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Validating aesthetics in a web design project

Many current design research methods can help teams and organizations to successfully validate interaction, the usability of user interface, and the findability of content. While some research method results are pretty exact and quantifiable, other method results can be less refined. However, regardless of the chosen method, if not done right, the likelihood of subjectivity creeping in during the research process becomes much more probable—potentially masking the more crtitical insights. So… how can we genuinely test the quality of a visual design and / or the aesthetic preference? Ultimately, how can we validate whether end-users approve of a visual design?

Whether you’re tasked with designing a task-oriented interface — that almost always benefit from a straightforward and usable appeal — or a marketing-focused interface, visual adherence to the brand guidelines as well as an appealing visual design are very common project requirements. Even if branding guidelines don’t exist, there are almost always some basic visual style requirements. As such, the guidelines and / or requirements ultimately set the tone moving forward.

Nevertheless, subjectivity can still pose quite a challenge for designers and stakeholders alike when it comes to visual preference. Why? For a start, it’s sometimes tricky to apply aesthetics that will resonate the same with all end-users and customers. Furthermore, for each given design problem there are usually many different viable solutions to that problem. Hence, which solution is truly the best fit for the problem at hand? Therefore, the first question we need to ask is whether we can successfully measure aesthetics?

But, but, but! Why would you test the aesthetics in the first place? Is it not the case that designers should be the final decision-making authority? Well… not so fast. Indeed, experienced designers bring a lot of skills, ideas, and expertise to a project. They skillfully identify and create different viable solutions. But even for the most experienced, it’s sometimes difficult to know which solution resonates the most with the target end-users.

Apart from the primary reasons outlined above, there are other less obvious benefits to including end-users in the process:

Having hopefully established convincing enough arguments in favor of testing, let’s review some viable options for testing aesthetics of interfaces.

Combine the methods above into a more robust suite of tests to push the research even further, for example, by testing different design options. However, it’s not always viable to create multiple versions of the interface. Instead, it makes more sense to apply the iterative approach to the design process.

When following the iterative design process, it’s helpful to use design validation for course correction, especially if we have conducted exhaustive user research upfront and it’s clear why people visit a website. The iterative design process also allows us to utilize a much simpler method to test aesthetics which can be easily combined either with user interviews or usability tests. Essenitally, we combine multiple tests into one user session.

First, we capture the interview or the usability test verbatim. After the session, we would extract all the adjectives participants used during the sessions.

Second, before the end of each session we literally ask each participant to describe the interface with five adjectives:

This simple task is open-ended, unlike the Semantic Differential or Desirability Test that spell out options to the user and introduce bias. With an open list, participants can come up with answers that first spring into their minds.

Finally, we compare the adjectives they used during the usability test against those they selected after the test to gather insight into their perception of the interface. The ones used during the test tend to have more value. However, if the two lists of adjectives end up matching one another and they too match the list of brand attributes—then we can be confident that the design resonates with its intended audience. Be aware that if the adjectives used are too diverse, it just means that visual communication is not clear and requires more work.

The key factor is to ensure you gather a sufficient volume of feedback. From experience, having fewer than 5 participants, more often than not, does not generate any overlaps. With five or more participants, their combined answers generally reveal numerous patterns. However, we rarely see any meaningful improvement in data resolution after ten participants.

Testing and validating designs with end-customers improves the final result and builds the project team’s common understanding of the user’s expectations. By testing designs, we end up delivering better websites that meet user’s needs and, as a result, improve business objectives.

Did you like this article? Do you know of some other method? Let us know in the comments.

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