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My intuition is that well-designed sites are more pleasing for us to navigate, which means well-designed sites receive more user engagement.

Are there studies that test this hypothesis? A/B tests of this sort would be easy to construct--do others know of specific case studies that evaluate how large a role e.g. a considered "skin" on a site drives traffic?

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I think it is important to understand the factors that relate to user engagement, which are generally centred around the content contained within the website or app that they consume, rather than the aesthetics of the website. This because while the aesthetics (i.e. styling and visual cues or embellishments) can attract the user's attention, it is not what will make the user continue to be engaged with the content (think click baits).

So even though there are A/B tests to show how a difference in the visual design and layout might attract more views or clicks, there are not as many studies on engagement because it is really based on how well the content suits the user's needs and whether it is easy enough to navigate or access for them (but this is not related to their engagement of the content).

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I would disagree that there is no such emphasis. The whole 'UX design' discipline, jobs, and 'ux-research' building stage are proof that usability has become a huge thing in the app-building world. My guess is that what you meant was aesthetics of the design - which is a personal and hard-to-measure thing. That would be an interesting topic to dive into but most probably quite vague as the search for the best world's cuisine would be.

Most probably, huge companies are running some aesthetics tests for their audiences. It means, tests are proprietary and have their cost - so, companies would rather use the findings to update their UI rather than share too much to get an advantage over competitors for a while (changes are really fast in the IT world). As a possible source of such insights, I would seek to analyze how competitor projects won and/lose their audiences.

If to use my own experience, I may say that for a long time I was a dedicated user of VKontakte.ru (which is a Russian competitor for FB) and it was all because of their UI which was SO much better than FB UI. When I moved to the states I was simply forced to use FB - but if there will be another social app to offer a better UI - will gladly go there. I know I am not the only person thinking so.

The most interesting/relatively easy source for such testing would be something like news websites - they offer relatively similar services with different UI - but I never looked for such data. Also, there is no unbitable player as in some other areas, which makes this possible.

As a summary - I would assume that engagement is quite specific to the content/service/audience question which makes some universal research not very usable.

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    You're quite right, functional and purely aesthetic changes would have to be disentangled for these studies to even exist...
    – duhaime
    Feb 12 at 12:47

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