Does visual appeal matter? Absolutely. It matters a lot. It turns out that attractive things make us feel happy, and this changes our brain chemistry making it easier for us to figure out how things work, even when we encounter problems. Our emotional response to web sites and other products affects not only our perceptions, but the way in which we interact with the web site or object.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a more obvious example: people. Do you have a different emotional response when you are interacting with an attractive person? Does this affect how you interact with them? You may find yourself more willing, even desiring, to spend time with them.
How well does that translate into product and web site design? The book, “Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things“, by Donald A. Norman, cites two separate studies comparing different layouts of controls for ATM machines.
“All versions of the ATMs were identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they operated, but some had the buttons and screens arranged attractively, the others unattractively. Suprise! The [researchers] found that the attractive ones were perceived to be easier to use.” – p. 17.
Donald Norman goes on to explain the scientifically repeatable results, and why aesthetics matter in product design:
“attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively. How does that make something easier to use? Simple, by making it easier for people to find solutions to the problems they encounter. … happy people are more effective in finding alternative solutions and, as a result, are tolerant of minor difficulties.” – p. 19-20.
Personally, I find this fascinating and helpful. At CodeGeek.net, we take pride in creating designs with high visual appeal, and a high-level of usability. These two aspects of web design truly go hand in hand.
In my own exploration through the current world of web design concepts, I’ve encountered many good and interesting ideas about best practices. Quality content, usability, data density, and information architecture are all important elements. But I don’t believe that focusing on one of them to the exclusion of visual appeal is helpful. As in many areas of life, I believe that a balanced approach is best. Humans are complex creatures, and web design needs to take into account those complexities in a balanced way. When we do, we create web sites that people find both useful and enjoyable. It makes me happy to make my web site visitors happy too.
For you die-hard Jakob Nielsen and Edward Tufte fans out there, open your hearts as well as your eyes. I think Jakob Nielsen has some fantastic and practical ideas. I’ve taken Edward Tufte’s class and read several of his books and I think he is right on. But if theirs are the only ideas we take into account in web site design, web sites are doomed to be as bland as cold unseasoned tofu.