locked into form. It cannot be separated from it. The “harmony of form” or the quality of the form, and in the case of web site or application design, its usefulness, contributes to the overall aesthetic.

    I stand by my comment that aesthetic is much more than surface level look and feel. It is also the experience, the presenation, the satisfaction in usage, the overall pleasure it brings to the mind.

  3. Posted by Keith on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    When you put it that way it’s hard to disagree with.

    Your very right that “aesthetic is much more than surface level look and feel” but where does that leave us?

    Are you saying that Google is beautiful because it works well? In that case I guess there is no further argument and this topic is much less interesting than I’d first thought! ;)

  4. Posted by Dunstan on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    I’d agree that sentance is far from being correct.

    Aesthetics (as your dictionary definition says) has no relationship to function or usability, unless it is a perceived relationship (e.g. this is so beautiful, it _must_ be great), or unless the appreciation is of functional characteristics.

    Sitting here I can see:

    [1] My flat screen – beautiful, user-friendly and very functional.

    [2] A pump for my ball-chair – horrible, crappy looking thing, but amazingly functional as it moves air when you push and when you pull.

    [3] My pedometer – it looks cool, but it’s completely useless, and I haven’t a clue how the damn thing works.

    [4] My diary – a plain, cheap (£1) diary which does its job perfectly.

    I think we could all find contradictory examples like that, and if that’s the case, I don’t see how Andrei’s comment can be correct.

    (Not to have a dig at him, just to join in the thread.)

  5. Posted by Jeremy Flint on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    I tend to agree with Andrei’s comment. Even with the point Didier brought up about the car. Yes, people do put a lot of value into the beauty of a car. But if the most beautifully designed car (aesthetics) was not usable at all (functionality), would it still be considered as a beautiful car?

    Within the realm of interface design/usability/accessiblity, i believe Andrei’s statement is accurate. If you design the most stunning interface for a web application, create all kinds of fancy buttons, smooth, intricate animations and what not, and the intended audience cannot use it, it is basically a piece of crap.

    I guess it all boils down to the old form vs. function debate, and when you can mix those two with equal parts, you have something beautiful.

  6. Posted by Andrei Herasimchuk on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    Keith, re-read my comment. I’m saying Google is *not* aesthetically pleasing because even though it is useful, it’s not well designed at the visual or information level. Both form and function have to work to make it aesthetically pleasing imo.

  7. Posted by Keith on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    Ok, you’re right….beacuse of the last three letters you typed into that comment…IMO. “In My Opinion”

    But I guess I see what your saying — it’s not a two way street. For something to be beautiful it has to be functional and aesthetically pleasing. Sure….problem is what’s aesthetics are subjective.

    Paul Rand, who is a great designer, has designed things that some folks hate. There is someone out there who hates the IBM logo visually. They’ll never find it beautiful, but they’ll always identify it with the company.

    What’s more important here — the identification or the perception of beauty?

    I’d be willing to bet that someone out there thinks google is visually pleasing, strange as that is. If that is the case then your point, when taken from your opinion and placed elsewhere, is off the mark.

    I agree that Google isn’t aesthetically pleasing — and your point about form and function having to work to make it so is fine — it’s just that, with Google, I don’t care in the slightest if it’s aesthetically pleasing as long as it works.

    I like Google. It works just fine. In fact I never think about the design or aesthetics of Google, I just use it and it works. Could that not be perceived as beautiful?

    You could make a case that nothing is aesthetically pleasing to everyone who uses it right? If that is true, doesn’t it make it more important that a design “function” well before any “form” is applied to it?

    It’s an age old argument that can’t be won. Function is based on data, form on opinion. Show me a perfectly designed site and I’ll find someone who hates it. You’d be harder pressed, for example, to find someone who couldn’t use a car because they found it to be ugly.

    Form should always follow function — IMO. ;)

  8. Posted by Andrei Herasimchuk on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    “It’s an age old argument that can’t be won. Function is based on data, form on opinion. Show me a perfectly designed site and I’ll find someone who hates it. You’d be harder pressed, for example, to find someone who couldn’t use a car because they found it to be ugly.” – Keith

    Then why bother being a designer? That’s defeatist thinking. My initial point you may disagree with, fine. That’s obviously your perogative.

    But I also want to make clear that I’m not trying to be “right” on my position here. Read my post on avoid results oriented thinking. I think it applies here. This is one of those cases where the approach and strategy taken by the designer is often just as important as the result.

    I’d make the claim that if you don’t believe that aesthetic quality, as it pertains to web site deisgn or interface design, includes functional and usability metrics in conjunction with pleasing graphic and informational display, then it’s probably a good bet that what you design will reflect that position.

    Now imagine everyone taking that position. Oh wait… most of the web and software technology out there already reflects this position.

  9. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Thursday, January 8th, 2004.

    This is an interlaced topic which is close to becoming a philosophical debate. I think aesthetics are imperative and I would like to see more good interface and web design. The current state of web sites and (software) applications is rather deplorable.

    On numerous occassions I have put form in front of function – and I will continue to do so. First of all because I see it as part of my job to build and design objects that are pleasing to the eye. Secondly because it enables me to experiment and push boundaries. Putting form in front of function might have ended me up in some tight spots, but in the end it’s all a matter of finding the right equilibrium.

