Ethics and Aesthetics in Course Creation
In a previous post on our CampusClarity blog, we discussed how the perception of race in Think About It has influenced our design decisions. In this upcoming series, we will examine the way in which other ethical considerations affect the aesthetic output of our courses here at LawRoom.
Creating courses for a national audience requires us to think about a massively diverse group of people representative of every gender, race, age, religion, and ability group, and design for their individual needs. To do this, we take both ethical and aesthetic considerations into account at each step of the design and writing process. We think about ethics and aesthetics when making our courses because we want to do good both socially and stylistically.
First things first: why take the time to make beautiful courses? When we’re talking about things like preventing workplace sexual harassment or promoting ethical conduct, shouldn’t the ideas themselves be significant enough to persuade people? While heavy-hitting topics certainly hold their own weight, designers take advantage of a phenomenon called the aesthetic-usability effect to ensure that these ideas make the biggest impact possible. If you’ve ever behaved differently around a particularly attractive person, you already know that humans subconsciously respond to beauty. The aesthetic-usability effect describes a phenomenon in which beautiful designs “are perceived as easier to use, are more readily accepted and used over time, and promote creative thinking and problem solving.” This means that a course that uses aesthetic principles to engage the user is theoretically more likely to be effective than one that does not.
Of course, just because something is perceived to be easier to use doesn’t mean it actually is. However, there is evidence that beautiful things actually do work better. Japanese researchers built two ATM machines that were identical in function. One of the machines had attractively arranged buttons and screens, and the other one was arranged unattractively. The researchers found that the more attractive one was easier to use. Israeli researchers reproduced these findings with even stronger results despite using more stringent methodological controls.
One explanation for these results is that positive affect tends to have a facilitative effect on creativity and empathy, and exposure to beauty increases positive affect. A happiness tracker program found that after romantic encounters and exercise, the types of things that make people the happiest are related to beauty, like being “at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity.” Psychological research has shown that “positive feelings promote helping and generosity” and “people in whom positive affect is induced have been found to…categorize material, including categories of people, more flexibly.” These mind-opening effects of beauty are therefore not only useful in making our courses easier to use, but also in inducing social behavior change.
That said, beauty doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Ethical and functional considerations impact our aesthetic decisions. For example, we need our courses to be accessible to people of diverse abilities. Our design team considers the visual metrics of each screen, ensuring that the color contrast is high enough (as set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) for automated screen readers to be able to scan. Additionally, all of the images in the course contain descriptive ALT tags, so that the more abstract and illustrative aspects of the courses are available to visually-impaired users.
In the upcoming weeks, we will examine individual design concepts and the ways in which they affect the way in which we make our courses.