The aesthetic-genius effect

Can great design create phantom features?

Studies have shown we often feel that visually pleasing products work better. Other research points out that when someone is considered an expert in one field, we bestow them similar respect in other areas despite their lack of expertise. The question is whether these two effects combine? Are we prone to award imaginary features to beautiful products?

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been observing and conducting interviews exploring the experience and emotion people have about their financial products and services. Whereas once a bank account’s interface was seen as a functional piece of design, our interviews supported the view that customers are now thinking more about the design experience of finance more than ever before. Customers have woken up to the opportunities a well-designed financial system can give them, often citing new finTech services such as Monzo Bank as the jolt they needed to rethink how managing their money could be — indeed what it should be.

Monzo Bank

During these sessions, I observed something peculiar. When talking about a product they particularly liked, people often described features that the product simply did not have. Moreover, they cited the reason for using the product — and thinking it so revolutionary — was down to these fictional features. If it was only the odd one or two people in our sessions who exhibited this response, we could certainly put it down to their lack of knowledge or experience with the product. But we started to see a broader pattern and across different genders and age groups.

I wondered if this could be explained by two effects described in the fields of psychology and human-experience design: the aesthetic-usability effect and the genius fallacy.

The Aesthetic-Usability Effect

Definition: The aesthetic-usability effect refers to users’ tendency to perceive attractive products as more usable. People tend to believe that things that look better will work better, even if they aren’t actually more effective or efficient. — Nielsen Norman Group

First studied in the fledgeling days of human-computer interaction, the effect has since been researched extensively and shows the effect visual design and interaction has on our perception of functionality. Visually pleasing systems, services and interfaces have a higher probability of being used, whether or not they are actually easier to use or not.

The most familiar example, and admittedly the most overused, is how the visual design of Apple’s products helped them reach their current level of success. Think back to 1998 and the ranks of desks flanked with beige boxes, beige screens and beige keyboards. A beleaguered Apple was on its knees and desperate to be relevant in a micro-world dominated by hardware from Dell and Hewlett Packard running Microsoft software. Then out pops the first iMac with its Bondi Blue translucent casing, looking more like a martian pregnant microwave than a computer. The radical shift in their vision targeted competitors from a new angle, using design and not functionality as their differentiator.

Apple’s iMac looking more like a martian pregnant microwave than a computer.

Did Apple’s computers also work better, functionally and technically? I’ll leave that argument to the tech-geeks, but it’s certainly true that Apple customers felt they did. While the Apple v Microsoft usability debate was raging long before the iMac, it unarguably was the design experience that gave Apple its advantage and has continued to be their central guiding principle across their product range. If you’re brave enough to ask an iPhone user if they think their experience is better than their Android counterpart, I think you know the response you’ll get.

The Genius Fallacy

Definition: Part of the Appeal to Authority Fallacy, the genius effect is when someone who is certainly a genius in one area, is offered up as an authoritative source in some wholly different area. – Logically Fallacious

Einstein’s secrets to a longer life. Steve Job’s tips on managing your budget. The Tesla diet. A physicist isn’t qualified to impart health advice, a tech-entrepreneur may have money but isn’t necessarily financially astute, and Tesla make cars. When someone or something becomes elevated in our minds to a position of authority, we easily forget to partition this to their respective field. Genius isn’t a transferable skill.

Colgate’s ready-meals weren’t a mint idea.

Is this true for ‘things’ as well as people? If not, no company would seek opportunities to leverage success in other areas and marketing teams would be devoid of the term ‘brand extension’. In some cases, you can see the advantage. When Apple moved into watches, it seemed just a step-on from the iPhone. When Google launched online maps, it felt like a continuation of their search engine. And even back in 1984 when Virgin Records announced their airline ambitions it didn’t appear that weird. Virgin Airlines was certainly less odd than Colgate’s range of ready meals, Harley Davidson’s perfume, Evian Water’s Bra, and almost any product that has the word ‘Trump’ preceding it.

During our interviews, people quoted Monzo Bank again and again. Across the board, those who had heard of the UK financial start-up, and used it, loved it. Ranging from the gentle positivity of “Banks should have done this a long time ago” to the raging advocates who declared they were in love with it and couldn’t do without it. For what is essentially a bank account, it was the closest I’ve heard to an Apple-like dedication for finance.

The curious part is how people happily extolled the virtues of the service, and how many of these were non-existent. For example, people loved how Monzo made their life easier by pulling-in their balances from other accounts and credit cards into one place — the problem is that it doesn’t (well, at least not yet). Could the combined power of the aesthetic-usability effect and the genius fallacy be blurring the lines about what it does and what people simply wished it did?

Weakness and a call-out

While I found this intriguing enough to write about, I admit this may just be a one-off. Our interview sample was terribly small, and our recruitment process could have included a bias. This observation wasn’t the purpose of the interviews; it was merely a side-effect I found interesting.

In the world of design and UX, we chat to people all the time about their experiences and feelings towards products and services. Have you seen any examples of something similar? I’d be interested in exploring if the design of a product helps elevate it to genius level, does it sometimes also produce an alchemic reaction to create phantom features in the mind of the user?