The Connection Between Aesthetics And Usability

A few weeks ago I was reading the article Apple Turns Technology into Art by Ben Bajarin. For those of you not familiar with Ben, he’s an industry analyst who covers consumer products. The article talks about Apple’s products and how their visual appeal helps customer form an emotional connection with them.

Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.

I think I’m a good example and thought I’d share why I switched from using Windows laptops to Mac laptops a few years ago and why aesthetics matter.

From Windows to Mac

I work on a Macbook Air now and my very first computer was original 1984 Macintosh, but in between I’ve owned quite a few Windows machines.

About 6 years ago I was working on a Dell Latitude laptop, which worked well and I liked using. It wasn’t without issues though. I’d been using it a few years and was getting ready to purchase something new.

How a thing works is more important than how it looks, but how it looks will affect your perception about how it works

I had been thinking about switching to a Mac for a few reasons. While I never witnessed the blue screen of Windows death, the computer was slow to start in the morning. I’d turn it on and go do something for 10 minutes before it was usable. It was probably the anti-virus software more than anything and that same software would bring Windows to a halt a few times a day as it updated. Regardless of the reasons the laptop hung too many times each and every day.

Another reason I thought of switching was wanting a better way to test websites across platforms. OS X didn’t come for sale without a new Mac. Windows could be bought separately. It seemed like the easiest way to run both was to buy a Mac and run both operating systems on it.

I was nervous about switching and wondered how easy it would be, but I had confidence in myself and then I read a post by Dan Thies which convinced me there wouldn’t by any issue in making the change.

None of the above is the reason I actually switched, though. As I do now, I was reading the blogs of a number of designers, most of whom used Macs. I’d see screenshots in posts and watch screencasts (particularly those from Chris Coyier at CSS Tricks) and I’d think how much I wished the software I used looked like the software I saw in the images and videos in my rss reader.

I wanted to use those programs. I wanted my operating system to look as nice as the one I kept seeing. I wanted a Mac.

Then one Wednesday afternoon my Latitude died. It was out of warranty and since I was thinking of buying something new anyway, I went to the nearest Apple store and a few hours later was setting up my new Macbook Pro.

Aesthetics and Usability

I could easily say I switched because of browser testing or to stop facing certain issues. I could justify the purchase, but the main reason was the Mac looked better to me. It was more aesthetically pleasing to my eye.

I didn’t switch because I thought the Mac was a better machine. I didn’t think it was a worse machine either. Features, specs, and performances simply weren’t a purchase consideration.

The aesthetics made me want to use the Macbook more. They made me want to explore new apps and the operating system itself. The way the machine looked made me want to open it up first thing and work on it all day. It made me want to try programs that could help me become a better designer and business owner.

The greater willingness and desire to use the Mac improved it’s usability for me. It’s not that I didn’t explore the system when I was using Windows. I am curious by nature, learn quickly, and knew my way around Windows. Still it helps to want to explore than to explore because you have to find a fix for something.

Aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder and you may not agree that a Mac and OS X looks better. That’s fine. I’m not suggesting either of us would be right or wrong. I’m saying my aesthetic taste preferred OS X. It gives me daily inspiration because I find it aesthetically beautiful. You’d be just as correct to feel the same way about Windows or any other operating system.

Research and Studies

There are plenty of studies showing how people perceive an interface affects the usability of that interface. When people consider an interface more aesthetically pleasing they find it more usable.

It may not seem rational, but it is true. People buy, use, and interact with things more on emotion than logic. We use logic to rationalize and justify many decisions after we’ve made them, even when those decisions were made based on emotion.

I can easily list reasons to justify my purchase of a Mac a few years ago. I can use these reasons to show how my decision was objectively a good decision. Deep down I know my decision was an emotional one based on the aesthetics of the interface and the machine.

A Reminder About the Importance of Aesthetics

I’m sharing the above, not just to share. First I’m relating the above as a reminder to myself that aesthetics are important even as they are subjective and rely on your judgment and design eye.

As a designer I’ve always looked to basic principles and design fundamentals to improve my skills. I think if all you ever do is follow the most basic of principles and use them as guidelines, your designs will be more attractive and reach above a minimum level of aesthetic beauty.

I feel as though I’ve done a good job of this over the years. I’ve learned the principles and applied them to my work. At the same time I know there are certain types of aesthetic details I don’t yet have the skills to pull off.

With this post, I’m reminding myself not to be satisfied with what I can do, but to learn to work better with what I can’t do. I hope it’s also a reminder for you.

People outside the design industry often equate aesthetics with design. Some think all designers do is make things look pretty. We know otherwise. We know that that how content is organized and how navigational systems are built are part of design. We know that a designer can lead the eye around the page and ensure important information is seen. We know these and many other things don’t just happen even if some of our clients think they do.

Designers push back against thoughts that design equals aesthetics so we can help others understand the value we bring. In doing that I think we sometimes push back so much we forget that aesthetics do matter and are important. Design isn’t only making things pretty, but making things pretty is an important part of design.

How a thing works is more important than how it looks, but how it looks will affect your perception about how it works. An aesthetically pleasing product gets used more. An aesthetically pleasing site gets visited more and shared more and will generally be seen as working better.

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  1. It’s nice to see that I’m not the only one thinking this way. Just as you, I can logically (if I really wanted to) justify that purchasing a MacBook Pro was a good decision. However, I must admit that first and foremost it was a decision driven by the positive affect brought on by the aesthetics of the hardware, and user interface. Using my MacBook Pro makes me feel better than using my Dell Precision.

    • I’m naturally a logical person, but I’ve come to understand that like everyone else my buying decisions are emotionally based and then logically justified.

      Three Mac laptops later and I still feel the same by the way. I like how things look on the screen better and so I feel better using it and I get more done.

      It’s a good lesson for designers that how a site looks and feels is in large part what will being people back to the site.

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