Usability vs. Beauty: a false dilemma?

In Emotion & Design: Attractive Things Work Better Norman discusses the relationship between affect and usability. The essay is his response to what he calls the “usable but ugly” critique to his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things. In the essay, Norman recognises that the book’s focus on usability lead some people to think that this was the most important of an object’s characteristics and sets to battle this notion by presenting some of his research on the relationship between affect and design. The conclusion of such research is simple: attractive things work better.

Norman supports this proposition drawing from experiments in the field of cognitive science, as well as with anecdotal evidence of his own experiences. Cognitive science tells us that negative affect (such as what one feels in a stressful situation) fosters concentration; it leads to “depth-first processing” and even tunnel vision. Conversely, positive affect (what we feel when we’re not in stressful situations) leads to breadth-first thinking, and is thus related to distraction. Norman provides an example of the latter when he tells us about the three teapots he owns: “The Nanna teapot for its elegance, or the tilting pot for its practicality. Design matters, but which design is preferable depends upon the occasion, the context, and above all, my mood.” He then sentences: “When I do make tea, I choose the pot that matches my mood, and when I do, the tea tastes superb.” When it comes to design, the takeaway of all of this seems to to be that objects need to account for the baggage the users bring with them at the time of operating them.

What is more, both pieces of evidence Norman emphasises point to what, in The Design of Everyday Things, he identifies as the basis of great design: a focus on experience (Norman, 10). Yet, if the answer to the presumed beauty vs. usability dilemma was there since the beginning, why did so many people get it wrong? And why did Norman feel the need to embark on a new strand of research to get some peace of mind?

That’s because, in the book, Norman’s treatment of the issue of experience is incomplete. Of experience, he says:

“Great designers produce pleasurable experiences. Experience: note the word. Engineers tend not to like it; it is too subjective. But when I ask them about their favorite automobile or test equipment, they will smile delightedly as they discuss the fit and finish, the sensation of power during acceleration, their ease of control while shifting or steering, or the wonderful feel of the knobs and switches on the instrument. Those are experiences.

Experience is critical, for it determines how fondly people remember their interactions. Was the overall experience positive, or was it frustrating and confusing? When our home technology behaves in an uninterpretable fashion we can become confused, frustrated, and even angry—all strong negative emotions. When there is understanding it can lead to a feeling of control, of mastery, and of satisfaction or even pride—all strong positive emotions. Cognition and emotion are tightly intertwined, which means that the designers must design with both in mind.”

In the excerpt above, Norman discusses experience mostly as a property of the physical object: based on how well-designed an object is, it has the potential to induce positive or negative affect. This is not the kind of affect that he discusses in his essay. In the essay, the kind of affect Norman talks about is mostly a property of the users and the situation they find themselves in: are they stressed? Are they relaxed? These are states of being that pertain only to people, i.e. users, not the object.
With this information in mind, I think we can resolve the supposed beauty vs. usability dilemma. We do so by using a relational definition of experience: the relationship between the physical object’s potential to induce a certain kind of affect, and the state of mind the target user is most likely to find herself in at the time of the interaction. Emergency doors can indeed produce positive affect if they are designed to help exit a place in a dangerous situation — they reduce stress. Thus, they should be attractive in a such a way that elicits appropriate use. In other situations, as with making tea in the morning, the possible interactions are less bound, and there are more opportunities to create emotional value through aesthetics.

All Jumps to Universality are Digital, But All Interactivity is Analog

In The Jump to Universality the author argues that universality only occurs in digital systems because error correction is indispensable. In analogue systems, the author proposes, “there is no way of distinguishing an erroneous value from a correct one at first sight,” (267). I think this is his strongest, clearest articulation of what “the jump to universality is.” Furthermore, is particularly fruitful for our thinking about interactivity. Considered together, the notions of universality and interactivity beg the question: how do digital systems impact human creativity?

Crawford defines interactivity as a conversation, “a cyclic process in which two actors alternatively listen, think, and speak,” (4). He highlights the iterative aspect of his definition, explaining that this is one of the things that helps us distinguish between reactive and interactive systems. Yet, despite his stringent definition of interactivity (speaking, thinking and listening are all necessary conditions), he concedes that different systems have different degrees of interactivity.

If we focus on the necessary conditions for interactivity, any constraint becomes somewhat of a problem. And in man-machine interactive environments, all iteration is governed by programming constraints. Computers can only do so much, and they cannot parallel the extent of human creativity. This begs the question: can man-machine encounters be interactive? I think it can, provided that we stop thinking of computers as people.
Computers cannot respond in the same ways people do — we can’t really have a genuine “conversation” with a computer. But we can come close to having one — by using near-analog systems in our design of interactive environments. By designing systems that are able to process inputs and produce outputs in a very precise, disaggregated manner, we can create environments in which we can surprise ourselves by what we do with the computer, and in that stimulate our creativity even further with every interation of the cycle.

There Are No Pinball Wizards Because Pinball Machines Don’t Listen

I’ve always found pinball machines fascinating. I don’t know the first thing about pinball as a game, but every time I walk by the activity zone, I can’t help but to stop and push the side-buttons for a while. I think the machine has a similar effect on others.

This morning, I sat down and waited for somebody to fall in the trap. Two people did during the time I was there. Both of them approached the machine in a similar way. First, they took some time to figure out how they could actually start playing – that is, how to make the ball appear. From then on, it was them pushing the side-buttons with rising anxiety – I could tell this was what they were doing because the machine makes a distinctive sound when one press the side buttons – until they lost. Curiously, both of them banged on the machine’s acrylic once their game was over.

