"... it requires a somewhat mystical theory of aesthetics to find any necessary connection between beauty and function."
Herbert Read, Art and Industry, p.61
© Copyright ACM 1997
A recent study by Kurosu and Kashimura  hints that interface aesthetics may play a greater role in people's attitudes towards computerized systems than we might be willing to admit. In their study, Kurosu and Kashimura (KK) explored the relationships between a priori perceptions of the ease of use of an automatic teller machine (ATM)—which they termed "apparent usability"—and other variables. These included factors believed by HCI professionals to enhance usability (termed "inherent usability"), and the appearance (beauty) of the interface. Surprisingly, high relationships were found between the interface judgments of aesthetics and apparent usability (r = 0.59). The correlations between the apparent usability and inherent usability factors were mostly negligible, with the exception of one variable (familiarity with the numeric keypad). It can be argued that KK found close relationships between aesthetics and perceived usability before the actual use, whereas usability should actually be measured during or after system use. While this argument is valid, it should be noted that first impressions often influence attitude formation to a large extent (e.g., ). There is no reason to assume that this process of attitude formation does not pertain to the HCI domain. In fact, in a study of information systems use, researchers found that "if computers were perceived initially as difficult to use, users were more likely to express dissatisfaction with the interface of the system after four months of use."  (p. 752, italics added). Thus, it is possible that among the various factors that affect system usability in particular and system acceptability in general, interface aesthetics play a major role. Aesthetics affect people's perceptions of apparent usability—which, in turn, may influence longer term attitudes towards the system.
Second, living in a culture that does not seem to value aesthetics as much as do the Japanese, the author of this study was particularly surprised by the high correlations between apparent usability and aesthetics. Clearly, aesthetic perceptions are culturally dependent [6, 17]. Thus, one can reasonably expect the relationships between aesthetics and apparent usability to vary across cultures. For example, whereas Japanese culture is known for its aesthetic tradition (e.g., ), Israeli culture is probably better known for its action orientation [8, 11]. Unfortunately, there is no scientific literature that assesses Israeli aestheticism, so mere intuition and shared feelings among Israeli colleagues were used in proposing that: Japan and Israel potentially represent two different attitudes towards the importance of aesthetics in computerized systems and its relationships to usability and overall acceptability.
(b) The Japanese interface included an image of a lady who is presumed to bow repeatedly to indicate that the system is processing. This concept was totally foreign to Israelis and potentially would have looked odd. Therefore, the image was replaced with a an image of an hourglass which is a more familiar representation of an active system in Israel.
(c) In Japan, some actions are represented by a symbol that can't be translated directly into Hebrew. For example, the currency (Yen) symbol in the Japanese interface (one character) denotes an operation for which Israeli ATMs use (the Hebrew word for) "confirmation". Thus, it was translated to the Hebrew equivalent of "confirmation" rather than to the Israeli currency symbol.
(d) The Japanese material was produced using Claris Works for the Mac. To use the original Japanese software one had to use a Kanji-aware Mac operating system. These are such rare birds in Israel, that different software was eventually used on a different platform (Microsoft's Visual Basic).
The results of the translation process can be seen in Figures 1 and 2, which show two examples of original Japanese layouts and their Israeli counterparts. Figure 1 presents a layout that was rated high on apparent usability and aesthetics both in Japan and in Israel. Figure 2 presents a low rating layout. (Unfortunately, for technical reasons the reproduction of the Japanese layouts in this paper is of lower quality.)
Figure 1(a). An original Japanese interface, rated high on apparent usability and aesthetics.
Figure 1(b). The equivalent Israeli interface, rated high on apparent usability and aesthetics.
Figure 2(a). An original Japanese interface, rated low on apparent usability and aesthetics.
Figure 2(b). The equivalent Israeli interface, rated low on apparent usability and aesthetics.
|Table 1. Correlations (bold: p<.01) and coefficients of contingency (#) of aesthetics and seven inherent usability variables with apparent usability for the experiment in Japan (KK) and for the three experiments in Israel.|
|Table 2. Ranking of Numeric Keyboard Types in Japan vs. Experiment 1 in Israel|
Unfortunately, the experiments reported above are too exploratory in nature to explain the process by which people associate usability and aesthetics. Nevertheless, the high correlations across cultures and experimental conditions challenge our assumptions regarding the dimensions of system acceptability in general and the relationships between aesthetics and usability in particular. The various design disciplines have long been occupied with the fragile equilibrium between form and function, aesthetics and usability (e.g. [23, 25]). The field of HCI has taken an unequivocal stand on this matter, concentrating on usability. The results of this study, however, suggest that to achieve the ultimate goal of an acceptable system, a more balanced approach may be needed. The influence of attractive appearance on attitudes and behavior has been documented by social psychologists (e.g., [3, 19, 29]), and has been used by advertisers and persuaders of all sorts. The potential effect of aesthetic experience has not escaped software vendors as well, nor is it ignored by the trade literature in its evaluation of computer products. In their attempts to shift the balance back towards a more user-oriented — rather than customer-oriented — design, it seems that HCI researchers have thus far ignored the possible interplay between aesthetics and usability. Clearly, future research is needed to discriminate between different concepts of usability (for example, intended-, apparent-, and measured usability) and to evaluate the effects of aesthetics on each and on the overall acceptability of the system. The results obtained in this study, together with the potential effect of apparent usability on post- use satisfaction [10,13], strongly suggest that we pay more attention to people's perceptions of the interface aesthetics then we have done thus far. In a sense, this study provides empirical support to Laurel’s  call for asking “not what the users are willing to endure, but what the ideal user experience might be, and what sort of interface might provide it” (p. 69).
|Table 3. A multitrait-multimethod matrix presentation of apparent usability and aesthetics as measured in three experiments. The table is arranged according to Campbell and Fiske . Validity diagonals are marked in bold italics; heteromethod blocks enclosed within broken lines.|