I am a sales person for a building automation company. Without getting into the weeds, we put small computers on heating and cooling equipment to allow them to run most efficiently. We also provide a user interface to allow the building operators to interact with the system.

I have mechanical type engineers build the graphics for the building operators interface. I sometimes question the beauty (let alone UX!) of their graphics implementation, and they say "each building operator is unique and wants their own look, and what we built is exactly what they wanted".

Do you feel beauty is "somewhat" universal for user interfaces, or totally unique for each viewer? If the former, how would you respond to someone who states the latter?

  • No, sorry, not. Consider the colorblind. You lose.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 1:11
  • @Joshua I actually am. Some reds and greens. But I do appreciate some things more than others. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 1:14
  • facepalm I failed at imagination.
    – Joshua
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 1:15
  • @Joshua Took me a while to appreciate your last comment. Probably shouldn't admin, but had too google "facepalm". Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 1:19
  • @Joshua PS. Note that in my original post, I said "somewhat". Yes, I might be an enigma, but is beauty universal for most for a given time? Apple seemed to have figured it out. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 1:45

4 Answers 4


Beauty is a very subjective concept, and as such, your engineers are correct, it's totally unique. So, by their own words, it's really weird that they know what other people wants! (note: I have NEVER, EVER seen an engineer building something aesthetically pleasant. I heard tales of engineers that can do it, but they're like ghosts: they exist, but nobody saw one!)

Out of jokes, beauty is subjective, but it's also a creation that molds a certain context, whether it's a time context, a location context or both at the same time. Your conception of beauty is molded but different factors, most of them created in a design lab of sort. Thus, certain color combinations that may look horrible for you today, will be like "wow, how beautiful that color combination is!". Same goes with fashion, music, literature, theatrical arts, architecture and whatever you could think of. On top of that, the economic dogma of "satisfying a need" goes into full effect because at the same time, there's people creating new needs you didn't have before

Now, this "designed beauty" also considers many technical aspects, including, of course, usability. As the technology "state of the art" evolves, so does the behaviors that have to adapt to those changes. As few as 15 years ago, nobody would have think of having phone, videos and GPS on a phone. Now, nobody can live without it (new needs have been created!).

All this intro is to explain why, while your engineers might be somehow correct in a broad sense, they're absolutely wrong at the same time. If your system evolved, your usability has to evolve. And connection with every day contexts and pleasant aesthetics will make your users more prone to use your system. Showing that you care means a lot more that showing you don't care at all. As blunt as it sounds. If in doubt, check Apple. Or tell them to drive a Lada. It does the same that any car, it will take you home. But well...

If you want to go deeper into these subjects, tale a look to the following resources:

  • 1
    I know I am not to say +1, but you get +1 for saying "I have NEVER, EVER seen an engineer building something aesthetically pleasant". Let me digest your response more, however, I probably should ask a different question asking how to make an aesthetically pleasant building engineer interface. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 0:50

Do you feel beauty is "somewhat" universal for user interfaces, or totally unique for each viewer? If the former, how would you respond to someone who states the latter?

I'd say beauty is "somewhat" universal for UIs, but I'd also suggest not to focus much on beauty, and certainly don't try to determine what is and isn't universal beauty - it's simply not very relevant. Instead focus on heuristics and convention. Begin learning about heuristics, or principles of UIs, here and here.

they say "each building operator is unique and wants their own look

How do they know that? And is it important to give them what they want? You probably do want to give them what they want if it increases sales, but you probably don't want to give them what they want if it doesn't increase sales but does decrease your customers' effectiveness. In other words, are your customers qualified to design their own systems? This is not to say "don't listen to your customers" (you should always listen to your customers), but the fact is most software designers are better at software design than their customers. Giving your customers exactly what they want usually isn't beneficial to your customers. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it's a business necessity, but usually the producer of the system, with feedback from multiple customers, will be in a better position to design an effective system than any single customer. In my experience customers usually want something more complicated than they need, while experienced system designers are good at pruning the unnecessary stuff and distilling requirements into a more effective, usable, system (again: not always - sometimes people know exactly what they need to do their job, but usually they don't).

  • Thanks obelia, Should I always listen to my customers? That may increase short-term sales, but not necessarily long-term sales which I want. My end-user customer is sometimes an engineer and more often a crafts person, and while most are good at what they do, 99% of them are not artistic and don't really know what they want. We could and we currently do what the customer asks, but the end result will only look nice to them (which I actually doubt), and will not look nice to their management or future predecessor. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 0:46

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it is not uncommon for people to share similar values when it comes to beauty. Yet when you break it down into the different reasons why people find things aesthetically pleasing, it is a unique combination of the same factors for each individual.

Having said that, we often limit our acceptance of beauty based on the perceived value of others (or society as a whole), but when you are open and can expand your mind to accept other types/forms of beauty, you'll find that in fact everything is beautiful in their own way, and it is just a matter of whether you are able to tune yourself to that perspective or not.

But I wouldn't argue that beauty isn't even a criteria for the interfaces used in building management systems (I have designed a few of them in my time), yet when it is simple and easy to use, plus you introduce some infographics and data visualization design, then the users find it 'beautiful' in the way it works.

  • "I wouldn't argue that beauty isn't even a criteria". So you believe beauty isn't important? My concern is beauty can represent quality upon first impression, and perceptions often means more than reality. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 0:56
  • @user1032531 I think that for the building operators the first thing they look at or think about isn't beauty, but whether the interface has the features that will help them get their job done.
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 1:46
  • Yes, that is what they say. But remember, I am a sales guy that wants future business. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 1:51
  • @user1032531 And if you want future business, it is better to be able to get testimonies from building operators that say the product gets the job done rather than a beautiful interface (usually you don't mention what you can't sell on - with or without stretching the truth). I think appearance is important if your primary lead/source of contact is online and people don't get a chance to read and find out more details (especially if there are many competitor products).
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 2:00
  • I see you know my industry! My company's strength is actually the "under the hood" features and we have (and appreciate) very strong customer loyalty. We do, however, discount aesthetic qualities as well as field implemented UX aspects, and I personally believe we should pay more attention to the latter. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 2:15

There is some objective aspect of beauty (in general, at least), as witnessed by Wikipedia's article on Aesthetics:

TL;DR: the shorter possible a description is the more beautiful

(taking into account the observer's previous knowledge and language)

Scientific analysis of aesthetics

In the 1990s, Jürgen Schmidhuber described an algorithmic theory of beauty which takes the subjectivity of the observer into account and postulates: among several observations classified as comparable by a given subjective observer, the aesthetically most pleasing one is the one with the shortest description [emphasis added], given the observer's previous knowledge and his particular method for encoding the data. This is closely related to the principles of algorithmic information theory and minimum description length. For example: mathematical beauty. Another example describes an aesthetically pleasing human face whose proportions can be described with very little information, drawing inspiration from less detailed 15th century proportion studies by Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer. Schmidhuber's theory explicitly distinguishes between what is beauty and what is interesting, stating that the latter corresponds to the first derivative of subjectively perceived beauty. The premise is that any observer continually tries to improve the predictability and compressibility of the observations by discovering regularities such as repetitions and symmetry and self-similarity.

Mathematical considerations, such as symmetry and complexity, are used for analysis in theoretical aesthetics. The fact that judgments of beauty and judgments of truth both are influenced by processing fluency has been presented as an explanation for why beauty is sometimes equated with truth. Recent research found that people use beauty as an indication for truth in mathematical pattern tasks.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.