The Impact of Aesthetics on Attitude Towards Websites by Jennifer Chin. An interesting article that addresses the importance of visually appealing websites in accomplishing the website goals.
Website Aesthetics -- what has it got to do with usability? by Alistair Gray. Excellent article that discusses the importance of visual appeal to our decision-making and whether a site visitor trusts the website enough to make a purchase (and in our case this translates to selecting your school over others).
Form Follows Function Revisited by Curt Cloninger. An article that touches on the historical look at the long-standing "form follows function" theory as it applies to website design.
Does Form Follow Function? by Steven Bradley with Smashing Magazine. Great article with lots of good links.
Design and Function Determine Success
We love being able to focus all of our design and management efforts on schools and their websites. As webmasters for hundreds of schools we understand the challenges faced by schools and continually discover ways that their websites can help them solve some of those challenges. Because we specialize, we don't expect our clients to have answers about what their website requirements for their district and school websites will be because we are often in a better position to advise them than the other way around. Our articles cover a multitude of topics, but this time we'll talk a bit about the importance of school websites' visual appeal.
Does Form Follow Function?
It has long been said of design projects that "form follows function." This means that the way something looks should be determined by its purpose. It would mean that the designer should gather the website's requirements and then determine the aesthetics of the website based on those functional requirements.
If using a predetermined website layout--as is the case with most content management system (CMS) the form often only follows function. This can leave us with some fairly unappealing school websites--functional yes, attractive, no. We are simply filling in boxes with data to assure that the function of the website is met. If the principle of "form follows function" were accurate we would see that objects exist because of their function--and if you look around you, you'll see that is simply not true. Some things exist by chance, some for function, and some for sheer aesthetic value.
Beauty Influences Perception of Function
There is compelling evidence that because we humans have an attractiveness bias, we actually perceive beautiful things as being better (actually functioning better, whether or not they actually do). This could provide us with a functional reason to create attractive, aesthetically appealing websites without compromising our website goals--and providing our website visitors with a pleasant experience.
Studies in 1995 and 1997 are described in Donald Norman's book called Emotional Design where in two separate studies two ATMs in Japan and Israel were setup, "identical in function, the number of buttons, and how they worked." But one machine's buttons and screens were arranged more attractively than the other one. In both studies the subject encountered fewer difficulties with the more attractive machine. Yes, the participants claimed that the attractive machine worked better. How is this possible? There are several likely explanations. One has to do with our evolutionary biology and how our brains work and another is that we simply are more tolerant of problems with things that we find attractive. (This could explain why we like that attractive actor/actress in spite of their acting skills.)
Beauty triggers positive emotions and they in turn influence our judgment about its usability. It doesn't necessarily function better, but its appearance causes us to believe it does. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, how something looks influences what we think about it (including our level of trust, our confidence, and our interpretation of its usability)--at least initially.
What does all this have to do with your school's website? Plenty.
Both function and form can and should guide your website development and ongoing management. A primary consideration should be what you have defined as your website's success criteria. The topic of what "success criteria" are considered best practices for schools will be addressed in an upcoming newsletter. But for now, be aware that your site users perception of your website can and will evoke a wide range of emotions and attitudes. It is a fact that aesthetics has an effect on attitudes toward your school, including those of credibility and trust. You want to build a personable and trustworthy face to your stakeholders--and your website is one key avenue to do this.