Aesthetics and usability

July 2, 2018

When someone visits your website, you have seconds to convey to them that you are worth their time. What's the most significant factor in users deciding whether you are legit? Aesthetics.

Formally, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, art, and taste. Aesthetics is the language of beauty. In a digital context, we perceive beauty through layout choices, color, type, photography, and more. I hope to persuade you that aesthetics isn't just a periphery subject. Dedication to aesthetic excellence can dictate how successful your brand becomes

The Aesthetic-Usability Effect

Multiple studies have observed something called the aesthetic-usability effect. In short, it has shown that users intuit aesthetically pleasing design as more usable than less aesthetically pleasing design. The effect can actually disguise poor usability. Translation: If your aesthetics are great, but usability isn't great, users are likely to think your usability IS great.

BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford, conducted a study where over 2,600 people evaluated the credibility of two different websites in a similar field. They collected and analyzed feedback from the participants to find what features made the site seem credible.

The most common feature that was mentioned (46%) in the study was the "design look." Aesthetics were the most significant factor that made a website stand out as credible. That's pretty impressive, especially when you consider that number was higher than the responses that mentioned the actual content of the site itself.

Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura, researchers studying the effect in Tokyo, found similar results in their study. 

"...Apparent usability is less correlated with the inherent usability compared to the apparent beauty. ... This suggests that the user may be strongly affected by the aesthetic aspect of the interface even when they try to evaluate the interface in its functional aspects, and it is suggested that the interface designers should strive not only to improve the inherent usability but also brush up the apparent usability or the aesthetic aspect of the interface."

I don't advocate that anyone try and slide poor usability under the rug. Research has also shown that there is a point of no return with lousy usability, where the effect no longer works. 

Companies focused on improving the usability of their digital experiences have a massive advantage over companies who don't since good usability correlates with higher conversion rates. So yes, relentlessly enhance your website's usability.

I would suggest that the same amount of attention and detail should be invested in a website's continual aesthetic improvement. These studies show that the apparent beauty of website design is informing the user's perception of the credibility of the site. 


Why do aesthetics make such a difference? They create trust. The emotional nature of aesthetics connects it strongly with trust-building. Trust is a valuable currency for a brand, especially when it comes to digital interaction. Online transactions require a high degree of trust capital.

Decision making is motivated by emotional processes. If you want a strong emotional connection with your audience, become a student of aesthetics.

2023 - Zach Janicello

2023 - Zach Janicello