Using Feng Shui Principles to Help Web Usability

Feng Shui, a Chinese philosophy that dates back over 3500 years, is the study of all forms of energy, including the energies of spaces, and how those energies affect people . In the last decade, Feng Shui has become a regular practice in America for architects and interior designers on every scale imaginable; it has been adopted by such well known companies as Coca Cola, Hewlett Packard and Citibank. Historically, implementation of Feng Shui models has been used primarily in three-dimensional realms, however, with parallels to design theory and environmental and behavioral psychology, it follows that principles applied in architecture and interior design could be similarly applied in two-dimensional design and provide comparable benefits. The principles of Feng Shui–flow, balance, position, color, shape, and command–provide a solution that can be incorporated into website models, thereby increasing overall website usability.

Just like architecture in buildings, websites use similar elements of form in their architecture. A website’s improper design is a distraction, much like scaffolding is to a building. Using Feng Shui principles to provide a more user friendly experience on the web will help to reduce these distractions, adding to time on page, page views and increasing overall usability.

This research will combine principles of Feng Shui and its powerful tools of expression such as color and shape, to create a new language for website design. Using this new technique, a website will be fully optimized to bring a user to their end goal. A user enters a web page with a specific goal in mind, not expecting to be subconsciously influenced. By analyzing current web design practices and environmental and behavioral psychology, web users can be persuaded to spend more time on a website while reducing the possible negative experience associated with many current Internet practices. Further, this information will provide a solution to improve and streamline the user experience. By creating this solution, incorporating these principles into today’s web design practices will not only increase website performance and usability, but also provide a new guideline that can be followed to achieve that goal.

Included is an analysis of three disciplines–web design, graphic design and psychology–as they pertain to companies’ on line presence, particularly in the success of website performance and usability. This can be achieved by combining all three disciplines under the premise that they can follow Feng Shui’s principles and be used together harmoniously. As there is no study done to date that analyzes Feng Shui and it’s integration into website creation, each field of study–Feng Shui, psychology, graphic design, and web design–will be separately analyzed and conclusions will be made where parallels are found between the three. Each section explores a basic principle of Feng Shui and how it applies to human emotion and interaction through it’s relevance to current design knowledge. This review will analyze these different practices and how previous research can be used to show where these three fields of study can work together to provide a more successful framework for web design, as it pertains to website performance and usability.

Feng Shui

Feng Shui is a body of Chinese wisdom in knowledge and experience relating to the built environment, that has accumulated over more than 3000 years. In that time, many different theories within Feng Shui have been developed for numerous applications. Most contemporary Feng Shui scholars have set up their own criteria for Feng Shui design including criteria for: architectural design, landscape models, location selection, interior design and furniture placement. There are two schools of thought in Feng Shui, the compass school and form school. Compass is more focused on the metaphysical speculations, whereas the form school is more concerned with the physical form and its surrounding environment. Because of the nature of a website–having an actual architecture and visible elements, but also existing in a virtual environment–both of these schools of thought have principles that apply to the complexity of a website and how humans act within its space. Since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), these two schools of thought were not exclusively attached to their own methods for the practice of Feng Shui, but rather combined and integrated ideas from both. Therefore, neither school will be discussed in particular.

Almost every problem that arises in a space will relate to the flow of energy and the balance of energies. Though previous understanding of Feng Shui refers to the three-dimensional idea of the built environment, it, as well as the principles associated with Feng Shui, can also be applied to the Internet’s constructed environment. When mapping out a website, one of the starting points is creating a site map, or flow chart. This controls the way the back end or internal workings of the website will function and be organized. For the front end or the portion of a website that an on line user views, designers create a graphical user interface (GUI) to control the appearance and user navigation of the site, working in design principles which place heavy consideration on balance. From a website’s inception, flow and balance are key factors associated with its potential success and are practices to reduce problems before they arise.

Flow And Balance

Flow, also known as chi, as it relates to Feng Shui, is energy that moves through a space and affects our level of stress and our behavior. Spatial organization of a website should be used to increase a web site’s chi, providing a more comfortable and integrated user experience. Energy naturally moves in a curved motion, so with a very geometric platform on which a website is built, how can a website increase the flow of something curved? The practice of Feng Shui is an intuitive matter involving site selection and spatial organization, and it has strong parallels with the Western concept of geometry in architectural design. A website does not necessarily need to be built with more curves, but built so that the elements making up the site allow for a curved flow of energy to easily move through the space. This flow relates to composition and layout, as in design, typography and photography, but also has a more spiritual aspect, which may provide another level which can be incorporated to improve a site’s success.

