New study finds attractive computer graphics are a “win-win” in helping speed up task performance

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A new study by researchers from Swansea and Bournemouth Universities has found that eye-catching and appealing computer graphics help people perform tasks quicker and more easily as the activity gets more demanding.

Dr Irene Rappa - appealing icon Dr Irene Rappa - unappealing iconThe results of the study by Dr Irene Reppa from Swansea University’s Department of Psychology, and Professor Siné McDougall of Bournemouth University’s School of Design, Engineering and Computing, into how the aesthetic appeal of visuals such as icons on electronic devices such as mobile phones and websites enhances performance, has been published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

The team used computer icons in their study, as these visuals are well-defined stimuli and part of everyday modern life. 

In a search-and-localisation task, the study’s participants first memorised a target icon and then searched for it among an array of nine “distractor” icons.  

This activity was designed to reflect the kind of task people perform when interacting with modern electronics, which included finding and selecting icons representing tasks to be carried out from among a number of distracting symbols.

Simple and familiar icons were the easiest to find, but when the task was difficult, icons which were aesthetically appealing were found faster than their unappealing counterparts.

That is, when the icons were complex, abstract, or unfamiliar, there was a clear advantage for the more aesthetically appealing targets.

And by contrast, when the icons were visually simple, concrete, or familiar, aesthetic appeal no longer mattered.

The study concludes that appealing icons are not only pleasant to use, but also speed up people's ability to solve multi-step problems with visuals when using websites or mobile phones.

Pleasing aesthetics prove to be most important under taxing conditions, such as when users deal with complex, abstract or unfamiliar material.  Investing in the design of attractive visuals with the most widespread appeal for mobiles and websites, or anything people need to interact with, will enhance the user experience, make these applications and interfaces more efficient, and be beneficial in the long run.

"Savings of even a few milliseconds at a time all add up when someone is performing multi-step interactions on a website or a mobile phone," said Dr Reppa, who is based within the Swansea’s College of Human and Health Sciences.

"This might make people avoid some interfaces, such as certain websites or phones, in favour of those that maximise efficient performance.

“Use of aesthetic visuals produces a win-win situation for all parties involved.”


Image 1 - Appealing icon.

Image 2 - Unappealing icon.


A full copy of the paper – Reppa, I. & McDougall, S. (2015). When the going gets tough the beautiful get going: Aesthetic appeal facilitates task performance, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. DOI 10.3758/s13423-014-0794-zby – can be accessed here.