Beauty’s in the Eye of the User

Does an Attractive Site Really Make for a Usable Experience?

The notion that a more attractive website is naturally more usable has been so long-repeated it’s nearly folklore. But is this maxim true? Usability researchers John Grishin and Douglas J. Gillan put this rule of thumb to the test with experiments testing aesthetics and usability as independent variables. Their scholarly research, “Exploring the Boundary Effects of Aesthetics on Perceived Usability” published in the “Journal of Usability Studies” examines whether aesthetics have any bearing on usability and whether repeated use of a product changes users’ perceptions of the site’s attractiveness as it pertains to usability. In other words, does looking good actually make a piece of technology easy to use?

Previous scholarly research had shown that apparent usability doesn’t necessarily equal actual usability. Grishin and Gillan sought to examine whether that perception of aesthetics and usability held out over continued use of an interface as users gained more familiarity with that interface. They hypothesized that over repeated use of a website, aesthetics would have less bearing on whether users found that site more usable.

Grishin and Gillan conducted two experiments. First, they showed participants four sets of images of a potential website. The first set was attractive and easy-to-use and the second was aesthetically-pleasing but with lower usability. The third set of images was considerably less attractive but with a high degree of usability, and the final set was both less attractive and less usable. (Ya gotta feel bad for that fourth image set.) After viewing each image block, viewers filled out a 3-question survey on their perceptions of the design and its ease of use before moving on to the next image block. Participants then viewed the images again and answered questions about their perception of how usable they thought each interface would be without actually interacting with it.

In the second portion of the experiment, Grishin and Gillan measured participants’ perceptions of the site based on actually completing tasks. The authors collected participants’ time on task, their page views on task, and their task completion success/fail rates.

In a research version of “how it started/how it’s going,” Grishin and Gillan’s initial hypothesis was that aesthetics only affected users’ first impressions of a site. Their results, however, revealed that aesthetics didn’t factor much into users’ perceptions of usability at all — suggesting that designers would better serve users by focusing on the ease with which tasks can be accomplished on a site rather than on its visual appeal.

Grishin and Gillan have some suggestions for designers — primarily to put usability before aesthetics. In other words, prioritize the user’s ability to accomplish what they need on a site. And furthermore, they add, in usability testing it’s an excellent idea to survey user perception of a site’s usability and attractiveness after you’ve run a practice test with them but before they actually use the interface being tested.

Grishin and Gillan offer some ways their study also might have been better-designed, but there was one variable I was surprised they didn’t consider and that’s the role that content design, taxonomies, and UX writing play in both aesthetics and usability. Intuitive taxonomies that match users’ own mental categories can certainly have a big impact on whether a user interface is easy or difficult to use. If aesthetics don’t play as big a role in usability as previously thought, it’d be fascinating and helpful to find out how writing impacts use as well.


Exploring the Boundary Conditions of the Effect of Aesthetics on Perceived Usability, by John Grishin and Douglas J. Gillan

Viewpoint Written by Erica Lies, Texas State University

Edited by Anjanie R. Fairbairn, Texas State University

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