A user enters a website with a specific goal in mind. Properly moving them to their goal in the shortest amount of time will directly affect a web site’s success. Components that are placed at the top of a page tend to be perceived as more important and creating a visual hierarchy on a web page can make it easier to understand, consequently making it more usable. This increased understanding of a website is achieved through analyzing flow and balance of components on the web page, and using that flow to direct the user to their goal.

Research indicates that whether a user finds a website visually appealing often has a powerful impact on forming perception of website usability. This formed perception is better understood as the first impression; the first thing we see puts our subconscious to work. Studies in eye tracking technology have shown that when a user enters a website, their first few fixations rested on the center and top of the pages, suggesting that these areas may play an important role in forming the first impression of a page. Therefore, true to Faraday’s theory of visual hierarchy, importance of a website does have a natural starting point, being the top or center of a web page. In the Feng Shui schematic design checklist, one must be aware of the impact of the first view upon entering a building. Developing good website chi requires developing a design plan that begins with understanding this focal point.

Once a focal point is found, what is it that keeps a user engaged on a website? While users may move away from a website for technical reasons (slow download) or content reasons (the information on the page), studies suggest that form can also be a reason for moving away from a website. Once the focal point has been identified, the continuation of that flow, or energy, must be created. There is an overall user preference of aesthetic content over loading speed, and the most important variable is information layout. There are two driving aesthetic factors behind a successful layout: symmetry and complexity.

Symmetry

Symmetry is a structural variable that reduces complexity. In architectural Feng Shui, a main entrance to a building should be in the center to create a feeling of balance. Studies in web design have found that users viewed asymmetric web pages more negatively than symmetric ones. Vertical symmetry has an impact on intuitive straightforward beauty appraisals and on classical and expressive aesthetics judgments made by the participants. With balance being an important factor in Feng Shui, and symmetry being the shortest answer to creating balance, its understandable that symmetry can benefit website usability.

Complexity

As mentioned above, symmetry also reduces complexity. The reduction of complexity facilitates viewers’ processing the given information which will result in a more positive aesthetic response toward the stimulus. This positive response from reduced complexity leads the user to another important subconscious conclusion that drastically affects the success of a website. Visual design of the website results in trust, satisfaction, and loyalty. Furthermore, websites that match the users’ social and emotional perceptions are expected to increase trust and be more engaging. By simply analyzing the flow and balance of a website, one can design with a new focus on the emotional comfort of their customers.

Commanding Position

Commanding position is a theory in Feng Shui long used with the placement of furniture. For this study, the furniture in a room as seen in Feng Shui, is translated as the elements on a single web page. A website needs to make clear to everyone entering the site who is in control of the space, or what message is being conveyed. Without this initial statement, a user may not generate a first impression that their goal can be met. Similar studies to the Feng Shui principle of commanding position have been done for website usability. Pages that included a main large image were rated as the most appealing, and those that did not were rated as least appealing. The size of an object is an important factor in its perceived visual importance–the larger the item, the greater its importance and, consequently, the higher its level in the visual hierarchy. When designing a website, with the users’ goal in mind, the commanding position, or commanding image in this case, should be relevant to the main message of the website, driving a user to continue, comforted that they have reached the correct location.

Color And Shape

More than just inserting a large image or text block, shape must be a consideration. According to Feng Shui’s principles, a regular shape (rectangle, square, or round) has the most comfortable impact on an individual. This may be another reason to believe that the flow of chi does not necessarily need to be a curved flow, but reflect the flow of a user through the websites’ content.

In his work, Leonardo da Vinci used the mathematical ratio of the Fibonacci Sequence and is considered the creator of the concept of the golden rectangle, a Feng Shui principle which is a simplified version of Leonardo’s work. The golden rectangle–with a ratio of 1 to 1.618–reflects the proportions that are most often found in nature, from a flower to the proportions of a human figure, and can generate a positive aesthetic response. There are two main approaches to investigating aesthetic responses: one that investigates reactions to the whole object and one that examines reactions to isolated parts of an object. In website design, the viewable area on the majority of computer monitors is very similar to the proportions of the golden rectangle. Therefore, a proper Feng Shui approach to web design would not place any important content, or continue images or fields of information, below the fold–the section of your website that is viewed before a user has to use the scrollbar. This section reflects the whole object. The content included in the fold–text fields, images, advertisements, navigation–can also be designed with the golden rectangle in mind, particularly the image or text field used in the commanding position.

