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Beauty is an important ingredient of our daily lives. We admire and praise the beauty of nature, architecture, music, other people… Given its pervasiveness, the lack of research addressing aesthetics in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is striking. ~Marc Hassenzahl

Text extracted from “Aesthetics in interactive products: Correlates and consequences of beauty” by Marc Hassenzahl

Obviously, beauty is a source of value. In one study, participants saw and rated pictures of two different toasters. While being equal in function, the toasters differed in beauty. Among other things, participants were asked to state their willingness to pay for both toasters. On average, participants were willing to spend $37.20 on the beautiful toaster, but only $24.05 on the not so beautiful toaster. In other words, beauty was worth $13.16, i.e. an increase of about 55%.

Although the notion that beauty adds value seems intuitive, studies reveal a more complex picture. Whether beauty adds value can depend on individual or situational aspects. In the toaster study already mentioned above, it was identified an individual difference, the so-called centrality of visual product aesthetics (CVPA), as an important moderator of beauty’s value. CVPA subsumes three aspects: Value, acumen and response. Individuals with a high CVPA attach personal value to beauty (e.g., “Beautiful product designs make our world a better place to live”); they think of themselves as connoisseurs, able to perceive the subtlest differences in beauty (e.g., “I see things in a product’s design that other people tend to pass over”) and they strongly respond to beautiful things (e.g., “If a product’s design really ‘speaks’ to me, I feel that I must buy it”). High CVPA individuals are more prone to use a visual style of processing, they more strongly desire to acquire objects that only few others possess, and the acquisition of beautiful objects becomes a central pursuit of their lives closely linked to happiness and success. In the toaster study, CVPA moderated the overall evaluation, purchase intention and the willingness to pay for the two products. Whereas for low CVPA individuals neither evaluation nor purchase intention varied significantly as a function of  beauty, it made a large difference for high CVPA individuals. The same pattern but not as pronounced was also apparent for willingness to pay. On average, high CVPA individuals were willing to pay $40.09 for the beautiful toaster; low CVPA individuals paid only $34.32.

This study demonstrated individual differences in the importance we attach to beauty and consequently in the value beautiful objects have. Besides those individual differences, situational aspects can determine whether beauty is valued or not. Ben-Bassat, Meyer, and Tractinsky (2006), for example, attempted to measure the perceived value of beauty and usability by the help of an auction mechanism. Participants first used and rated versions of a software for text input, which differed in their usability and beauty. In the second part of the study, participants were required to perform a task, i.e. to input items with the help of the software. Task performance (number of items) was monetarily rewarded. Before the task, participants were asked to place a bid on the version of the software, they would like to use for the input task. Successful bidders were allowed to use the preferred version of the software for the task. Bids had to be paid in real money. Interestingly, bids differed largely for the medium and high usability version (NIS 6.54 [approx. €1] and NIS 20.71 [approx. €3.50], respectively), but virtually no difference was found for the less and more beautiful versions. Participants even seemed to pay slightly less for the beautiful, high usability version than for the less beautiful, high usability version of the software. Thus, whether beauty has value depends on the context the product is used in. In a highly efficiency-oriented context (as in Ben-Bassat’s study), individuals do not seem to place much value on beauty. In an unpublished study, Dieter Rhode and I further explored the impact of situational cues on the centrality of beauty. We presented a number of laptop desktops, which were meant to differ in beauty and usability. Each participant rated the usability of each desktop (4 items, e.g., easy to use, concise), their beauty (4 items, e.g. well-formed, beautiful look) and their overall adequacy (i.e. not adequate – adequate). However, participants received different background stories for their rating task. One group was told to imagine that they must later use the laptop for correcting a faulty and badly designed PowerPoint presentation under time pressure. The second group was told to imagine using the laptop for a series of important conference talks. The third group was told that the desktop would be installed on their own personal laptop. As expected, in the first group (revision of the presentation), the usability ratings were the single best predictor and explained 58% of the adequacy judgments’ variance. The further inclusion of beauty into the regression model explained only additional 9% of the variance (67% in total). Albeit significant, it seems fair to conclude that beauty did not play much of a role for the adequacy judgments in this group. This was different for the second group (conference talks). Usability remained the single best predictor, but explained only 28% of the total variance. If beauty was added to the model, explained variance was increased by 20% (48% in total). In the last group (own laptop), beauty was the best predictor and explained 17% of the total variance. Usability added another 17% (34% in total). Thus, for a highly task-related context (group 1, revision of the presentation) beauty played only a minor role, which changed clearly given the context emphasizing self-presentation (group 2, conference talks) or personal identity (group 3, own laptop). In these cases, beauty mattered.

All in all, beauty can add value to a product. The magnitude of this effect is likely to be moderated by personal as well as situational aspects. Some, more visually oriented individuals may value beauty more than others. In addition, task- and efficiency-oriented contexts may call for less importance of beauty than, for example, social contexts.