    Poor design (or aesthetics) is usually due to budget contraints, tight deadlines or indifference. Another frequently (ab)used argument is: “It works, so why change it?”. The latter is most probably the case with Google. Some people are afraid of (disruptive) change. And to be honest, change can be a disorienting phenomenon.

  10. Posted by Keith on Friday, January 9th, 2004.

    “Why bother being a designer? That’s defeatist thinking.”

    I’ve been designing Web sites for over 8 years, and in the design field for much longer so I’ll skip the comment on that first part. I hope that wasn’t directed at me personally. ;)

    As far as defeatist thinking goes all I can say is that I certainly don’t think that way. All I’m trying to get across here is that beauty and aesthetics are subjective and should come second to function in most cases. There is no such thing as a perfect design. Period.

    But I think most of what you are saying is certainly true. What I seem to be balking at is the way some designers rely on their own, often narrow, opinion of their work and design for aesthetics first.

    Who decides what “poor design” is? Is it you, or me, the client, the users?

    Good debate. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this for the most part.

  11. Posted by Scrivs on Friday, January 9th, 2004.

    This is starting to get kind of deep here (man Dan, this text in this box is really small :)), but I will interject because I think I see some points that everyone is missing that might help join everything together.

    First and foremost, it is quite possible for something to be beautiful and not usable. There are so many examples out there today that I do not think anymore are really needed. Just think of some cool steros and kitchen appliances that were made just to look good without any sign of usability within them.

    Secondly, aesthetics (or beauty) is attached to usability in the sense that I believe you will find many individuals initially believe that something is easily used if it looks good before they even try it. Apple is a good example. You can just look at their computers and get a sense that you would know how to work them. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ebay. Their first interfaces were very intimidating and they always gave you the sense that you had a lot of work to do just to learn.

    Aesthetics help to ease the comfort zone with a user and if the user is calm and possibly happy by the design then it will be easier for them to learn, assuming there is some sort of usability behind it. So I do believe it is possible to put form way over function as some people do and also to marry the two together. It is up to the designer.

  12. Posted by Brian on Tuesday, January 13th, 2004.

    If an object or design, be it a car or a coffee mug or a web site, has a necessary functional aspect, then there is no question that your appreciation of the object is affected by it’s usability or functionality. Sure, it might be wonderful to look at, and there is aesthetic value at that level, but if the object is meant to be used, then the use of the object is part of the aesthetic experience- or it should be. Any designer or crafter of usable objects who doesn’t think the use of the object is important to the aesthetic experience is a hack.

    Setting a high standard for the functional success of your design is tantamount to craftsmanship in making useful objects. I argue that the enjoyable use of a functional object is of first importance to any designer who is truly interested in the aesthetics of her/his design.

  13. Posted by Didier Hilhorst on Tuesday, January 13th, 2004.

    As noticed via v-2 Organisation:

    What Is Beautiful Is Usable

    “An experiment was conducted to test the relationships between users’ perceptions of a computerized system’s beauty and usability. The experiment used a computerized application as a surrogate for an Automated Teller Machine (ATM). Perceptions were elicited before and after the participants used the system. Pre-experimental measures indicate strong correlations between system’s perceived aesthetics and perceived usability. Post-experimental measures indicated that the strong correlation remained intact.

    A multivariate analysis of covariance revealed that the degree of system’s aesthetics affected the post-use perceptions of both aesthetics and usability, whereas the degree of actual usability had no such effect. The results resemble those found by social psychologists regarding the effect of physical attractiveness on the valuation of other personality attributes. The findings stress the importance of studying the aesthetic aspect of human–computer interaction (HCI) design and its relationships to other design dimensions.”

    Most interesting article and a must-read in relation to this post. It’s a shame I’ve only discovered it now. First thing tommorow I will invade my university library to get a copy of that little gem.

  14. Posted by Scrivs on Wednesday, January 14th, 2004.

    Heck, that’s what Norman’s new book, Emotional Design, is all about.

  15. Posted by Brian on Wednesday, January 14th, 2004.

    Wow – that’s a fascinating quote. While I read it and think “that doesn’t change the actual usability – just the perceived usability” nevertheless I know it’s true from my own experience in usability tests. Maybe it relates to the beautiful people phenomenon where beautiful people get more breaks, more second chances, the benefit of the doubt, etc.

    But while this stresses the importance of the aesthetic aspect of interface design, the beautiful interface that actually does support the user, and that holds up as a solid design over time and use, still must be a more successful and therefore more aesthetically positive experience than the beautiful interface that has only a perceived usability.

    Over the long haul– when the chips are down — which one does the user turn to? The one that only looks pretty or the one that makes the work pleasant as well? Given that both are pleasant to look at.

  16. Posted by oli on Sunday, February 1st, 2004.

    Frank Lloyd Wright said “Form follows function-that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union”. No need for them to fight ;-)

  17. Posted by Web Design on Wednesday, March 10th, 2004.

    Oli, I like that. That’s what I think too. Some people prefer form, and some of them prefer function. And the way to perfection is to combine both. A design shouldn’t be done for aesthetics only, but it has to be pleasing in look and feel to attract users and make them feel more comfortable with it. I think it’s a question of usability. While it doesn’t make sence to create just form with little function, it’s quite possible to create something really functional and ugly. But wouldn’t it be just boring? I do stand for harmony.