December 10, 2002

The Smart Money Behind Computer Aesthetics

A NewFactor Special Report talks about aesthetics and design -- I half expected Don Norman to be quoted in the article. Even though they didn't talk to Don, they did an excellent job of covering the topic. Don's trying to raise awareness of this fact within the HCI community with his upcoming book and recent talks.

Repeat after me, non-believing usability gurus, "beauty and style do matter to consumers and users." Can you say it? I knew you could.

"Dennis Boyle, a studio leader and principal of the IDEO industrial design firm, told NewsFactor that aesthetics becomes more important for many products as they mature. The first computers, like the first cars and airplanes, were functional and plain. "They start out with people just trying to make them work," said Boyle, who recently designed the Handspring Treo PDA and has worked on Palm, Apple, Dell, HP and other computers. "But eventually people don't care what's inside. They just want it to work well."

"Industrial designers are walking a fine line. As Boyle pointed out, "Aesthetics is just one of the plates spinning on the stick." Too little attention to aesthetics will alienate buyers. Too much attention can slow down the product cycle, delay introduction of performance improvements and add to products' cost."

Usability engineers are walking a parallel fine line. Yes, usability is just another spinning plate -- and yes, you can have 'too much usability.' As the saying goes, 'all things in moderation.'
Design blooper: Car park barrier

David Travis from System Concepts nicely illustrates a parking garage barrier design that gets "iterated" a number of times. He then aptly asks "how many participants would have been needed in a usability test to spot this blooper?" It's a great illustration of where usability testing would have been FAR cheaper than the resulting hacks to fix a bad design. In this example, the company who created the design is probably not the same company who bought it and was trying to fix it. Travis has also authored a new book called E-commerce Usability. Some sample chapters are available online.