Stephen Anderson writes: Consider how designers “skin” an information architect’s wireframes. Or how the term “eye candy” suggests that visual design is inessential. Our language constrains visual design to mere styling and separates aesthetics and usability, as if they are distinct considerations. Yet, if we shift the conversation away from graphical elements and instead focus on aesthetics, or “the science of how things are known via the senses,” we learn that this distinction between how something looks and how it works is somewhat artificial.

Aesthetics is concerned with anything that appeals to the senses—not just what we see, but what we hear, smell, taste, and feel. In short, how we perceive and interpret the world.

Perhaps more importantly, “aesthetics examines our affective domain response to an object or phenomenon” (according to Wikipedia). In other words, aesthetics is not just about the artistic merit of web buttons or other visual effects, but about how people respond to these elements. Our question becomes:

How do aesthetic design choices influence understanding and emotions,
and how do understanding and emotions influence behaviour?

 

 
 
 
… emotion is not a luxury: it is an expression of basic mechanisms of life regulation developed in evolution, and is indispensable for survival. It plays a critical role in virtually all aspects of learning, reasoning, and creativity. Somewhat surprisingly, it may play a role in the construction of consciousness.
— Antonio Damasio
 
 
 

According to a 2002 study, the “appeal of the overall visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size, and colour schemes,” is the number one factor we use to evaluate a website’s credibility. This makes sense. Think about how our personal appearance (our personal aesthetic) affects how people perceive us; or how product packaging influences our perception of the product inside. Why should we care about perceptions? Consider these findings from research presented at CHI 2007:

 
 
… users judge the relevancy of identical search results from different search engines based on the brand … Participants in the study indicated that the results from Google and Yahoo were superior to identical results found through Windows Live or a generic search engine.
 
 

What is a brand but perceptions? 

About ⅔ of the brain is used for processing visual information. This include areas that are multimodal, like the superior colliculus and some visual association areas. Specifically, ⅕ is dedicated to “visual-only” functioning. Approximately ⅘ of everything a child learns is acquired through his or her visual system. Design strategies can encompass a variety of tactics to make use of the strengths of each sense, i.e., the olfactory sense (smell) altogether bypasses the thalamus, and music still baffles scientists.

About ⅔ of the brain is used for processing visual information. This include areas that are multimodal, like the superior colliculus and some visual association areas. Specifically, ⅕ is dedicated to “visual-only” functioning.

Approximately  of everything a child learns is acquired through his or her visual system.

Design strategies can encompass a variety of tactics to make use of the strengths of each sense, i.e., the olfactory sense (smell) altogether bypasses the thalamus, and music still baffles scientists.


 
 
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Noam Tractinsky, an Israeli scientist, was puzzled. Attractive things certainly should be preferred over ugly ones, but why would they work better? Yet two Japanese researchers, Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura, claimed just that. They developed two forms of automated teller machines, the ATM machines that allow us to get money and do simple banking tasks any time of the day or night. Both forms were identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked, but one had the buttons and screens arranged attractively, the other unattractively. Surprise! The Japanese found that the attractive ones were easier to use. 

 

Tractinsky was suspicious. Maybe the experiment had flaws. Or perhaps the result would be true of Japanese, but certainly not of Israelis. “Clearly,” said Tractinsky, “aesthetic preferences are culturally dependent.” So Tractinsky redid the experiment. He got the ATM layouts from Kurosu and Kashimura, translated them from Japanese into Hebrew, and designed a new experiment, with rigorous methodological controls. Not only did he replicate the Japanese findings, but the results were stronger in Israel than in Japan, contrary to his belief that beauty and function “were not expected to correlate”—Tractinsky was so surprised that he put that phrase were not expected in italics, an unusual thing to do in a scientific paper. 

 

How does aesthetics affect how easy something is to use?

Donald Norman is an academic in the field of cognitive neuroscience, design, and usability engineering. His studies of emotion, conducted with his colleagues Andrew Ortony and William Revelle, Professors in the Psychology Department at Northwestern University, suggests that human attributes result from three different levels of brain mechanism.

Patrick Lynch summarises: In psychology, emotional reactions to stimuli are called affective responses. Affective responses happen very fast, and are governed in an automatic, unconscious way by the lower centres of the brain that also govern basic instincts (food, fear, sex, breathing, blinking, et cetera). Think of affective responses as the brain’s bottom-up reaction to what you see and feel. Cognitive responses are your brain’s slower, top-down, more considered responses. They’re governed by your personal cultural views, learning, experiences, and personal preferences that you are aware of and can easily articulate. Affective reactions assign value to your experiences; cognitive reactions assign meaning to what you see and use.

Affective and cognitive responses to visual stimuli are governed by a three-stage process in the brain, at visceral, behavioural, and reflective processing levels:

The visceral (“gut”) processing level reacts quickly to appearances. It’s the visceral reaction to web pages that researchers measure when they detect reaction times as fast as 50 milliseconds. It’s crucial to understand that these instant good/bad visceral-level affective responses are largely unconscious: it can take seconds or minutes to become consciously aware of your first, visceral reaction to a stimulus—particularly a stimulus as complex as a web page.

Behavioural-level processing involves the more familiar aspects of usability: it responds to the feel of using the site, the functionality, the understandability of the structure and navigation, and the overall physical performance of the site. At this level, users are consciously aware of their attitudes toward the behavior of the system, and their reactions (pleasure, for example, or frustration) play out over seconds and minutes as users interact with a site. It’s at this behavioural level that techniques such as eyetracking are most powerful and trustworthy, because they offer detailed moment-by-moment evidence of what users consciously decided to look at and do to fulfill a given task.

