How attractive is your website?

I was trying to analyze the feedback on my website’s new design. There seems to be a trend that relates their usage of the website with their feedback.

While researching on this subject, I found a paper by three people affiliated with the University of Manchester, UK. The paper makes three interesting hypotheses that are eventually proved in their paper:

  1. User preference will be determined by interactions between decision criteria and subject background, specifically design-training and aesthetics, culture and identity.
  2. User intentions will be determined by interactions between decision criteria and the task context; specifically, serious use will favor usability and content, less serious use will favor aesthetics.
  3. User judgment will be determined by interactions among decision criteria; specifically, positive aesthetics will over-rule poor usability.

They randomly asked students to consider three departments for either a one-month summer internship or a five-year PhD. Based on this, they were asked to judge the department websites.
The three departments were under the same university, Stanford – the Design department, the HCI website and the D-School website.

What was interesting to note was that most of them rated the D-school best when asked to consider the one-month summer internship. But when the task was shifted to the five-year PhD, they all rated the HCI website better! All other constraints remained unchanged – the same university, the same websites, the same variation in backgrounds of people, etc.

From my understanding of the results, people prefer less-aesthetic websites for serious/regular usage . Perhaps this explains why advanced users prefer Gmail vs Yahoo! Mail – one focuses on simplicity and elegance while the other focuses on usability and attractiveness.

On the other hand, the study “suggests that users’ overall impression of a website could be a determinant of user satisfaction and system acceptability, even overcoming poor usability experience and poor content”

Perhaps this explains why we are okay with a not-so-great UI on the website but still use it because it has great value since it solves a “critical” issue of buying train tickets. Yet, we wouldn’t have tolerated this kind of UI for other purposes. For example, such a UI could have never worked for a survey website or a form-builder. That’s exactly why has to have such a great UI.

This reminds me of an amazing talk by Geoffrey Moore in an internal Adobe conference. He explained the different types of innovation : product leadership, customer intimacy and operational excellence, which in turn have four types each. The trick for a good company is to have aligned vectors of innovation where they have to excel, and non-aligned vectors of innovation where they have to be “good enough”.

So, in terms of websites, ideally, a website should have to either excel at content and service and be good enough at the aesthetics, or should excel at aesthetics and be good enough at content and service. It does NOT need to excel at both (but of course, it’s good if you can).