Be Aware of Aesthetic-Usability Effect in User Research

No matter what people say, first impressions do make an impact. People do judge a book by its cover. That’s why the dating app works.

Aleph Publications
6 min readJan 6, 2021


ATM experiment

In 1995, Japanese researchers, Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura, from Hitachi Design Center did a famous ATM test.

They wanted to find the existing correlation (or maybe none) between a good-looking design and users’ perception of ease to use, i.e., the answer to questions such as “Are beautiful things easy to use?”, and “Do usable things have to be beautiful enough?”, or even “Do first impressions really matter?”

They wanted to set aside so-called first impression judgment and take a look at complete logical thinking towards a design. Though the process and design of the test were complicated, I am going to simplify it with this picture below:

Despite sharing an identical layout and functions, the ATM interface with a more attractive design is perceived to be easier to use.

They categorized 26 variations of ATM user interfaces into two big groups: one group having rigid, traditional and serious buttons as well as layouts on the screens, while the other group having cute, funny and more attractive buttons. However, all versions of these ATM user interfaces were having identical functions, the number of buttons and the logic behind how they operated.

At the end of test, they found that the attractive ATMs were perceived to be easier to use. Therefore, they concluded that:

Users are strongly influenced by the aesthetics of any given interface, even when they try to evaluate the underlying functionality of the system.

The second ATM experiment

Noam Tractinsky, an Israeli scientist, was not convinced by the above experiment. He thought that the experiment had flaws of social and cultural influence. He would argue that maybe “aesthetic preferences are culturally dependent”, and suggested that “Japanese culture is known for its aesthetic tradition.” For Israelis, it would be a different story — Israelis are action-oriented, which means traditionally they do not really care about beauty.

Therefore, Tractinsky repeated the experiment. He got the ATM layouts from Kurosu and Kashimura, translating them from Japanese to Hebrew, and designed a new experiment with rigorous methodological controls. He believed that by having these carefully set up parameters in this experiment, he would validate his assumptions which are against the conclusion of Japanese researchers. The result, however, completely shocked him.

Not only did he replicate the Japanese findings, but the correlation between the participants’ ratings of aesthetic appeal and perceived ease of use was even stronger in Israeli than Japanese. This second ATM experiment undoubtedly emphasized the way how human brains relate beauty and usability.

What we have known so far

If we dig further into this concept, it is not difficult for us to relate to our interactions with every objects in our daily life.

We tend to judge people by the first impressions, even though we are told trying not to do so. We tend to spend much more money on Apple products compared to other brands because they look better, and we trust they will work better too (they do work well, therefore the aesthetic taste becomes the value add-on). We tend to swipe right for the cards with hot girls and handsome guys on Tinder because we believe beautiy has an underlying relationship with their personality, and that’s why dating app works.

However, it is worth to point out that aesthetics should be built upon usability, not replacing or masking usability. Aesthetics should be the strings of number zero behind number one, but if a product only produces an aesthetic feeling rather than helping users to complete actual tasks, it can only be called artwork, not a usable product. Don Norman gave a perfect example in his book “Emotional Design”:

"Coffeepot for Masochists" by Jacques Carelman
“Coffeepot for Masochists” by Jacques Carelman

The pot above is known as the “Coffeepot for Masochists” design by French painter Jacques Carelman. It is a nice art piece with a cruel fact: you just can’t enjoy a hot drink without getting yourself burnt. It is playful, lovely and artistically shaped, but with only aesthetics present, it cannot be treated as a perfect tool.

"Nanna teapot" by Michael Grave
“Nanna teapot” by Michael Grave

Another teapot Don Norman mentioned is the “Nanna teapot” designed by American architect Michael Grave. It is a perfect example of combing aesthetics with usability – the three stages of tilting position helps the user to complete the procedures of tea brewing, while it is also atheistically designed in a way to give a strong sense of elegance. Aesthetics on top of the usability will generate something people not only finding it useful but also playful at the same time.

Application in user research

We need to be cautious when it comes to visuals in user research, as the aesthetic-usability effect normally takes place subconsciously. Understanding it is critical for decision-making in resource allocation during the product planning phase, but it also has implications for interface evaluation.

The timing really matters. The aesthetic-usability effect can potentially prevent you from discovering usability issues.

When the aesthetic-usability effect happened in the real life of your product, it can be a good thing, as your team’s investment in creating a beautiful UI is paying off and connecting with your target audience.

However, when the aesthetic-usability effect happens during user research, it can potentially prevent you from discovering usability issues. Another way to put this — the aesthetic-usability effect is interfering, it is a beautiful sugar coating and facade to cover up the underlying usability issues. Not always true but most likely yes.

I have seen design teams creating a few design alternatives with little difference among them, showing them to a group of users (sometimes just one or two), and ask which one they prefer, without getting them actual hands-on with the interactions designed. This is so wrong if users have not actually tried to use them — they will just base on their first impression and biased by the correlation developed subconsciously on more beautiful design, “this looks nicer, so I will go with this.” It would be catastrophic if the person looking at these designs is a decision-maker of a company, as such method is very misguided by the aesthetic-usability effect.

Another example: a spinning logo with fascinating transition might look pretty cool, if you don’t need to accomplish anything on the page, therefore it’s okay to be used as a loader when transiting from page to page. But it’s a disaster when you intend to show it at a place where the user has to complete a task, it serves no good rather than distracting and annoying users.

During user research, we should pay close attention to what users do and how it relates to what they say. Actually, to achieve a better user research result we should follow these three basic rules of usability:

  • watch what people actually do
  • do not believe what people say they do
  • definitely do not believe what people perfidy they may do in the future

Conclusion and key takeaways

The aesthetic-usability effect describes the correlation between attractive design and the perception of ease of use. It’s critical to notice this effect during the user research phase as it will potentially mask the usability issue. However, it would be great if it’s spotted among real users after the design is completed, as they will enjoy the way along their user journey.

To summarize:

  • Aesthetically pleasing design can make users more tolerant of minor usability issues.
  • Aesthetically pleasing design creates a positive response in people’s brains and leads them to believe the design actually works better.
  • Aesthetically pleasing design can mask usability problems and prevent issues from being discovered during usability testing.

With these concepts in mind, I’d say a product designer/user researcher will have stronger confidence and sharper insights when conducting design and research activities. We should always bear in mind that first impression is not always perceived as correct, but we should never forget to add a sense of humour and playfulness as a final touch to the design, so that people will not only use your product more efficiently, but they will also enjoy the engagement with your design.



Aleph Publications

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