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Aesthetic Quality and the Heuristic Mystic

So ... the last few days have been filled with UI evaluation and I always find myself considering aesthetic considerations during either lab inquiries or heuristic evaluation.

But heuristic evaluation in UI development, say as described by Nielsen and Molich [A], has a difficult time explaining the interplay between emotion, intellectuality, and visceral experience when evaluating user experience.

I suppose this is, in part, because it's difficult to apply quantitative reasoning and engineering practice to an aesthetic quality. But it's also because heuristics necessarily limit the approach to an interface directly through sensory feedback. Aesthetic determination, on the other hand, falls outside of traditional HCI practice because evaluating the responses that constitute the pervading aesthetic quality of an experience may not easily be directly perceived or communicated.

Bringing aesthetics into a discussion of UI development is dicey. Could any quality be more subjective than the aesthetic? But many already consider it important to consider the motivation a user has for making use of a program or interface, so why would we not consider experiential factors based on aesthetics?

Simply put, a user may intend to experience activity they perform in a program, in part, because of how it behaves or looks. This is a concept already familiar to game developers, but has not been given much attention in interfaces where interacting with a system is part of a work activity. But for some old-school aesthetic theorists like J. Dewey [B], work can at times be described as play that has found embodiment in actual things. Work can actually involve pleasure. ( know play activity need not actually be a will-o-the-wisp endeavor either, i.e. therapeutic play, etc.)

When application developers (and some users) complain about HCI heuristics (particularly Nielsen's), they often complain that the resulting usable site is not fun, not pretty, not human in some fundamental way and they may be addressing this aesthetic disconnect which a heuristics approach does not currently bridge. Though difficult to assess, aesthetic considerations are important in usability evaluation because designers have an opportunity and responsibility to arrange experiences that engage the user (i.e. making an ancilliary feature obvious without pulling focus from a work area) and bring meaning to their interaction.

Though difficult, it's possible to create a process for aesthetic evaluation when crafting the user experience. For example, a process could include an evaluation of how important aesthetic impressions can be conveyed in objects that embody certain sensory knowledge. (Perhaps some of the backlash against Apple's previous introduction of a brushed metal interface might have been because of the traditional mapping in American socio-cultural contexts of brushed metal to cold, hard, sharp, and dangerous objects.)

Aesthetics is an accepted dimension of the user experience, and as such it seems detrimental to separate communcation between user and system from the aesthetic context in which it occurs. At first, addressing these qualities may seem daunting, but artists seem to process these challenges consistently, so why not HCI professionals?

One reason might be that it's goddamed difficult.

Nielsen, J., & Molich, R. (1990). Heuristic evaluation of user interfaces. Paper presented at the ACM CHI'90 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Seattle, WA.

Dewey, J (1958). Art as Experience, Capricorn
posted at August 03, 2006, 3:04 AM


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