What is more important – usability or aesthetic?

Adam Lewis

When the first Kindle e-book reader was released in America, it sold out within hours. In spite of scepticism about the product, the easy usability of the device won people over. To get a new book all you had to do was visit the online store and download it.

Such was the hype that there was a real fear that the paper book (or tree books as they were briefly and affectionately known) would become extinct. Here was a device that could contain hundreds of books in one place and never get heavier. You could literally carry your entire library in your handbag. So why would you weigh yourself down with paper?

10 years on and the Kindle is no longer the threat that it was. Though the Kindle will still allow you to carry all your books around at once, add notes, read other people’s notes, download testers and read magazines and newspapers, its popularity is diminishing for one main reason: it is not as aesthetically pleasing as it once was.

[Image: digitaltrends.com]

When it was first brought out, the Kindle looked far superior to paper books but since then, paper books have had something of an epiphany. Books are now being celebrated as objects of beauty rather than just vehicles for words. They are tactile, have the smell of newly bound paper, can be read in the bath… The aesthetic value of the paper book overtook the usability of the Kindle.

But what about the usability of the book? You can borrow and lend easily, write notes in the margins and fold the corners of the pages down (unless you’re borrowing one of my books, in which case, you’re not allowed). You can see how far through you are and find quotes based on roughly how many pages you’d read or which side page it was on. A huge advantage for bookworms is that a paper book won’t ever run out of battery power. The combination of this usability and aesthetic has meant that this most basic technology has stood the test of time and not only survived the digital threat of the Kindle but surpassed it in sales.

So, in spite of the fact that a paper book will only ever contain the contents of that one book, and will probably weigh just a bit more than a Kindle, the combination of aesthetics and usability means that it has overcome the challenger. This is a perfect example of the Aesthetic-Usability Effect.

According to Wikipedia: ‘the Aesthetic-Usability Effect describes a paradox that people perceive more aesthetic designs as much more intuitive.’ This means that people tend to lean towards technologies that look pleasing, even if the usability of another similar technology is better.

The consequence of this behaviour is that technology isn’t just about solving problems, it is also tied into following fashions in design and responding to them. If something is fashionable, we deem it useful and usable to a greater extent than if it isn’t. So, even though the Kindle is still perfectly usable, the ‘dated’ technology, the paper book, has pulled ahead as publishers have put more resources into designing the covers and using thicker paper.

So what does this mean for the future of product design?

Perhaps the best place to look is Apple.

In 2011, Jonathan Jones wrote:

‘The rise of the Apple aesthetic went along with the rise of coffee shops, the idea that work and leisure can combine in new ways. The iPod, the iPhone, the iPad: none of them are designed to keep you at home, addicted to the virtual. […] The Apple aesthetic is profoundly humanist – and in this sense it has truly made the world a better place.’

Centering design on the human user is not just about creating aesthetically pleasing technology, it is also a pragmatic approach that understands that technology should be used to solve problems. This is what Apple understands when it refines the designs of its own products making them slimmer, lighter, easier to handle and easier to use.

Instead of creating something to replace an existing technology with a ‘futuristic’ slant, Apple focuses on the ways that people will behave with the technology. Having a single home button on the iPad is indicative of the way people expect to be able to use the touch screen for everything else. Equally, the sleek finish and rounded corners create a tactile object, the blank black screen invites intrigue. You want to turn it on to see the secrets held within.

As Apple moves through new iterations of their products, the same aesthetics rule their design. Simplicity, elegance and tactility. This in turn informs the usability of the iPad – the addition of the fingerprint lock, the small screen for watching video – each feature is about diversifying the use of the iPad, but it is also about following the way that people actually interact with the technology.

While usability is often the crux of a new technology – the reason it has been invented in the first place – the aesthetics of any product are the spur to get people to invest in it. When considered carefully, the aesthetics of anything can drive its development: if a thing looks this way, people interact with it like this, but if it looks like this…

One study into the way aesthetics affect the way we interact with technology focused on a robot named Boxie. The robot was made to look ‘cute’ and organic by using cardboard instead of plastic, giving it large ‘eyes’ and a childlike voice. If you have any doubts that aesthetics change our interactions with objects then watch the video below.

(If you don’t have doubts you should still watch, if only for the moment the robot persuades a man to dance for it.)

Of course, some people were put off by Boxie and, to be fair, an unexpected childlike voice could be a bit creepy. But, what this experiment showed was that people focused heavily on aesthetics when they interacted with the robot. They were intrigued by its appearance and persuaded by its voice enough to follow the instructions it issued.

This is where aesthetics intersect with usability.

In this example, people are inclined to play with Boxie because it is cute, but they continue to play with Boxie because it is easy. Where the iPad and iPhone have a single button and then leave the user to intuit further usage, Boxie has two buttons for yes and no, but otherwise uses AI to communicate with and direct the user.

The usability of the technology enables the aesthetic; the aesthetic encourages the usability. Neither is more important, but each one informs the other to maximise performance and to encourage us to be more human in our interaction with technology.

So which is more important? It’s a chicken and egg kind of thing…


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