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The Importance of Beauty in Product Design

Nelson Leung

Nelson Leung

Senior Design Lead

January 16, 2020

Don Norman begins his book Emotional Design with an anecdote about three teapots. The first one is visually interesting yet ergonomically unusable, the second he describes as “squat and chubby in nature”, while the third is complicated but practical. Don makes tea every morning but never uses any of the three teapots. Instead, he elects to brew tea in his mug. He does this because, in the morning, efficiency comes first.

Still, he keeps all three teapots because he enjoys how they look perched by his kitchen window. When he entertains, he’s found that the squat and chubby one is most appealing and charming to guests.

Many factors go into a successful product. The need to consider usability, cost, performance, aesthetics, and practicality is ubiquitous in any mature design process. At Connected, we group these considerations under the banners of feasibility, viability, and desirability, all of which we believe are critical to driving product success. The teapot story, however, attempts to illustrate the book’s central argument: “The emotional side of design may be more critical to a product’s success than its practical elements.” 

These days, solving for practical elements of a product is a finely tuned and well-rehearsed dance. A vast majority of processes call for deep research immersion phases, producing insights as the kindling for innovation. Uncovering jobs, pains, and gains, and testing assumptions through prototypes is central to many approaches and Connected is no different.

However, as we race to produce solutions that fit a user’s needs, we are prone to reducing people to nothing more than a set of jobs, pains, and gains to solve for. A process that is hyper-focused on solving functional needs is one that overlooks the deeply emotional ways people relate to experiences.

As we moved towards repeatable processes, it became acceptable to pay less and less attention to the beauty and style of a product. Care in aesthetics got pushed later and later in the process, and at worse, pushed outside a designer’s role altogether. This is a mistake—although bad design, when done intentionally, can be a useful learning tool.

At every step of the product development process, beauty plays an important role. Neglecting it handicaps more than just the end product.

Why we love beautiful things

Why are we drawn to objects or places that are pleasurable to look at? It is nebulous to think about; however, there are hints around us. After all, the old adage of “eating with one’s eyes” is not far from the truth. Unsurprisingly, research has also proven that when it comes to food, “we lead with our eyes and our tongues follow.”

Plato wrote of beauty being more than just an object that is pleasurable to look at. In his writings, he used the word Kalon, which in greek describes something beautiful, both physically and morally. He theorized that humans constantly seek an idealized perfect version of something and that beauty is a measurement of the vector towards that end.

Plato puts forth the idea that we are drawn to beauty because it signals the perfect ideal we aspire to attain. A visually symmetrical object alludes to a feeling of fairness and equality. A visually harmonious object prompts in us a feeling of a harmonious life.

The philosopher wrote mainly of art and nature, but this is also true of product design. It is shortsighted to say that people like beautiful products simply because they like to look at nice things. Going deeper, it is more accurate to state that people like beautiful products because they align with the feeling of progress they want to make towards a perfect ideal. 

Beauty is not an add-on—it is an accurate expression of its utility. A beautiful product needs its purpose to be tightly intertwined with its visual expression. But, more often than not, a product’s purpose is hindered by its ugliness.

How we process experiences

The human brain processes experiences in three ways: viscerally, behaviourally, and finally, reflectively. It is best described in this excerpt from Don Norman’s book:

“The visceral level of design refers to the first impression of a design, both in terms of how the user perceives the product and how it makes the user feel. The behavioral level refers to the experience of the product in use… The reflective level refers to the user’s reflections about the product, both before, during, and after use. The three levels all combine to form the entire product experience.”

Don Norman

As people process experiences differently before, during, and after they use a product. Each stage requires a different design approach with a different emphasis on beauty.

Designing at the visceral level

At the visceral level, the brain makes rapid judgments by evaluating whether something is good or bad, safe or dangerous, enjoyable or cumbersome. Before a product is used, assumptions will be made about its worth. Don Norman writes: “Visceral design is about the initial impact of a product, about its appearance, touch, and feel.” When we speak of beauty at the visceral level, we are speaking more of the attractiveness of a product—its aesthetic draw.

No designer sets forth a goal of creating a non-attractive product. Realistically, there are often practical justifications for deprioritizing a product’s visual appearance. Sometimes it is a matter of resources, but often it is due to lack of clarity. 

Products are often released with an intentionally neutral stance, hoping to appeal to a wide audience. Designers hedge visually in order to not offend. However, the result is a product that functions well but is so inoffensive that it is utterly forgettable. Designing at the visceral level requires a firm understanding of a product’s target audience.

