Form has a function

by Foolproof

"It's a triumph of form over function"- You hear this phrase a lot and generally it’s a criticism. But I want to argue the case for form.

I’m saying this because products with a beautiful form work better. That’s not just my opinion though: it’s scientific fact. Let me explain.

I should do a bit of house keeping first though and define my terms. When I say ‘form’, I’m referring to the appearance of something and when I say ‘function’ I mean ‘the practical use of something’. Glad that’s out of the way. Now, let’s look at some research.

A study (1) compared two systems with identical functionality and usability, however one of the designs had a more aesthetically pleasing form than the other. Participants were asked to grade each system for ease of use. The more ‘beautiful’ system was judged to be more usable. Objectively speaking, the designs functioned in the same way, but because one looked better to the participants, it felt better and so they believed that it was better.

A related study (2) evaluated the credibility of websites by coding and analysing the comments of over 2500 participants. When asked to assess the credibility of a design, the most expressed factors related to the ‘design look’ (46.1%) of the site, not the ‘information design’ (28.5%) or the ‘information clarity’ (3.7%). The form of the website had an impact on its users that went well beyond it being just pleasant to look at.

This effect is related to what psychologists call ‘attractivity bias’. This refers to people’s tendency to attribute positive, and unrelated, characteristics, to things because they are attractive.

A much cited example is the 1960 televised US presidential debate. Richard Nixon was unwell, pale and wore no makeup compared to his opponent, John F Kennedy, who was healthy and wore makeup to counter the studio lights. Those who followed the debate on the radio believed Nixon to be the stronger candidate. Those watching on television, chose Kennedy (3).

So what does this mean for user experience design?

Visual aesthetics are not always embraced by UX designers, but clearly the form of your product is an important aspect in defining how your product feels to your customers and should be treated as such.

And also, perhaps more importantly, this research demonstrates that your customer’s evaluations of your product will be heavily coloured by its feel.

And so, to create great products it’s important to be able to design with a mindset that can go beyond traditional ideas of usability, often dominated by efficiency, and consider the feel of a product too.

I’d go further however. Standards of interaction design have improved and with usability testing ever more prevalent, users are now more enabled than ever to meet their goals (well, mostly - the digital design world still has a long way to go). But this all means that ‘ease of use’ is no longer a differentiator and it is now necessary to design products that feel great too.

Of course, it does not necessarily follow that what is beautiful is usable and so it is still fundamental that a product should be easy to use. But it’s time to stop dividing ‘form’ and ‘function’, research has shown this to be a false distinction – form is not just a thin layer of sparkle on top of a functional system, it has an important role to play.

Form has a function.

1. Tractinsky, Noam, Katz, A. S. and Ikar, D. (2000) What is Beautiful is Usable. In Interacting with Computers, 13 (2) pp. 127-145.|
2. Fogg, B.J. et al (2001) What Makes A Web Site Credible? A Report on a Large Quantitative Study. Proceedings of ACM CHI 2001 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, v. 1, 61-68. New York: ACM Press.
3. Lidwell, W et al. (2003) Universal Principles of Design. Rockport publishers, Massachusetts, USA.

Author: Jon Searle

What do you think?