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February 06, 2009

Aesthetic Interactions

Posted in: User Experience Design, User Interface

There is much conversation in the interaction design world about the number of clicks required to perform a given task. There are usability teams out there with stop watches and video cameras timing how long it takes users to move through a flow. While these exercises are enlightening, they often miss the more critical question: how does a user feel about interacting with the UI? We have heard this enigmatic success criterion described as the whole “user experience”, but the this term doesn’t give much insight into how we might evaluate the value of an interface.

If we can’t measure the true value of an interface solely with clicks or milliseconds, how might we establish another criterion to evaluate the impact of a design? Fortunately interface design is not the first industry to deal with this question. Architecture, lettering and typography, industrial design, communication design and fashion all have practical and emotional impacts. These fields have relied on the study of aesthetics to help evaluate their work.

While aesthetic principles overlap from one design field to another, each discipline has its own vocabulary and emphasis. Below is a list of seven criteria to evaluate the aesthetic impact of a design. This is not a complete list, nor is it an easy recipe for good design. It does not replace user testing and research (I’ll share more thoughts on that later). However, it does give a framework to understand why users are reacting to a given design.

1 / The beauty of efficiency

It can be mesmerizing to watch a skilled craftsman do something they have repeated thousands of times. Whether a skilled DJ on a turntable or a fish thrower in a marketplace, over time they have trained their muscles to the most efficient path. The result is beautiful. An interaction that is optimized to the most efficient flow can be similarly beautiful.

2 / The beauty of complexity

From the intricate textures in jazz to the workings of a mechanical watch, complexity can evoke a sense of wonder. Complexity doesn’t have to mean more work for the user. Even the most simple designs can benefit from apparent complexity of thought or complexity of production or manufacture. Subtle hints to users showing that “Hey, someone thought about this” can go a long way. Sometimes more is more.

3 / The beauty of hierarchy

If you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing. Establishing clear structure can create calm out of chaos. Conversely, an unclear hierarchy can be used to create dissonance when required.

4 / The beauty of continuity

Interfaces are often described by their states. The question to ask is: what is the relationship between the states? Transitions between states and pathways through a screen can either be smooth or disjointed, depending on the desired effect.

5 / The beauty of patterns

Using familiar metaphors and patterns can be practical, helping users know more easily what to do, but repetition can also be beautiful. Rhythms can be created within a UI, and within the broader UI landscape.

6 / The beauty of surprise

The counterpoint to patterns and continuity is surprise. Patterns are more interesting with randomness mixed in. Surprise is also the most basic form of humor, understood almost immediately by infants. Like hierarchy, surprise depends on contrast. If everything is surprising, nothing is.

7 / The beauty of interaction

While all aesthetic experiences require some participation, interactive experiences are unique in their depth of user involvement. There is a specific joyful emotion that comes with the power to manipulate our environment. One simple example might be the experience of hearing a purring engine roar as you tap the gas pedal. With interaction, the lines between design and use are blurred.

A Note About Context: How Users Define Value
No conversation about aesthetics would be complete without some discussion of context. It is clear that different cultural contexts establish value differently. Some favor the complexity and control of many features while others favor efficiency. Some contexts demand dissonance and surprise (think gaming). Other contexts demand familiar patterns and clear continuity (think banking). When designers understand and are able to balance the subtleties of context and aesthetics, interactions become not only useful, but inspiring.

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