Perhaps just as important as shape in web design is color. As with flow and balance, results reveal that website color appeal is a significant determinant for website trust and satisfaction. Trust is built when, especially with Internet users, privacy is not a concern. Given that deception is particularly easy on line, consumer awareness of manipulation is higher. Applying the principles of Feng Shui such as flow, balance, shape and color can directly affect the success and overall usability of a website by addressing a consumers’ trust issues aesthetically, and on the first impression.

Consumer oriented websites that match the social and emotional perceptions of users are expected to increase trust and be more engaging. Color can be a direct link to matching these perceptions. Colors affect us both physiologically and psychologically and impacts our psyche on the conscious and subconscious levels. A web designer who aligns their content with a Feng Shui color model may be able to address the goal of their user on a whole new level.

The Bagua color theory in Feng Shui uses hues in general color areas to convey an image of the desired intentio. Colors in this theory can easily be used to enforce an emotion expected of a web user. If health is to be conveyed on a website, perhaps the color yellow should be used to build upon that user’s expectation of what they will find on the website. The primary purpose of a space is probably the most important determinant in the choice of the basic design color for that particular environment.

Feng Shui color theory specifically mentions the Bagua color theory and  the Five Elements of Colors. However, psychological studies and the effects of color on people are also taken into account to create a palette that completely represents a websites’ message. Some colors serve to arouse and excite an individual, while other colors elicit relaxation. Though in website design, little is knows about how color affects trust or satisfaction on the part of the viewer. Properly recognizing the web site’s goal and combining the proper colors to support that goal will build a strong backbone for usability and customer trust.

Trust

An underlying factor in the use of Feng Shui is the power on the subconscious mind. This subconscious effect is present from the first impression to the time someone leaves a website. One of the most powerful uses of capturing a subconscious mind is the ability to control behavior. In banner blindness–a phenomenon where users recklessly skip over any text that they deem to be fluff – the subconscious mind controls the behavior to ignore the content associated with a web banner. In web design, this control of behavior can be the difference between success and failure.

Properly combining the principles of Feng Shui – flow, balance, commanding position, shape and color–produces a new level of consumer trust in websites. According to the social presence in communication theory, by creating a feeling of warmth and human contact, websites can create a psychological connection with their users. The balance of complementary aspects of our environment, whether colors, shapes, materials, or other design components, greatly affects the way we feel and behave. Flow and balance provide a comfortable path to the user’s end goal, while shape and color provide the warmth and contact to keep them on that path, knowing they belong there because the commanding message told them, honestly, that they were.

In Conclusion

For centuries Feng Shui has been applied to many fields, and now initial observations and experiments will be made into its successful application in web design and usability. The parallels between architecture and web design allow for Feng Shui to be applied in both models. Flow, balance, position, color, shape and command all have roots in Feng Shui, architecture, and web design, and previous studies show that these principles, as delineated in Feng Shui, should translate well into increased usability on the Internet. Eye tracking data will enable a thorough and precise examination of the areas of the page that attract participants’ attention, while the heuristic will compile data from a more natural Internet experience–pointing and clicking a mouse. Though differences will likely exist between females and males, past research suggests that the majority of participants should react to the stimuli as expected, preferring the models created with Feng Shui principles incorporated.

Past studies of design psychology and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) provided a good basis to begin studying the effects of incorporating Feng Shui into this two-dimensional realm. Just as commanding position has been used in furniture placement to increase a CEO’s control over his business, Feng Shui can use commanding position to increase a website’s control of a message. Effects of color schemes on human emotion have been noted in psychology for years, and have been a large part of the Feng Shui Bagua color theory. By combining many of these studies through their documented parallels, Feng Shui will produce better web usability.

The research to be conducted only examines a small effect on web usability, therefore it is recommended that further research be conducted to identify stronger connections between Feng Shui and web usability. However, after this initial round of research, it is also expected that Feng Shui principles included in common web design practices can be a viable alternative, or powerful addition, to today’s current design models. Through this research, many successful applications of Feng Shui principles are expected to surface which, when implemented, show promise to increase a web site’s time on page, page view, and usability statistics. Using Feng Shui can improve the visual appeal of [a website], potentially leading to a higher rate of return and the attraction of more users.

With the ever-changing world of technology, web designers are constantly looking for more ways to market themselves and prove successful solutions to businesses. Concurrently, businesses are looking for better ways to achieve success over their competitors and find resources to help them in that search. This work becomes important in that it recognizes another means to differentiate a website from others in a factor not normally considered in today’s web design practices. Because of the parallels between Feng Shui and better known design practices, it is also likely that this study will open new avenues for Feng Shui to be incorporated into other two-dimensional fields, such as painting and illustration.

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