The Gray Area between Aesthetics and Functionality

2 03 2011

Don Norman’s “Attractive Things Work Better” makes a persuasive case that aesthetics play an important role in a product’s usability. He makes the conclusion that visually appealing things improve one’s mood, and that people will be more tolerant when things go wrong if they are in a good mood. Norman presents findings from his studies showing that a brain in positive mood is more open to learning, distraction, and creative thoughts. On the other hand, a brain in a negative mood has a very narrow range of processing, making one concentrate harder on the task at hand. From these studies he concludes that if something looks attractive, the designer will be able to get away with more, and users will find it easier to use.

Image taken from smashingmagazine.com

 Norman’s article provides much to think about. Can the attractiveness of a website really have that much of an effect on it’s usability? Louis Lazaris of Smashing Magazine seems to think just the opposite in his article. He argues that the plain looking, older version of the Facebook homepage is just as usable, and perhaps more so than the newer, flashier homepage. Another article from Smashing Magazine highlights some websites that focus solely on attractiveness, but have huge usability issues. Clearly aesthetics alone cannot compensate for poor design.

Who’s side should you as a designer choose? Even Norman states that “there is no simple set of rules”. All of us have different tastes and preferences and it’s impossible to make everyone happy. It is clear that pushing too far in either direction will not provide the best results. Norman’s article does not say that we should ignore usability completely, but rather points out that enhancing the visual aesthetic of a product can aid users and create a more positive user experience. Functionality should remain a priority in design, but evidence like what Norman is putting forward makes it clear that designers should not forget the essential role aesthetics plays in the user experience. There appears to be no clear answer or formula here for acheiving that perfect balance, leaving yet another grey area for us designers to manage on our own…

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Sketching it Out

9 02 2011

Image credit- Scott A Savage via flickr.com

Sketching ideas can be an excellent way to communicate concepts to others, as Mark Baskinger outlines in his article, “Pencils Before Pixels”. But sketching our ideas doesn’t come easily to everyone. Many of us are self-concious of our drawing skills and this limits our ability to express our ideas. How many times have you heard someone say they can’t draw? In the end, it’s this type of thinking that prevents us from being able to put our thoughts onto paper. The truth of it is, skill has very little to do with it. We all have the ability to draw to an extent, and the only way to get better is throug practice. One suggestion I’ve read in many places is to sketch with a black marker as opposed to a pencil. A marker is a lot more permanent than a pencil, which means you need to have committed to the idea before you’ve even begun to draw it. This may sound a bit scary, as you can’t erase any mistakes you make with a marker. However, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? As Joshua Brewer of 52weeksofux.com states, “The sketch is not the end goal. The end goal of the drawing process is what you learn while sketching.” One could even argue the more mistakes you make, the better. In order to fully explore an idea, it must be drawn from many perspectives and the more you sketch the idea, the more refined it will become.

While all of these suggestions are great, I personally struggle with knowing exactly what to draw. I often find it easier to express my ideas in words first before I start sketching. Baskinger’s solution for this is to ease into it. He’s even provided worksheets to help with the transistion. Of course, practice makes perfect, and the more often you sketch your ideas the better you’ll get. For people who are still a bit hesitant, there are places like uistencils.com that sell helpful tools like browser template sketchpads and stencils. Sitting down and sketching out your ideas before touching the computer is an essential step in the evolution of a design, so what are you waiting for? Pick up a marker and start sketching today!

Additional resources:

Jason Robb has an exellent article on sketching at uxbooth.

A flickr group has been created for the sharing of ux sketches.

Some of the original concept sketches for well-known websites.