I completed my Masters Degree in Art and Design at Curtin University. My dissertation explored the Human-Computer Interaction Field. Under the guidance of my supervisor Joel Day (a big advocate for usability in web design) I focused on usability practices in websites.

The basis of my research was around a study which had recently been published by Microsoft researchers Lui, White and Dumais “Understanding Web Browsing Behaviours through Weibull Analysis of Dwell Time.” (2010). This study provided major new insights into web browsing behaviour by finding that the probability of abandonment of a website within the first ten seconds of interaction is crucially high. After this initial “screening” period the abandonment rate dramatically decreases. A Weibull analysis (a graph commonly used to plot system failure) was used to arrive at these understandings, whereas prior to this study, the average time spent on a website was much more commonly cited in HCI research.

weibull-dwell-time

I used this study as a basis for suggesting that the ability to capture the interest of unknown website users quickly (<10 seconds) was far more significant that previously thought. While many factors contribute to the prolongation of dwell time, aesthetic factors had been largely neglected due to their subjective nature. Website usability theory tends to assume that ease of use equates user satisfaction, and downplays the role of aesthetics. In general it warns designers against emphasizing aesthetic elements at the expense of usability.

As widely acknowledged across multiple disciplines, aesthetics plays a significant role in the formation of first impressions. Furthermore, the vast range of continually emerging and developing technologies creates a multitude of possibilities for the application of aesthetic or interactive design practices.

In my dissertation I explored various theories which are helpful in how aesthetics can be used to retain the interest of the user beyond the initial “10 second scanning period.” If users are retained past this period of time, the likelihood that they will  leave the website at any given moment is dramatically reduced.

Two key theories I explored were the establishment of credibility through honest signals, and the concept of affordances to evoke materiality making websites more intuitive to use.

Establishing credibility through honest signals.

An honest signal is one which can be relied on by the receiver of the signal as it is unlikely to be faked by the signaller. An honest signal must therefore be difficult or costly to fake. An example is high quality, cutting edge design. This suggests that the company the website belongs to has money to invest, making consumers more likely to trust such websites (heeding other less favourable factors).

The role of materiality and affordances in making websites intutive

One way in which materiality is evoked on the web is through affordances. Affordances are strong clues to the operation of things through their likeness to known objects  (Norman 1999). For example, buttons on websites are often rendered realistically using pictorial depth cues which prompt the user to click them. To know what to do with an object intuitively, users need to have interacted with similar objects before, either by taking cues from the real world, or through common website conventions.

My research culminated in a study based on surveying users on a number of websites. This survey aimed to investigate whether the presence of pictorial depth cues had an impact on initial perceptions of credibility or on initial levels of engagement with websites.

The study involved participants glancing at a website for under 10 seconds and rating how credible or engaging the website appeared to be based on first impressions. These websites either drastically lacked pictorial depth, or contained a high level of pictorial depth.

The results found that there was a stronger correlation between pictorial depth cues and engagement than to perceived credibility of the website.

Users were also asked to describe why they felt this way. Interestingly, none of the participants mentioned the word “depth” as a way of describing websites high in pictorial depth cues. This suggested to me that depth is something which goes largely unnoticed. As it is something we are familiar with seeing in our everyday interactions with the world, perhaps it’s absence is processed on a visceral level.