The opportunity of subjectivity

How then do we account for the idea of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder?” Without going into philosophies around the origins of taste and the existence of universal beauty, it is generally true that what’s beautiful for one person might not be so for another. What’s also true, is beauty for one audience is likely not for another and therein lies the opportunity.

Branding is often misunderstood as the logo that gets slapped on to the final product. In reality, its purpose is to clearly communicate and amplify why a company/product exists. Very few products are made to solve for the mass market, at least not at first. Effective branding allows people to understand what is offered and whether or not it is for them.

Designing for first impressions

As much as branding and marketing play a big part in communicating value, the responsibility is not solely theirs. Product designers need to take into account the various touchpoints their product will have with their most valuable users.

As much as it feels passé and counter-agile to release an experience that is polished and buttoned up, the reality is we often only get one fleeting moment to make an impact. Whether that is a sign-up screen, an app store screenshot, or even a home screen icon, it is a designer’s responsibility to present the product attractively and accurately. We need to strive for the moment where someone sees what we made and responds: “I want it.”

Designing at the behavioral level

Once a product is put in a customer’s hands, how the product looks is of lesser concern. It needs to work—both well and quickly. Still, there is a role for attractiveness to play, even when our users are engaged on a functional level.

Beauty helps in testing

prototypes showing the difference between testing with a wireframe and testing with something that is designed

There is a common approach that calls for interfaces that are completely devoid of any visual style. Often, user testing is done intentionally with low-fidelity prototypes for fear of biasing the results. A sound argument can be made for the need to move quickly and focus efforts on functionality. Bare-bone, paper prototypes are an effective way to validate for task completion.

However, where possible, spending resources on the attractiveness of a product can only enhance results and smooth over any rough patches. Injecting elements of animation, micro-interaction, and color cues increases the enjoyment of use and, in turn, increases the overall usability of the product.

Beautiful things work better

Don Norman writes: “Attractive things do work better—their attractiveness produces positive emotions, causing mental processes to be more creative, more tolerant of minor difficulties.”

Studies have shown that when we are more relaxed, we are better at finding solutions. Happy people are better able to creatively solve problems that a product might cause and are more tolerant of UX hiccups. However, the inverse is also true; ugly interfaces have a lower margin of error for task completion.

We should be clear in stating that if an interface is already rife with UX problems, no amount of visual polish will solve that. In fact, if a flow is invariably broken, any kind of aesthetic improvement can only be seen as frivolous ornamentation.

Designing at the reflective level

Where the previous two levels were narrow in scope, the reflective level is a zoomed-out impression of the product itself, as well as its related experiences. At this level, people will consider the total appeal of the product as well as how it relates to their self-image, personal satisfaction, and the lasting memory it leaves.

At the reflective level, people will assess whether the product is worth telling others about. They will gauge whether they will proudly display it in their home or on their home screen. As much care as there is in crafting an attractive first impression, an equal, if not greater care, must be taken to support and evolve an on-going product.

Improvements need to be felt

The pinnacle of user experience design exists at the reflective level. The product has been invited into the user journey and it is through continuous improvement that we earn our keep. However, in any product backlog, aesthetic upgrades struggle to supersede the business value of show-stopping bugs or performance upgrades. Still, from a user’s point of view, if something still looks broken, even if it works better, they are not likely to use it. 

Though they may appear to be of lesser value, it is still important to roll out aesthetic improvements in tandem with functional ones. While users may not notice a product working faster, cosmetic upgrades can act as a proxy for those performance boosts that get overlooked. A product needs to feel like it’s getting better—visual upgrades are the most tangible way to get that across. Beauty is not an add-on, it is an accurate expression of its utility.

Beauty = impact

And so we return to the teapots, the squat, chubby one in particular. 

On a visceral level it drew in the eyes of the buyer, on a behavioral level it steeps and pours, and on the reflective level it takes the user back to the intimate moments they shared with friends and family around a steaming cup of tea. 

Banishing a designer interested in beauty would have seen the teapot thrown out before it was ever made. Practicality alone would have said that it wasn’t physically optimized for use, that the process of making tea in it took too long for it to be used regularly, and as a result, its lack of use would have negated its opportunity to create moments worth remembering. 

A product’s beauty—and the individual notion each person has of what beauty is—can be the very thing that makes it usable. Earlier, we answered the question of why we love beautiful things. In reality, the answer isn’t that important. It’s the fact that we love beauty that matters. And it’s why beauty is a critical factor for any product builder who wants to impact the lives of their users.

Additional reading: What Not to Do – The Beauty of Bad Product Design

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