RAA4: Can Aesthetics Improve Interface Usability

References: Rogers, Y., Connelly,K.,  Kurtz, A., Hall, B., Hazlewood, W.,  Tedesco, L., Toscos, T., Designing in the Large for the Small: Combining Aesthetics with Usability for a PDA Application

Objectives:   Rogers et al.  performed a case study on LilyPad, a mobile PDA application for gathering data by scientists and students on environmental restoration. In this paper the authors seek to show how aesthetical improvements to the user interface of this application were able to enhance its usefulness and the way it was used.

Methods: Eighteen students and a small number of volunteers were taken to a restoration site where the LilyPad application could be used in context. Students were shown how to use the application and then sent out in the field to try it out. Students gathered information throughout the day till their work was completed, at which point students returned the mobile PDA. Logged data from the PDA clicks along with video data from the students’ activities was also recorded. Following the results gathered from this group, the application was atheistically enhanced and the process was repeated with a new group of students.

Main Findings:
Initial LilyPad:  Although the program was initially designed for educational, environmental and context of use issues, the researchers discovered that the application was not utilized as expected and users claimed that it was not pleasant to use. The students did not use many of the pages that were created to help them understand their work and when they did, claimed that it was difficult to scroll through the information.
Redesigned LilyPad: Based on video data and interviews with students, there was a significant difference in the way students used the enhanced version of the LilyPad application. They spent more time using the application because they found it more useful and also said that it gave them a sense of accomplishment. Those students who had not used a PDA before became competent very quickly using the application. There were no complaints about selecting wrong pages, getting frustrated or confused because they didn’t know where to look.

Analysis: Based on results from the second iteration of the LilyPad application, students spent more time utilizing the software. One may suppose that the aesthetical improvements were able to enhance the software and make its use more pleasurable.  But there are a few issues I would like to highlight such as the differences in the climatic conditions during both experiments. The students who worked with the first iteration of LilyPad did so on a cold day which may account for them spending less time using the software. These students were also wearing gloves, which made it more difficult selecting options or entering data via the keyboard, thus resulting in more errors.

I think that many of the enhancements were improvements to the system’s usability. Those scientists and students who utilized the first version of LilyPad complained that it was not pleasant to use and this signifies that it may have been more of a usability than aesthetical issue.

In spite of these arguments, I do believe that aesthetical improvements can influence users’ acceptability of a system and research has shown this. When designing a user interface I believe that aesthetics should be given just as much consideration as usability to accommodate for the low level visual system.

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