The Halo Effect – Why Apple gets away with rubbish interaction design

As have many others in the past year or so, I recently swapped from PC to a new MacBook.

It certainly has been an experience, and it’s nice to actually have something to take out of my bag at conferences that looks so cute, that doesn’t make that embarrassing Window’s startup sound, that has a half decent battery life and that doesn’t take half a century to boot up. (My old laptop was generally out of battery by the time it finally booted, making it all but useless in conference environments anyway).

It has to be said though, that when it comes to interaction design, there are quite a few examples where the Mac falls short of my old PC.

This is not a post about the things that Apple does badly though (although, seriously – can we get past the one button mouse already? and I do think that dialog box is pretty shocking, and those little triangles that so often hide much of the information I’m looking for in Mac applications…. please!). This is a post about what Apple does well, and how this helps them get away with doing some things not so well.

As a general rule, Apple does a brilliant job with design. Highlights include the iPod, their in-store experience, the ‘out of the box’ experience, and the product design for most of their computers.

Enter, the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect is a Cognitive Bias (something our brains do that kind of tricks us or is a bit lazy, but also makes us more efficient than, say, computers). This particular cognitive bias means that the impressions we already have of someone or something colour how we perceive their current and future actions. Or, in Wikipedia speak ‘the perception of a particular trait is influenced by the perception of the former traits in a sequence of interpretations.’

So, all of Apple’s good design work of the past influence our perception of other design work we encounter. It also influences our reaction to things like, say, their customer service once you’ve bought their product. In some instances, some of these traits are not so desirable, but because of the great positive association we have between Apple and design, we are almost blinded to the fact that they’re not really delivering to the standard we’ve come to expect.

This accounts for the effect that new Mac users would be familiar with whenever they dare complain about something that Apple has designed – the almost-killer-attack of long term Mac users who seem to be almost blind to the idea that there may be something imperfect about a Mac!

OK, so that’s an exaggeration. But I bet you know what I mean :)

The Halo Effect and attractiveness are also closely linked, meaning that we are more likely to imbue attractive things with positive traits than we are less attractive things. Thereby, simply by virtue of the fact that my MacBook looks a whole lot more attractive than my now retired ThinkPad, I’m more likely to attribute it with traits like good interaction design… even when there may be much evidence to the contrary.

We can learn a lot from Apple and the Halo Effect though. If our company or our product becomes associated with good design over time, and if we design attractive products, then our customers will not be waiting to savage us when, in the future, we slip up a little accidentally. Quite the opposite – investing in good design now is almost like investing in a margin for error in the future. And couldn’t we all do with one of those now and then.

Meanwhile, next time you are attacked by rampant long-term Mac users, play nicely.

They may get a little over enthusiastic at times, but that’s just their cognitive bias talking ;)

18 Responses to “The Halo Effect – Why Apple gets away with rubbish interaction design”

  1. Rich June 14, 2007 at 6:11 pm #

    I’ve now been a Mac user for two years, and there are certainly plenty of examples of poor interaction design. The way that you add printers is a glaring example. On the whole, though, it seems that the way OS X works is closer to my internal model for how computers should work than either Windows or Linux.

    I agree that the black triangles are annoying. They’re bad enough in tree lists, but again they’re worse in things like the printing dialogue boxes. If it’s any consolation, the tree lists look even worse from the point of view of developers trying to use them…

  2. Jason Mesut June 14, 2007 at 6:25 pm #

    I have to agree that Macs get away with plenty of flawed interaction design, but I have a different take on the halo effect.

    My theory is that things that are attractive or fun to use, actually seem to be more usable. The reason is that the pleasure I experience from the aesthetic or the gaminess of an interface makes me happier.

    The happiness makes me more creative and thus more able to come up with alternative options for dealing with any usability shortcomings, therefore it seems more usable.

    The iPod is the perfect example of this – it’s not intuitive (in the truest sense of the word), it’s not easy to use at first and it has loads of interaction flaws – but it delivers shedloads of music in the palm of my hand and looks beautiful, so I will persevere no matter what.

    I think the iPod (and apple) success is less about the halo effect of apple product design over the years and more of the halo effect of them playing on positivity and joy in design, tugging on people’s emotions.

    This aside, you are one of the few people who I have ever known who hasn’t fallen under the apple spell upon conversion from PC. I think I respect that, but I still don’t understand it – I guess that’s me being a victim of the halo effect that you describe.

  3. Niels June 14, 2007 at 6:37 pm #

    Interesting points, yes sometimes mac users can be a bit much : ) and being a mac user I have to be careful here.

