Does function trump form in application design?

utility knife

There’s a principle of application design that beautiful means usable, but a new study out of Google suggests that’s not always the case. Rather, the researchers found, while beauty doesn’t necessarily affect perceived usability, poor usability can negatively affect perceived beauty. The study is far from conclusive, but as consumerization continues to sweep through software design, it might offer some warning worth heeding. Nobody wants a reputation as selling a product that’s both unusable and ugly.

The subject is on the top of my mind after recently writing a piece for GigaOM Pro in which I look at the evolution of user interfaces and user experiences within big data applications (subscription req’d). In that piece, I looked at the current state of the art in terms of creating broadly accessible big data applications, and how startups such as Platfora and ClearStory are looking to looking to take it to the next level by creating visually compelling applications usable even by everyday businesspeople. They’ll soon be joined by even more companies trying to make big data even more intuitive.

After reading the study (which focused on e-commerce sites, not business apps) my concern, which isn’t limited to big data by any means, is that companies striving for broad appeal might place beauty too far ahead of usability. As they design for mobile devices first, and as they do everything to stand apart from the enterprise applications and even the successful next-generation applications they’re trying to replace, there might be a temptation to focus too much on the surface level.

Even Google — the master of utilitarian design — has been guilty of this from time to time, rolling out a new Gmail or Reader interface, or search results layout, that initially has users saying it’s ugly because they haven’t yet adjusted to using it. But Google is Google, it’s entrenched and ubiquitous. Startups are not.

The study suggests the answer to effective design may be to reconceive how we think about design in the first place. Aesthetic attributes such as “clean” and “organized,” they say, might also be viewed as usability atributes, which might help explain the correlation between poor usability and the perception of bad design.

Or maybe, they note, it’s just a matter of poor usability putting participants in a bad mood: “the evaluation of aesthetics is influenced by the user’s affective response caused by the interaction experience.”

Whatever the case, the study raises some questions to ponder for anyone building applications, especially those trying to reach a broad audience with consumer-friendly interfaces. Those applications often gain traction from the bottom up, garnering more users as positive word of mouth grows, which means reputation is everything. The study suggests poor usability will make even the most-beautiful applications seem less beautiful — imagine those that are only marginally beautiful to begin with.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user megastocker.

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