When the going gets tough the beautiful get going

Your spacecraft is spiraling out of control and you will hit Planet Zorg unless you quickly fire up the thermal afterboosters. You fumble for the starter button in the tumbling cockpit….

Which of the two buttons below is more likely to allow you to fire up the boosters on time? Would you be more likely to survive if the cockpit designer had installed the button on the left or on the right?

As it turns out, the button on the left is the better one. But why?

recent article in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review by researchers Reppa and McDougall investigated the role that aesthetics can play in task performance. In a nutshell, they asked whether beautiful things are processed better.

There is a body work that suggests that judgments of aesthetic appeal are strongly associated with our expectation of how easy it will be to use a product. A beautiful pencil sharpener (on the left below) makes us think that it will work better than a more cumbersome design (on the right below).

One limitation of existing studies has been that they did not always differentiate between different aspects of aesthetic appeal: Some things appeal to us because of their color, others because of their complexity or because of their familiarity, to name but a few other important variables.

Reppa and McDougall resolved those potential problems by simultaneously manipulating the aesthetic appeal of stimuli and other variables—such as complexity—that are known to be associated with aesthetic appeal and also performance. They conducted two studies in which participants’ performed a search-and-localisation task with a fixed number of distractors. Participants first memorised a target icon and then searched for it among an array of nine other “distractor” icons, similar to the way you would search for the thermal booster start button on your spaceship’s instrument panel.

The results were consistent across both studies: Appealing icons were found faster than their less appealing counterparts, but only when the task was difficult. That is, when the icons were complex, abstract, or unfamiliar, there was a clear advantage for the more aesthetically appealing targets. By contrast, when the icons were visually simple, concrete, or familiar, aesthetic appeal no longer mattered.

Although the effect might appear small at first glance—aesthetic appeal speeded responding by roughly 1/10thof a second—this can be quite significant: “Savings of even a few milliseconds at a time all add up when one is performing multi-step interactions on a website or a mobile phone,” says Reppa. “This might make people avoid some interfaces, such as certain websites or phones, in favour of those that maximise efficient performance.”

Anyone who has battled a bad wifi connection or a slow 3G signal on a smartphone will appreciate the value of waiting 1/10th of a second less for a response from a website.

In the figure at the top of this post, by the way, both icons are complex but the one on the left has greater aesthetic appeal than the one on the right—that’s why the left button would be the better one to put into your space ship.

The results of Reppa and McDougall are of particular interest because they reveal an effect of aesthetic appeal in circumstances in which “higher level” cognitive effects are minimized. That is, participants in their study were never asked (or told) about the aesthetics of the stimuli, and the task was so straightforward that it is unlikely to have involved much conscious deliberation.

Visionary leaders and innovators have long had an intuitive grasp of the importance of aesthetic appeal and simplicity in industrial design—perhaps none more so than Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, whose commitments to aesthetics and simplicity were legendary. Sadly, it appears as though many designers did not follow Jobs’ visionary intuition. Perhaps the data will finally convince them that design has important performance implications.

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