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Chicago’s Bean: What art teaches us about the user experience

by Elizabeth Danielson , 12.04.2013

When it comes to improving the user experience, sometimes we needn’t look any further than our own backyards. Through an ethnographic lens, we can see features that promote a positive user experience by deconstructing our attraction to a piece of artwork.

For example, take Cloud Gate – the Chicago tourist attraction affectionately known as “The Bean.” While having the opportunity to conduct ethnographic research on this sculpture, I was struck by its interactive qualities. A positive attribute, the Bean’s reflective surface encourages engagement by providing a perpetually changing canvas on which people can play, capture a memory, and appreciate beauty.

The experience with the Bean begins by capturing our attention. I interviewed two sailors who had come from a local naval base when they noticed the reflective surface in the distance. They didn’t know what it was, but they were entranced enough to continue gravitating toward the glimmering object.

In a similar way, products use reflective surfaces to draw our attention, capitalizing on perhaps evolutionary affinity for shiny things that could remind us of water. And we encounter this design approach every day — the reflective push opening on a trash can, toilet bowl handle, etc., are all designed with the user in mind, intent on luring us to interact.

After seizing our attention, the Bean presents a variety of calls to interact. First is the sculpture’s ability to induce visitors to play. During one visit, a young girl stood with her face to the structure and pretended to be the face of a clock, moving her hands to imitate the minute and second hands. Many visitors continued their play by taking photos of their slightly distorted reflections in the sculpture.

These elements of play and photography as interactions are used in products, too. Consider the popular photo application that allows users to play with their image through a front facing webcam and memorialize their experience by taking a picture of their distorted image. We can also see this in the implementation of games on smartphones creating a new conceptualization of how one thinks of a phone: a tool that both memorializes a time and place and augments it.

In addition to its playful qualities, some visitors are drawn to the Bean’s beauty. Two visitors I interviewed focused their attention on the sculpture’s aesthetics from a distance. Their interest was not in capturing themselves in its reflection but in capturing the city and the landscape together.

The Bean’s aesthetic appeal is an influential component to our perception of our experience with it. Known as aesthetic-usability bias, it can be seen in software with elegant typography or in hardware that emphasizes curve and simplicity.

While all of these interactions were derived from a sculpture’s reflective surface, we can see their application in product design. Art is evident in design as design is evident in art. When the objet d’art is not compelling, interest is not captured. Research shows that aesthetically pleasing things are perceived as more usable than things that are simply functional. Thus, we must appreciate that we can look to designs like The Bean and uncover unique qualities that can enhance a product’s user experience.

Elizabeth Danielson is a User Experience Specialist at GfK User Centric with a passion for social science research. She has experience conducting both qualitative and quantitative studies, specializing in ethnography and interviewing research methodologies.