Aesthetic and Minimalist Design

Behavioral Design: Aesthetic and Minimalist Design

What are Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics? After analysing usability research, UX expert Jakob Nielsen created suggestions for user interface design that increase product usability and user experience. 

The Usability Heuristics use high-level principles to identify usability issues in a design. They’re timeless, even in an ever-changing digital context, as they can be applied across any interface or design style. Nielsen's standards have become a cornerstone of UX and UI design, introduced early in design education and repeatedly revisited throughout a designer's career.

The Basic Idea

Balancing minimalism and aesthetics in any system or product design requires a reduction of all its visible elements to only what’s functionally and aesthetically necessary. Designers incorporate the principles of human visual perception in the concept to create a harmonious, logically-connected information flow that users can follow intuitively to accomplish their objectives.

Our increasing bias toward simplicity and away from uncertainty is the key driver of aesthetic and minimalist design for many day-to-day applications like architecture, consumer tech products, e-commerce, and e-learning.

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Key Terms

Cognitive load: The mental effort an individual requires to complete a task.

Interactive system: An interactive system requires user input to work.

Interaction: User behavior, such as clicking a web link or filling a web form.

Usability heuristic: A design principle for building user-oriented platforms or features.

Intuitive visuals: Graphical/artistic elements that indicate the function/use of system features.

The Behavior Behind the Design

Aesthetic Perception

End-users can experience an instance of aesthetic perception when using an interactive system.1 The phenomenon of ‘aesthetic perception’ refers to any pleasant or unpleasant emotion that a user may consider when evaluating whether they had a successful interaction. This occurs specifically when there is absence of explicit instruction, like when users need to push a button or click a visual shortcut.

Here, the ambiguity effect is the behavioral bias causing the user to pursue the interaction they feel is more likely to create a satisfactory experience overall. However, what is aesthetically right or wrong varies by many factors, including cultural norms and individual user’s cognition.

Cognitive load reduction

Naturally, most people try to avoid unnecessary complexity when doing otherwise simple tasks, from shopping online to completing a survey form. Presenting users with too many options or instructions will lead to information overload. For example, piecing together and processing bits of information stored in separate locations can disrupt workflows and cause excessive psychological strain (split attention effect).2 

Aesthetic and minimalist design can help reduce the cognitive load in such scenarios, which means less mental resources are used in everyday decision-making. In order to avoid choice overload, the options in front of us cannot overwhelm our decision-making processes or ability to process information. 

Some effective psychological strategies to reduce mental chaos and free up the working memory include creating categories for similar items, organizing related information together (such as images and their text descriptions), personalizing user-profiles and content, and progressive or selective dissemination of information.

Simplicity: the “Less is More” Principle

According to the simplicity principle, reducing the number of visual elements in a design can help provide more intuitive and smooth user experiences. Design supporting such interactions is user-driven, less decorative, and more function-oriented, only retaining visuals that are essential for successful engagement.3 It avoids wasteful and distractive duplication of content, creating sufficient simplicity to reduce visual fatigue and allow users to focus more on the task at hand.

Recognition Rather Than Recall

Recognition is a usability heuristic that means recognizing the right choices or decisions based on familiarity or intuition rather than retrieval from memory. Applying the principle in aesthetic and minimalist design helps to create interactive solutions with better organized information and intuitive visual cues. Examples of these include menu options that are easy to find and familiar symbols (icons) with a clear purpose.4

Case Studies

Aesthetic and Minimalist Design in Handheld Consumer Gadgets

In the realm of consumer products, nothing epitomizes aesthetic and minimalist design better than modern smartphones. Although the handheld devices are small enough to carry around and fit in the palm of the hand, their sophisticated engineering provides sufficient computing power to make calls, take high-resolution pictures, play video games, watch online video, or even build applications.

Apple pioneered the minimalist trend in consumer technology with their numerous innovative designs like the iPod—a sleek digital music player with no screws or buttons.5 These devices afford consumers a fair balance of elegance, simplicity, and utility.

How Aesthetics Can Reduce Interaction Uncertainty in Website Design

Website designers cannot aesthetically dictate every emotion and behavior that each visual element on a web page may trigger. But they can use aesthetic design to provoke emotional perceptions of the uncertainty or certainty of engagement success when users are evaluating interaction options, which may, in turn, influence end-user behavior. 

One way to achieve this is by building less visually complex pages with clear organization, a factor that most people associate with website aesthetics and usability.6 Designers should incorporate graphical elements that inspire user confidence to interact, from indicators of potential interactions and function to drop down lists or option buttons that minimize error-prone manual typing.

Sources

  1. Xenakis, I. & Arnellos, A. (2014, September 19). Aesthetic perception and its minimal content: a naturalistic perspective. Frontiers in Psychology. 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01038
  2. Xenakis, I. et al. (2012, January). Reducing uncertainty in the design process: The role of aesthetics. Conference: Design & Emotion 2012. Retrieved September 13, 2023 from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235951274_Reducing_uncertainty_in_the_design_process_The_role_of_aesthetics
  3. Li, Y. & Fu, K. (2022, November 19). Research on Minimalism in Interface Design Based on Gestalt Psychology. Proceedings of the 2022 International Conference on Science Education and Art Appreciation. 825–837. https://doi.org/10.2991/978-2-494069-05-3_101
  4. He, X., Zhang, H., & Bian, J. (2020, September 19). User-Centered Design of a Web-Based Crowdsourcing-Integrated Semantic Text Annotation Tool for Building a Mental Health Knowledge Base. J Biomed Inform. 110 (103571). doi: 10.1016/j.jbi.2020.103571
  5. Isaacson, W. (2012, April). The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved September 13, 2023 from https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-real-leadership-lessons-of-steve-jobs
  6. Michailidou, E., Harper, S., & Bechhofer,. S. (2008, September). Visual complexity and aesthetic perception of web pages. Conference: Proceedings of the 26th Annual International Conference on Design of Communication, SIGDOC 2008. doi:10.1145/1456536.1456581

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