The Aesthetic Usability Effect

The_Golden_Ratio_by_crocusgirl- deviant artWhether it’s a simple website or blog, how information is presented to users affects perceived reliability and thus discoverability of content. I’ve played with reader psychology dealing with print publications, but here are some thoughts on aesthetics and usability of digital text.

Surely, you’ve utilized a web search engine, saw a relevant result and clicked the link to what seemed like a good, relevant website based on its title, only to gasp in horror and immediately hit the back button to escape a hideous sight (pun totally intended). I’m not referring to explicit content, but instead seemingly ugly websites that have egregious amounts of content, 13 different font styles, and color palettes from 1996, where it just didn’t seem like you could find what you’re looking for. You know, something like Electrifying Times for all your needs on the latest news about electric cars.

Conversely, take a look at Green Car Reports. Sure, it’s not perfect by any means (for instance, I’m not one who likes to scroll below the fold…), but at least I didn’t fear for epileptic shock when I first landed on the homepage. This is because the site follows some basic design principles, such as consistency (what a concept!) in terms of alignment and fonts, contrast to direct the eyes and assist with navigation, and organization. Functionally, it has some issues, but because it’s (mostly) easier on the eyes, users are more likely to continue perusing this site than Electrifying Times.

When a website is ugly, we often assume that its inherent usability is lacking. In other words, strictly functionally speaking, a website might be completely user-friendly with user-centric architecture, but if its interface overwhelms users with unorganized content or antiquated aesthetics, it can override the sense of navigability. Ultimately, poor visual design of a website negatively affects both usability and discovery.

This concept is called aesthetic usability effect. When websites appear attractive, users make unintentional concessions and ignore usability deficiencies. Aesthetically pleasing sites also appear to be higher quality, which improves users’ perceived discoverability of information and authority of that information. What makes a website aesthetic? This can vary, but it’s important to keep in mind that users generally quickly scan websites, keeping their eyes above the fold, are attracted to and directed by areas of contrast, and prefer symmetry and alignment that reflect “the golden ratio” of divine proportions.

This is all not to say that it’s okay for your website to be absolutely difficult to use but still the coolest looking site ever known to man. As the saying goes, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig” (thanks for this one, Anne H.!). Instead, know that looks do matter, and first impressions most certainly count when it comes to user experience and information discovery.

To learn more about good visual design, check out User Focus’ guidelines.