Aesthetics and the Halo effect – a case for design?

The prettier, the better – by extension

The Halo Effect, described in the link, is a psychological process whereby we develop:

a cognitive bias whereby the perception of a particular trait is influenced by the perception of the former traits in a sequence of interpretations.

What?

Basically if a central trait in someone or something is percieved as ‘attractive’, other traits will appear more attractive by association.
In a nutshell, the prettier your site appears to be, the more usable, accessible and trustworthy it will appear to be also.

Micro management and design woes

In a recent article over at webcredible, they mentioned the halo effect and touched on studies that showed that a lot of users will base their perceptions of how a site performs in terms of usability, security etc, based solely on the aesthetic of the site.

Recently I’ve read a number of articles where designers have lamented the fact that those above them in the work heirarchy seem to see them as little more than pixel polishers – essentially ‘colouring in’ the site around the content, which is usually dictated by marketing or management.

I’ve got personal experience of seeing this kind of micro-management in action at my place of work. Although I’m only slightly involved in the web side of things, I’ve seen the graphics guys and website manager be dictated to on design decisions by people with absolutely no background in design or anything creative for that matter.

The difference in the perception of design between designers and non-designers

Why does that sort of thing happen? Personally I think the problem is threefold.

  1. Management need to feel in charge and often think showing a lack of knowledge on a subject looks like weakness in front of subordinates.
  2. Pick an ugly site from web pages that suck and a pretty one from css beauty. Now ask some non-designer types to pick which they like the best. Because people can tell an aesthetically pleasing design, they often think they should have input due to this ‘skill’.
  3. Design is seen as subordinate to more ‘real’ concerns, such as marketing or information architecture. Usually because a direct and quantifiable path can be seen between marketing and increased sales.

Problems dissected;
1: Management involvement

The first problem is partly one of ego and who ever knew a (micro-) manager who didn’t have an abundance of ego? The only way I can think to get around this is to think of some subtle way of reminding them of the fact that you’re the expert in that area, (at least within your company,) which is why they hired you in the first place.
If they want to do everything, they’d better be prepared to put in some long hours. Hopefully your manager is adult enought that you can approach them with your concerns honestly without taking it personally.

2: “I could do that!”

The second issue is one of perception. It’s like the people who stand in modern art galleries saying “I could’ve done that!” (which is slightly different to those that say “a four year old could’ve done that!”). Knowing what looks good seems to be possibly innate in humans, but is a very different thing from creating something that looks good. Personally I’d try to sneak in the phrase, “viewing is not doing” into the conversation somewhere!
Oh and I forget where I heard this, (I have a feeling it was a comic,) but the best comeback I’ve ever heard to the “I could’ve done that” comment is simply, “Maybe, but YOU didn’t.”

3: Poor little design

The third issue is the most relevant to the Webcredible article. Many times, people in the upper echelons want statistics to quantify and verify that something implemented has been a positive ROI. If marketing puts out a new email, they can use tracking to deliver targeted statistics about a campaign.
With design, this is a lot more difficult to achieve without doing a complete redesign or makeover and judging the results, but if people base their perceptions of how secure a site is or how usable it is, or even if they trust your site enough to make a purchase from it, then surely the case for design becomes that much more important.

Realigning people’s perceptions

People don’t tend to change their minds on a topic without fresh information, so you’re going to have to do some teaching. Get people above you who have input to read the  webcredible article if you can. If they’ll read that, buy a copy of  The Website Owner’s Manual and get them to read that after you – there should be plenty in there to spark debate from both sides. If they get really interested, then grab a copy of A Practical Guide to Designing for the Web – Just make sure they don’t end up putting you out of a job!

So as long as it’s pretty, we’re good right?

Does that mean that aesthetics are the most important part of a website design? Absolutely not. Primary concerns should still be usability and accessibility. Users will still leave an unusable site even if it’s pretty – it’s just that they might take a moment to admire it first.

What about you? How do you explain to people what you do and why it’s important?

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2 responses to “Aesthetics and the Halo effect – a case for design?

  1. This post reminded me of Jakob Nielsen’s site. The guy has usability coming out of his (probably very hairy) ears and has chosen to throw aesthetics by the way side. He might know what he’s talking about but I actually find his website offensive and difficult to navigate. It lacks balance.

    Anyways, even though I know what’s right I want pretty things in my browser and I want them NOW!

  2. Great post. It reminded me of this great venn diagram: http://colinharman.com/2010/07/03/how-would-you-like-your-graphic-design
    Not sure if you’ve seen this before, but it’s something I think all of those who are in management over creative people should be aware of!

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