    There are definitely things that can be improved on the mac, and that are flaky in general.. Maybe the difference is that mac users are surrounded with things that are nice and good, and thus think that the things that are a bit off, are good too, or at least supposed to be that way.

    whereas windows users are surrounded by stuff that is weird and goes wrong, and thus don’t worry about it and don’t complain..

    don’t take all that too seriously.

    On the mouse thing.. I used to hate the no right click thing too, but the double finger tap capable track-pads solved that. I love the mac’s huge trackpad and big ‘one size clicks all’ button.

    It now irritates me how small trackpads on windows notebooks are.. and I find myself hitting the right click button unintentionally..

    To add to the misery, why on earth is there no (forward) delete key on the Macbooks.. and do we really need 2 enter keys?

  4. Joshua Porter June 14, 2007 at 8:15 pm #

    Great post, Leisa! Here’s another, similar idea that I read recently. Familiarity changes perceptions of quality.

    Product loyalty: consumers mistake familiarity with superiority

  5. leisa.reichelt June 14, 2007 at 8:27 pm #

    Jason, what you’re describing sounds to me like Don Norman’s theory that Attractive Things Work Better which I think is another very related concept in this discussion. (But slightly different to the Halo Effect)

    The Don says:

    ‘Positive affect makes people more tolerant of minor difficulties and more flexible and creative in finding solutions. Products designed for more relaxed, pleasant occasions can enhance their usability through pleasant, aesthetic design. Aesthetics matter: attractive things work better.’

    Don’t get me wrong… I’m falling under the spell of the Mac rapidly… in fact, if I’d have written this post a few weeks back it probably would have been more about why Macs suck and less about the Halo effect ;)

    Which takes us to Josh’s point about familiarity :)

  6. Jason Mesut June 15, 2007 at 7:12 am #

    Yes, I guess I am piggybacking the Don’s theories which I am aware of but didn’t realise I had absorbed and reused wholesale. I guess it’s time to read emotional design again.

  7. leisa.reichelt June 15, 2007 at 7:15 am #

    Ah, you can’t go too wrong channeling The Don. Well…. his later work, at least :)

  8. Jeff June 15, 2007 at 1:18 pm #

    You hate Macs! Stop bashing the Mac. Macs are great. Steve is a god. So there!
    Just had to balance out the tables as I saw a lot of readers softly mention how great the Mac is and agree slightly with your points.
    In reality, I totally have the Halo effect; I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say black triangles (do you mean the little triangles in the dock or the stupid switches in folders to open more folder and file names?), and like everything else in life, people gravitate to things they are comfortable with. If I were more comfortable with a PC, I’d probably stay there – at least until some reasonable Mac user like myself berated them.
    Good writing. Keep it up.

  9. Whitney Hoffman June 15, 2007 at 2:07 pm #

    This is also what I call impression management. Things may not always be perfect, but if you show people what to expect in advance, deliver on what you promise, then the overall impression starts out positive, and people are more likely to overlook smaller, and inevitable imperfections.
    It’s what happens when we set a tone in our office, our homes, our lives. It builds in expectations, and we spend more time trying to maintain the reality of those expectations, rather than violate them.
    God, how I love cognitive science!

  10. Alex June 18, 2007 at 11:12 am #

    I’m going to try to build on this with a post that looks at the reverse of the halo effect.

    A kind of ‘first impressions / first time experience’ if you will and how we can influence a future by the perception of the present. Not rocket science I guess but I hope to point to real design oportunities…

  11. leisa.reichelt June 18, 2007 at 11:41 am #

    great idea Alex. The opposite of the halo effect actually has a name too – it’s called the ‘devil effect’ or – my preference – the ‘horns effect’ :)

    look forward to reading your post!

  12. James Breeze July 7, 2007 at 2:12 pm #

    I have been a Mac[book] user for two weeks. I like your description of the halo effect. What I’m finding is that I am trying to tell myself that the Mac is a better designed machine .. just coz that the reputation they have! Some things are painful tho. The main thing being trying to juggle Mac and PC with Bootcamp. I’ve got Parallels now and it makes it easier, however, my Mindmanager Pro 7 software doesn’t like saving docs across the two operating systems. Has anyone found that?

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  1. Zusch Login » Blog Archive » Apple: I Call BS - March 4, 2009

    [...] Whatever my misgivings, I can’t fault the choice of aesthetics over usability from a business perspective. The look may be responsible for, not only moving iPhones off the shelves, but for facilitating the buzz in the media that’s forgiving of its usability flaws. By being visually attractive, the iPhone makes a strong positive first impression that ultimately makes it seem functionally better than it really is. [...]

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