Design Layers: Beyond Decoration & Usability

Roxana Barbu | May 19, 2021 | 3 Min Read

In the realm of user design in healthcare, understanding aesthetic appeal is key if you want your product to succeed. Macadamian's in-house cognitive scientist delves into this fascinating topic, one that often gets overlooked.

If you work in user experience design (UXD), usability testing is second nature to you.

UXD practitioners are dedicated to assessing the effectiveness of their products, asking questions like: can users complete a given task? Can they do so with ease? And how long does it take them?

Though foundational, relying solely on usability testing results as a measure of successful design assumes that an individual will be willing to try out the product in the first place. Truth is, that is never a guarantee.

Sometimes, users form their impression of a product in the first milliseconds of exposure, before going through a task.

What then guides their decision making? One answer is aesthetic appeal. Though underestimated, aesthetic appeal is the first and, to some degree, the most important factor in initiating a user’s experience.

Let’s take a look at why aesthetic appeal is so important, especially for products and apps in the healthcare space.

Aesthetic appeal is a complex concept that contains multitudes. And as a cognitive scientist, I wouldn’t want to define it in just a few sentences. I can, however, say this: aesthetic experience is personal, it’s subjective, it’s intangible, and yet, it’s powerful and impactful on our decision making process.

In the absence of aesthetic appeal, the user may leave the product before getting to experience its ease of use.

Aesthetic appeal should not be confused with “beautifying” or “ornating” a design at the expense of usability or clarity.

Aside from informing a user’s decision to try out or continue to use a product, aesthetic appeal can also “boost” the user’s perception of other metrics.

For example, given two products identical in usability but differing in their aesthetic appeal, the more pleasing one may be associated with a higher perception of usability. Similar findings were reported for credibility.

Whether we understand this or not, we all know intuitively that aesthetic appeal is part of the experience. I understand the science behind it, and yet I still fall prey to it.

In my personal experience, no coffee has ever tasted as delicious as on a rooftop during sunset in Chicago. Give me that same coffee at a drive thru and my experience won’t be the same.

One may argue that traditional UX methods do capture the users’ subjective experience. Interviews gather perceptions by focusing on emotive words and quotes, even facial gestures if the setting permits. Similarly, during usability testing and observations one can note a user’s sighs, facial expressions, and body posture.

Nevertheless, whether it is the result of an oversight, or because of time and/or budget constraints, recordings are rarely re-watched with a focus on capturing and analyzing emotions, gestures, and expressions.

Furthermore, even in ideal circumstances, a crucial inherent flaw remains: these measures of intangible user experience are captured through the filter of the researcher rather than directly from the user.

Research methods explicitly eliciting a user’s subjective experiences, also referred to as desirability studies, are underused and little is known.

One approach involves the Microsoft Desirability Toolkit which gives users 118 product reaction cards or words. The users then pick the ones they associated with the product. This way the team may learn whether the product is easy and accessible, attractive and cutting edge, or perhaps annoying.

However, intangible experiences are many and complex, and depending on the product, some are more relevant than others. Another approach is to develop your customized Likert scales—measuring either positive or negative responses to a statement—covering the experiences relevant to your users, your product, and your stakeholders.

For example, in the context of a digital health app, I’d like to know whether the first impression of the visual design inspires trustworthiness, simplicity, a sense of security, and whether it reflects the intended brand sentiments.

This second approach also helps align stakeholders with respect to metrics they value the most, and those that guide them towards a consensus as to what brand sentiment they want their product to evoke, if needed.

Both methods lend themselves to comparisons between the “old” and the “new” experiences, as well as between versions of design in the context of A/B/n testing.

So as you work on your healthcare product, consider this: what intangible experiences matter most to your users, product, and team?

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