Now, the inner-workings of the machine were not really clear until I decided to use it myself. In terms of visual cues, the machine is somewhat confusing: all the buttons are red, even the one that allows you to start playing! In that regard, the communicative aspect of the buttons is not their color or shape, but their location. This might be a potential point of failure inasmuch as it takes the user some time to figure out how to start the whole thing.

One thing the machine does offer are very distinct sound cues. The pressing of the side-buttons that activate the flippers is different from all other sounds. Similarly, the machine makes different sounds when the steel ball hits different surfaces. In that way, you manage to know what is going on, even if you don’t have any idea about the rules and objectives of pinball: “joyful” sounds mean you’re doing well and earning points; “ominous” sounds mean you messed up and have to stay alert. This guidance mechanism is complemented by a screen that keeps the score.

Finally, another potential point of failure in the interaction lies in the board’s design. Visually, there’s too much going on! Ours is a Spiderman pinball machine, and is thus filled with images of different villains, plus lights and other ornaments to the machine’s layout. Now, this can be confusing to somebody who a) is not familiar with Spiderman and therefore cannot make the necessary associations between villains – holes the steel ball shouldn’t go into b) is disoriented by the sheer amount of decor, as I was.
Coda: I used to think the pinball machine was interactive, but after reading Crawford’s What Exactly is Interactivity? I changed my mind. The machine is purely reactive: it reacts to certain inputs, but it doesn’t do it in any way that involves any “conversation” with the user. What is more, the fact that it is a game takes away the level of interactivity. Playing a game is like “bending” the rules creatively, it’s all imposed on you. I don’t think games can ever be interactive, it goes against their nature.

No-Hands Switch: Divine Intervention

In my divine-intervention-activated switch, the circuit is closed by two sheets of tin foil attached to the tip of two cables that I’ve taped on God’s and Adam’s hands. When the foil sheets touch, the LED light turns on. The pulley system that makes the hands touch is activated when one steps over and pulls down a rope attached to the pulleys.

My inspiration for this no-hands switch came from the iconic scene in ET in which Elliott’s and ET’’s fingers touch, generating a spark.


I wanted to play with a similar image, so I chose The Creation of Adam, the fresco painting by Michelangelo that decorates the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. I wanted to create a system such that, when Adam and God’s hand touched – I know they actually don’t touch in the painting, but what’s life without some creative license? – the LED light would turn on.

I set to work on a system of pulleys that would ultimately use a pedal to activate the entire mechanism – I use “pedal,” quite liberally to mean that it would be one’s foot, and not the hand, that activates the switch. First, I created a prototype in order to get an idea of how the system could work, and added a circuit to the whole thing to make sure it was feasible.

Prototype of the mechanism.
Circuit in the prototype

After making the prototype, I made a diagram to visualise how forces would be arranged and how I’d use my materials.

Diagram outlining how forces are arranged in the mechanism.

In the end, I used:

  • 2 XL bearings.
  • 2 short sticks thick enough to hold the bearings
  • 4 matchsticks
  • 4 pieces of embroidery thread (50 cm each, approximately).
  • 4-6 straws (I only used the part that bends)
  • Super glue, and a hot glue gun
  • 2 springs
  • One large piece of thick cardboard and another piece of thinner cardboard.
  • Tape

The most challenging part of building this switch was attaching the rope to the bearings such that the push-pull action would work. I used the bending part of a couple of straws to ensure the rope would not derail (see pictures below). Another crucial aspect was arranging the springs so they would pull the hands back to their original position and open the circuit (see pictures below). Overall, the system was pretty fragile, and using one’s feet was probably a poor design choice, but it does the job, and I managed to stick to my original idea of a bulb turning on through divine intervention!

Ropes secured in place by the pieces of straw.
Arrangement of springs at the back of the the cardboard.

Buffaloes, Electrons, and Metaphor in Science

In There Are No Electrons, Kenn Amdahl’s revisits the basic concepts that allow us to understand electricity – voltage, current, resistance, circuit – through a variety of stories that, at first glance, have little to do with electricity. Yet, once we move away from the images Amdahl puts in our mind, we can see how the technical concepts of voltage or current are no more than a way of condensing long, rich stories about a group of ants’ voyage around a fence into a single word. His tales about party-hard Greenies, restless buffaloes and drunk fishermen are stories of characters moving from one point to another, as well as accounts of the mechanisms make these characters go from A to B in a particular way. And what is the foundation of our understanding of electricity if not the idea that electrons (the dull shortcut for Greenies, or buffaloes) move from one place to another? Add some information about what makes them move, and about the things that make it easier or more difficult for them to do so, and you have the whole picture.

Beyond being a user-friendly and inventive exploration of electricity, Amdahl’s book also raises questions about the role of representation in science. Are all scientific concepts metaphors? Why do we prefer some metaphors over others? Why are we quick to let go of some, but it takes us so much time to embrace others? To what extent do we allow these metaphors to be ambiguous? Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to these questions. However, I think they are become more interesting as we move on to discuss schematics and the way we represent electrical concepts in a seemingly unambiguous, universally understood fashion. At this point, and as a little food for thought, I will go as far as to just propose yet another image:

The image above was inspired by the introduction to Kenn Amdahl’s There Are No Electrons and by René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images.