05 January 2011

Don't just make it easy, make it look easy.

It's not enough to make your design easy to use, you have to make sure it looks easy to use too.
Information foraging theory helps explain how good visual design can increase the users who stay on your site. According to the theory, on the web, we are all "informavores" who act like animals hunting for food in the wild.  This theory stacks up to the user research and supports usability guidelines we already know about. But what's interesting for visual designers, is how it can rationalize the importance of aesthetics (See also "Pretty = Usable ").   

In their book Prioritizing Web Usability Nielsen and Loranger paraphrase Pirolli's influential work on Information Foraging and explain that users make constant cost-benefit comparisons as they browse sites and base these on two questions: What can I get and how hard will it be to get it?   They point out that designers can influence user decisons by influencing their "expectations" of gains and costs.
What stands out for me as a visual designer, is that it's not just about making a site easy to use, it's also about making it "seem" like it's going to be easy to use.  It comes back to perceptions.
When a site looks easy to use, appears friendly, and includes aesthetic elements that are familiar and appealing, the perceived cost (in tedium, frustration and brain-ache) is reduced.  The aesthetics provide the welcoming finger drawing you in saying "trust me - you're on the right path".  Hence the 5 year trend towards big squeaky icons, large text and more white space epitomized by Apple and 37 signals?   Ikea's site which is equally clean and easy looking, explicitly tells you not to worry when you most need the reassurance that the cost won't be too high.  When I failed to get their product listing because I didn't have the latest version of flash, I was quickly calmed: "Don't worry, it's easy,  Just click here."     In contrast, if a site is easy to use, but designed in a way that looks like it won't be -- for example, the visuals are tedious or communicate complexity -- then the "perceived" usability is low and the user turns elsewhere.
Do I want to spend my precious time in a place that is unpleasant to be in?  Not if I can easily whip back to those search results and pick another site that will provide the same gain without the costs to my experience.  
In supreme irony, I experience this on Jakob Nielsen's website. It's functionally easy to use, but it's so aesthetically stingy that I find it unpleasant to spend any time there.  I find myself trying to rush to the thing that I need so I can get out as fast as I can.  The only reason I'm there at all is because his reputation is so well established.

 In contrast, on the website of his "emotionally-intelligent" counterpart Don Norman, I have found myself "hanging out".  Just browsing, thanks.  The site probably has less content that is useful for me, and isn't that different from Nielsen's site, but the small variations add up to a big difference in perceived cost.   There's more line spacing, the colour contrasts are not harsh, and the writing tone is warm and friendly.  Add this to the naturally styled photo and you have a site that exudes welcoming avuncular wisdom.   I find myself wanting this to be the place where I find what I'm looking for.  Whereas the fonts, colours and writing tone on the Nielsen site, are more like that uncle you avoid:  a bit harsh and spare with a twist of sour lemon. 

Clearly this is about more than just reducing perceived costs.  Perhaps the emotional experience can even add to the gain.
I want the sites I design to make users think "Ahhh, I like it here.  I want to explore this space.  I want this to be the place where I find what I'm looking for."  
Make your site a nice place to be, and you'll reduce the perception of cost involved for your users, so odds are greater they'll stick around and gain something in the end. 

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