Good Visual Design Can Harm User Acceptance

I just had an interaction with an insurance company’s website while shopping for home owner’s insurance. I experienced a very odd feeling of total frustration. I was frustrated with how the site was architected; in other words, it was difficult to get a quote in an easy manner. But what I found to be odd was that the site was no worse, from an interaction architecture perspective, than the other insurance companies I visited before it. The only difference was that this site had much better visual design. This lead me to a hypothesis that, for almost all users, a good visual design increases my expectation of the usability of the site. I expected the poorly visual designed site to be a bit awkward and clumsy. But for the great looking site, I expected it to be easier. This actually lead me to believe the better designed site was much worse.

I drew up the following graph to illustrate how I think this might play out:

Visual Design VS Interaction Design


For clarity, I define “visual design” as the pure aesthetics of a design. Some may argue that you can’t do good visual design work on a crappy interaction architecture. I don’t agree with that. I’ve experienced lamps, toasters, phones, computers, even automobiles that were pretty but confusing to operate. I’ve had many clients come to me to fix “apps” after their creative marketing agency designed something totally beautiful that was totally unusable. In the reverse, I’ve had many IT departments come to us and ask us to make their poorly interactive architected system “pretty” (I even had several companies specifically ask me to put “lipstick on the pig”). I can honestly say I haven’t seen a single engagement be successful under these circumstances.

If I’m correct, not only is good interaction design far more important than good visual design, but adding good visual design to a poorly architected site will actually do more damage than just leaving it alone.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – I’m considering a study to prove this out.

  1. Thanks for pointing me in that direction. A read through the main study and it goes 75% of the way to disprove my hypothesis. It also goes further in its definition of visual design than I did. I did’t consider affordance in the least, which would certainly increase the usability of a digital product, no matter how poorly architected it is, simply because you give the user indications of what assets have interactivity.

    All I can say is that what I felt with that insurance site was real. The good visual design significantly raised my expectations on usability. Perhaps I’m either too close to this OR people will become more sophisticated over time and have have similar expectations (or a little of both).

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