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Beautiful is the New Usable (or vice-versa). Can You Feel It?

Could it be that we're seeing signs of graphic designers and usability geeks getting ready to join hands and sing? Maybe.

There does seem to be a trend toward usable websites that are also aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps the old debate is becoming less heated because those who demand ROI from their sites now recognize aesthetics as a component of usability, not its nemesis.

As Don Norman points out:

“Attractive things work better. When you wash and wax a car, it drives better, doesn’t it? Or at least it feels like it does.”

That’s an interesting riff on the relationship between usability and beauty and the way we feel about what we’re using.

Norman, author of: Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things offers that quote in the current issue of MIT’s Technology Review . (I read a bound copy, I guess this issue will be posted online soon.)

It’s no coincidence that he’s cited in an article about Apple, a company where design differentiates the brand, and is admired for beauty as well as function. Norman worked at Apple in the 90’s, but some of the most fascinating details in the article come from the description of the Apple- Frog Design collaboration in the early 80’s, a period when the two firms worked together to develop the “snow white” design language that came to define their products.

One small but rich tidbit, (emphasis mine):

[ The early Apple products’ ] case corners were rounded, but to differing degrees: if the curve at the back of a computer had a three-millimeter radius, the one at the front had a two-millimeter radius, reducing the machine’s perceived size.

A tiny detail, but as site creators, we all get to make hundreds of small decisions that up to a positive or negative user experience, and can affect the bottom line as well.

Consider the role of perceived scope and size the next time you look at an online form -- like email sign-up or a page from your Checkout. While chart junk slows users down, online forms in a subtly ruled box can seem more compact and therefore less burdensome to complete than those that sit bare on the page. Perception counts, and beauty helps.

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