Part 2: Interpretations of beauty as a value of user experience

[Second in a series of postings about aesthetics and beauty as they pertain to interaction design, and beyond…]

When we think of beauty, certain things come to mind: art, nature, physical and sensual qualities of the human body. But what about the artificial or digital, those interfaces/services/systems that are conceived and planned and designed by multi-disciplinary teams? Is it sensible for a digital UI or consumer product to be characterized as beautiful in the same way as a painting or a flower? Doesn’t that depend upon the relation between the user and the value of the user’s interaction (i.e., experience)? Indeed, how should one articulate beauty in terms of design, supportive of technology and business aims, driving new product development enriched with this sense of beauty, or aesthetic imperative? This hints at the broader issue of interpreting beauty as a matter of user experience.

But what is meant by experience?

I propose that experience involves a subjectively interpreted, continuous stream of psychological and physical phenomena brought into awareness through an interaction or communication. This depends upon the following elements:

• The relationship between a person and an object
• The process of being drawn to that object and engaged on multiple levels: physical, behavioral, and emotional
• The value that arises from the attractive encounter

These elements may be labeled as attention, attraction, and beauty. So beauty—an emergent value of human attention and emotional attraction—enables designers to plan and craft products that offer a rewarding, memorable encounter.

I offer a framework to provide ways to understand beauty as an experiential phenomenon, arising from user/product interactions. What follows is a set of interpretations of beauty based upon the writings of John Dewey, Mihalyi Cziksentmihalyi, David Gelernter, and Walter Gropius (philosophy, psychology, computer science, and architecture, respectively).


This model is a tool to guide discussions for interaction designers about a product’s aesthetic value, centered upon user experience thinking. This is not a statement of a grand unified theory for all beauty or aesthetics in nature, but only focused on “the artificial” or human-made artifacts. Please note that no one interpretation is preferred, nor are they exclusive of one another in evaluating a product as “beautiful”. It’s not about being “right” or “wrong” or “better” or “worse”…It’s about expanding our vocabulary and ways of looking at the problem of beauty in terms of interaction and experience.

Optimal Flow

Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who regards human-product interactions as a pathway to personal achievement amid daily concerns for speed, efficiency, and materialism, which may engender a disconnected way of life. His theory of optimal experience—or flow—is predicated upon self-directed efforts to focus one’s attention. This concern for attention suggests useful design possibilities. Using Csikszentmihalyi’s language and approach, one may consider designed artifacts as systems of interaction, whereby the invitation to participate evokes a harmonizing response. The artifact expresses its “rules of engagement” of how to approach and use an object through its form, all directly perceived by one’s attention. Such rules may include the visual semantics and product affordances that convey a manner of use. Thus, these rules shape the experience, or attractive relationship, between the user and artifact. The user subsequently enters a process of participation in which flow conditions may emerge, if there is a suitable matching of goals, skills, and feedback for the user. The proper balance enhances the utility, usability, and desirability of the product overall.

Lifestyle Design

John Dewey was a pragmatist philosopher focused on the process of interaction between a conscious being and her environment—the “sustaining or frustrating” conditions that define the activities of a person, such as the tools, spaces, materials, or other people. Dewey shifted the emphasis of interaction from a reflexive communicative exchange—such as flow—towards an outward relationship of growth and renewal. Every experience has a structure and pattern, found in a rhythmic “doing and undergoing”. Dewey was especially concerned with recovering aesthetic experiences, which feature a dynamic integration of thought, action, and emotion into a unifying whole, that he termed “an experience”. Dewey avoided the term beauty due to its Romantic origins, but he pursued what may be construed as experiential beauty—a harmonious balance of the maker’s intent and the perceiver’s expectations towards a meaningful consummation of movement of emotion from inception, carried through development, and ending with an artifact that lives in experience.

Machine Beauty

For computer scientist David Gelernter, “machine beauty”—the union ofpower and simplicity in innovation—is key to developing products that helps users “break free” from the confines of a machine’s internal logic towards a “creative symbiosis” between the user and her activity. In other words, the device should be an extension of a user’s intention to accomplish a task, like stapling papers, dialing a phone, washing clothes. A loss of awareness of the structure and mechanics results, leading to a direct engagement of the material, akin to Cziksentmihalyi’s “illusion of disembodiment” and a singular unity of being. However, such beauty does not live in the environment of one’s lifestyle or absorbing one’s attention but in the execution of the logic of the product’s functions in relation to a user’s activities. Does the product enable her to perform her task, so that it does not become the burden her attention? To achieve functional elegance, there needs to be a transparency of use and directness of effect, turning the product and ensuing experience into something simple yet empowering.

Spirital & Cultural Harmony

Finally, the fourth interpretation of beauty takes a holistic look at the relationship between a user and her product and how that impacts personal beliefs, cultural values, and even a sense of “spirit”. This is drawn from Walter Gropius’ idea of a “scope of total architecture”. Gropius, was the influential founder of the Bauhaus, based upon principles of integrating art and design, to inspire industry with clean, rational forms. Gropius described his vision of design planning as “the art of coordinating human activities towards a cultural synthesis,” a reunification of the self with the natural environment, beyond the perils of mechanization. Amid the “atomizing effects” of an increasingly mechanized society, there is a segmentation of human lives. Therefore, Gropius’ approach sought to achieve balance, order, and unity within one’s life, collectively and personally. There is an internal movement that connects a person to something greater than herself, perhaps ideals that speak of a cultural synthesis. She may feel like a member of a community that elevates what has been experienced into something personally intimate yet outwardly relating to a collective whole. To design products that inspire the human spirit and awaken cultural connectedness is a powerful variation of experiential beauty.

Aesthetics for Interaction Design

Part 1: General thoughts on design aesthetics

Part 2: Interpretations of beauty as a value of user experience

Part 3: Towards an integrative aesthetic experience

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