The importance of aesthetics in user experience design

Cole Peters believes the user experience community has relegated aesthetics to a second-class design citizen. From his essay Form Worship:

Despite my challenges with designs that score (theoretically) high on experience and low on beauty, it’s not hard to understand their genesis. UX inherently promises its clients an influx of users, and generally promises increases in conversions (and sales) by inference. The pursuit of aesthetics doesn’t promise to bring more customers through the door or more dollars into the business; in fact, it’s so subjective that it’s tough for it to promise anything at all. What place, then, should it have in today’s business-driven design industry?

Cole goes on to make a case for the importance of aesthetics in design, which I agree with. I do, however, want to add some thoughts about this statement:

We need to stop looking for promises in Design. Design should never be approached as a programmatic practice, like some machine that, given the right ingredients, is guaranteed to spit out a delicious loaf of success.

I love the sentiment, but from a practical perspective we don’t have the luxury not to make promises of success in design. As Brandon Schauer said:

There is no reason for a company to support a great experience unless it makes money. If there is no economic incentive, it either can’t exist (unsustainable) or it’s art.

This leads to my next point, which is that conversion/sales increases aren’t the only design promises we can make. Beautiful design can improve businesses in a variety of ways. Cennydd Bowles has a great piece related to this called Why aren’t we converting?. You should read the whole thing, but here he explains some of the other “promises” of design:

I do suggest seeing user-centred design as something wider than just a means of optimising a conversion rate. While there may not be a noticeable uplift in any specific metric, the raw material of design is frequently intangible: trust, loyalty, engagement, etc. These things are much harder to measure, but they still make themselves felt indirectly in other metrics: support costs, referral rates, customer retention, and so on.

So here’s the thing. UX people who don’t take aesthetics seriously are doing it wrong. As I’ve written before, a focus on good aesthetics helps a design to fit the brand promise and elicit appropriate emotional responses from users1. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that aesthetics are becoming essential to the survival of any product. Since most products now have a baseline quality that is good enough, users come to expect products to be beautiful, not just functional.

The aesthetics problem in design exists not because UX precludes a focus on beauty. The problem is that not all UX people take the long and difficult road to convince clients and stakeholders of the very real business benefits of good aesthetics.

  1. See also In Defense of Eye Candy, which makes the case that attractive things are perceived to work better.