If a web page is made more attractive, does that make it easier to use? Usability and aesthetics have been the topic of much discussion with designers. The word ‘aesthetics’ can be defined as the study of beauty and artistic taste. Unlike usability, aesthetic appeal is not something which can be easily measured or quantified as it is largely based on personal preference. Beauty itself is a combination of shape, colour and form and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. People like to see attractive websites because they are visually stimulated by them. What researchers are trying to determine is if visual attractiveness aids the usability of a site or if it acts as a distraction.
Current usability tests are intended to measure the speed, efficiency and errors made by the user but human perceptions are designed to pick up on inconsistencies, and often well designed web systems are those which go unnoticed. There has often been a conflict of interests between usability experts and graphic designers. On one hand, usability experts have lists of principles and guidelines for simplicity, speed and efficiency. On the other hand, graphic designers have a desire to create something visually stunning, unique and entertaining. Over the years social psychology has shown that a sources credibility can be positively influenced by its attractiveness. In 2009, Sqaak et al. reported their findings from a study that found that a person’s trust in an organisation has a strong relationship with the visual appeal of their website.
Usability expert Jakob Nielsen has voiced his opinion (based on eye tracking studies) that graphics that are used solely for aesthetic appeal are ignored by users and are therefore useless. While the results of these studies are of great importance, the conclusion Nielsen draws is under debate. In psychology, emotional reactions are known as affective responses. These reactions happen extremely quickly and are largely unconscious. Research by Gitte Lindgaard has shown that users can make a decision about the visual appeal of a website in 50 milliseconds. Although Lindagaard admits that further research is required to determine how this reaction relates to usability, there is clearly an unconscious element that is worth consideration.
Visual appeal can also have an effect on the time the user looks at a page and stimulates inquisitiveness, which leads to exploration. What interests some researchers in this area is that they can test not only for usability, but the perceived usability and the role that aesthetics has to play The notion that users will perceive systems of greater aesthetic appeal to be more usable is subject of much research. In 2000, Tractinsky, et al., carried out an experiment in which ATM user interfaces were tested to find a relationship between the test subjects’ perception of its beauty and the perceived usability. The user interfaces which were regarded as being more attractive were considered more usable, despite the fact they had longer response times and more errors than those interfaces which were deemed less attractive. What this experiment demonstrates is that users perceive things of beauty to have a higher degree of usability, even when they do not.
It is important to design websites that balance usability principles and aesthetic appeal to ensure that pages are visually attractive as well as easy to use. Usability experts urge designers to standardise and build with consistency in mind. While these recommendations are important, taken too far, websites on the Internet could lose their individuality and much of their appeal. Since good usability is invisible, aesthetics are used to stimulate the user and arouse their attention.