Is beautiful really usable? (2012)

The heater is turned up a little bit too high for this user
It’s hard to keep a cool head if a system doesn’t do what you want, no matter how pretty it looks

What is beautiful is useful” showed that aesthetics and usability are highly correlated. Since then, those findings have been confirmed by some, but rejected by other studies. We also still don’t know why they’re correlated. A newer experiment conducted by Tuch et al. sheds more light on the relation between the two concepts.

Why it matters

There aren’t many experimental studies that manipulate aesthetics and usability as independent variables. The ones that do are typically correlative in nature.

In other words: any claims about causal relations between the two concepts are largely based on theoretical reasoning only. It’s therefore still unclear if and when aesthetics influence usability, and vice versa.

Tuch et al. therefore conduct an strictly controlled laboratory experiment that independently manipulates aesthetics and usability.

How the study was conducted

The overall idea of the experiment is pretty similar to the one described in last week’s article.

Four online shops were implemented for the experiment. All shops are functionally identical to each other, but have a different combination of usability and aesthetics levels, which are obtained in pretty subtle ways:

A total of 80 participants were recruited for the experiment and assigned to one of the four online shops. Each participant was asked to perform a series of tasks. Perceived usability and aesthetics were assessed both before and after participants worked on their tasks.

A high-aesthetics and low-aesthetics version of the same Web page.
A high-aesthetics Web page (l) and a low-aesthetics version (r). Note that the changes barely affect readability of text and other UI elements.

What discoveries were made

Given all that was known from previous studies, one would expect that good-looking versions of the online shop would receive higher usability ratings from participants. Surprisingly, no such effect was found: perceived usability was solely affected by the actual usability of the interface.

Usability on the other hand did have a significant effect on perceived aeshetics after participants had used the shop to complete a few tasks, as did actual aesthetics.

A possible explanation for this effect is that a frustrating usability experience results in a negative affective experience, which in turn results in lower ratings of perceived aesthetics.

The important bits

  1. Aesthetics do not actually affect perceived usability
  2. Usability does have an effect on post-use perceived aesthetics, possibly due to frustration with the user interface