Reflective processing of reactions is the most complex level, and typically involves a user’s personal sense of a site’s beauty, meaning, cultural context, and immediate usefulness. Reflective processing often triggers memories and encourages pragmatic judgments about the overall aesthetic worth and value of what a user sees. Eyetracking and traffic logs are irrelevant at this level, but user interviews can give you insight into your user’s reflective judgments.

Visceral (affective) reactions can take a relatively long time to bubble up through layers of processing to enter conscious awareness at the behavioral or reflective levels, but that doesn’t mean that affective reactions don’t immediately influence thought. In fact, it’s the instant, pre-conscious pleasure of seeing a well designed page that makes you predisposed to find a beautiful design easy to use—an effect that lingers long after the slower, conscious behavioural and reflective levels of processing kick in and make you aware of how you feel about what you see.

 
 

Affect, which is inexplicably linked to attitudes, expectations and motivations, plays a significant role in the cognition of product interaction … the perception that affect and cognition are independent, separate information processing systems is flawed.
— Emotion as a Cognitive Artifact and the Design Implications for Products

 
 

The three levels in part reflect the biological origins of the brain, starting with primitive one-celled organisms and slowly evolving to more complex animals, to the vertebrates, the mammals and finally, the primates, of which we are a member.

Animals such as lizards operate primarily at the visceral level. This is the level of fixed routines, where the brain analyses the world and responds. Dogs and other mammals, however, have a higher level of analysis, the behavioural level, with a complex and powerful brain that can analyse a situation and alter behaviour accordingly. The behavioural level in human beings is especially valuable for well learned, routine operations. This is where the skilled performer excels.

At the highest evolutionary level of development, the human brain can think about its own operations. This is the home of reflection, of conscious thought, of the learning of new concepts and generalisations of the world. Sure, dogs can learn to do lots of actions, but they can’t think about them and come up with general knowledge in the way a person can.

The behavioural level is not conscious, which is why you can successfully drive your automobile subconsciously at the behavioural level while consciously thinking of something else at the reflective level. Skilled performers make use of this facility. Thus, skilled piano players can let their fingers play automatically while they reflect upon the higher-order structure of the music. This is why they can hold conversations while playing and why performers report instances of losing their place in the music and having to listen to their playing until they recognised the part: it was the reflective level that was lost, but the behavioural level did just fine.

× × ×

The story of the teapots illustrates several components of product design: usability (or lack thereof), aesthetics, and practicality. In creating a product, a designer has many factors to consider: the choice of material, the manufacturing method, the way the product is marketed, cost and practicality. How easy is the product to use, to understand?

What many people don’t realise is that there is also a strong emotional component to how products are designed and put to use. Norman argues that the emotional side of design may be more critical to a product’s success than its practical elements.

 

“Visceral design concerns itself with appearances. Here is where the Nanna teapot excels—I so enjoy its appearance, especially when filled with the amber hues of tea, lit from beneath by the flame of its warming candle.”

Visceral design concerns itself with appearances. Here is where the Nanna teapot excels—I so enjoy its appearance, especially when filled with the amber hues of tea, lit from beneath by the flame of its warming candle.”

“Finally, reflective design considers the rationalisation and intellectualisation of a product. Can I tell a story about it? Does it appeal to my self-image, to my pride? I love to show people how the tilting teapot (top-right) works, And this ‘teapot for masochists’ is entirely reflective. It isn’t particularly beautiful, and it’s certainly not useful, but what a wonderful story it tells!”    

“Finally, reflective design considers the rationalisation and intellectualisation of a product. Can I tell a story about it? Does it appeal to my self-image, to my pride? I love to show people how the tilting teapot (top-right) works, And this ‘teapot for masochists’ is entirely reflective. It isn’t particularly beautiful, and it’s certainly not useful, but what a wonderful story it tells!”

 

 

“Behavioural design has to do with the pleasure and effectiveness of use. Here the tilting teapot is a winner.” (Tilting it upright from from its back shifts the water from the tea leaves’ chamber, preventing bitterness.)

Behavioural design has to do with the pleasure and effectiveness of use. Here the tilting teapot is a winner.” (Tilting it upright from from its back shifts the water from the tea leaves’ chamber, preventing bitterness.)

 
 
Everything you do has both a cognitive and an affective component—cognitive to assign meaning, affective to assign value. You cannot escape affect: it is always there. More important, the affective state, whether positive or negative affect, changes how we think.
— Donald Norman
 

When you are in a state of negative affect, feeling anxious or endangered, the neurotransmitters focus the brain processing. Focus refers to the ability to concentrate upon a topic, without distraction, and then to go deeper and deeper into the topic until some resolution is reached. Focus also implies concentration upon the details. It is very important for survival, which is where negative affect plays a major role. Whenever your brain detects something that might be dangerous, whether through visceral or reflective processing, your affective system acts to tense muscles in preparation for action and to alert behavioural and reflective level to stop and concentrate upon the problem. The neurotransmitters bias the brain to focus upon the problem and avoid distractions. This is just what you need to do in order to deal with danger.

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When you are in a state of positive affect, the very opposite actions take place. Now, neurotransmitters broaden the brain processing, the muscles can relax, and the brain attends to the opportunities offered by the positive affect. The broadening means that you are now far less focused, far more likely to be receptive to interruptions, and to attending to any novel idea or event. Positive affect arouses curiosity, engages creativity, and makes the brain into an effective learning organism. With positive affect, you are more likely to see the forest than the trees, to prefer the big picture and not to concentrate upon details. On the other hand, when you are sad or anxious, feeling negative affect, you are more likely to see the trees before the forest, the details before the big picture.

 


 

 

— In other words —

How we “think” cannot be separated from how we “feel”