Aesthetics Over Usability

A recent stay at the Hyatt Regency San Fran­cisco pro­vides an excel­lent case study in the con­se­quences of choos­ing aes­thet­ics over usabil­ity. This real world exam­ple high­lights a com­mon pit­fall in web design.

I despise air travel. Ris­ing before the rooster, dri­ven to the air­port, herded through secu­rity, endur­ing flight delays, belted to an under­sized air­plane seat, and couri­ered to the des­ti­na­tion hotel… I avoid this when­ever pos­si­ble. After arriv­ing, my sole desire is to get to my room and put down my luggage.

A Story of Frustration

So, upon my recent arrival at the Hyatt Regency San Fran­cisco, I was amused — in a twisted way — with the miss­ing front desk. After wran­gling my lug­gage through the revolv­ing door, I was greeted by an elec­tronic “Wel­come” sign, and a sin­gle esca­la­tor descend­ing from the upper floors.

view new guests are greeted with, including welcome sign and escalator

Wan­der­ing around the 1st floor and unsuc­cess­fully seek­ing the front desk, I found a sign indi­cat­ing it was located on the Atrium Level. New to this hotel, “The Atrium Level” was mean­ing­less; appar­ently it means “the 3rd floor”. The up-​​escalator was out of sight from the entrance.

At the end of the esca­la­tor chain, the front desk con­tin­ued to be annoy­ingly elu­sive. Noth­ing in front of me, ele­va­tors to the right, and a crowd of peo­ple to the left. A closer look revealed the crowd was in the lounge, not the front desk. Finally, behind me, oppo­site the esca­la­tors resided the front desk.

top of the escalator with the front desk in the background

The Rev­e­la­tion

Over the next day, I pon­dered the quirk­i­ness of this hotel. I enjoyed watch­ing new guests retrace my con­fu­sion. And then it struck me: the esca­la­tors were run­ning in reverse.

The down-​​escalator that greeted all new guests was designed to usher arriv­ing guests directly to the front desk. Fur­ther, if the direc­tion was reversed, guests would step off the final esca­la­tor directly fac­ing the front desk.

Dis­ori­en­ta­tion at the Hyatt Regency San Fran­cisco does not result from a design flaw, it is an oper­a­tions failure.

Delib­er­ate Sabotage

I imme­di­ately walked to the concierge desk and shared my insight. He laughed and gave me a shock­ingly hon­est answer. Not believ­ing my ears, I walked to the valet and shared my obser­va­tion. The valet had the same response.

The gen­eral man­ager had pre­vi­ously directed the esca­la­tors be reversed from their designed oper­a­tion. His peo­ple on the floor imme­di­ately saw the customer’s result­ing con­fu­sion and reported this to the GM. But the GM insisted the esca­la­tors oper­ate in reverse. Why? Because when oper­at­ing in reverse, the view is more impres­sive as the esca­la­tor arrives at the Atrium Level.

impressive view of 10+ floor atrium

The man­age­ment of the Hyatt Regency San Fran­cisco has pur­pose­fully frus­trated their guests to cre­ate an improved first impres­sion. Does any­one else see irony here? By choos­ing aes­thetic over usabil­ity, man­age­ment has under­mined both.

Aes­thetic is impor­tant; please don’t mis­un­der­stand my point. But which alter­na­tive pro­vides for an improved first-​​impression?

  • A lost and frus­trated guest is pre­sented with a grand view as they first enter the Atrium Level
  • A guest eas­ily finds what she is look­ing for only to notice ini­tially over­looked beauty as she turns from the front desk.

Web­site Application

Many web­site own­ers are seduced by the same siren as this gen­eral man­ager. By seek­ing to pro­vide an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence, we lose sight of our visitor’s objec­tives. Vis­i­tors do not come to your web­site look­ing for an expe­ri­ence. They come look­ing for infor­ma­tion. Our goal should be to enable effi­cient acqui­si­tion of this information.

Set­ting the mood with music, or cre­at­ing visual inter­est with move­ment may seem like good prac­tice, but user test­ing con­tin­u­ally ver­i­fies these are imped­i­ments. Flow­ery wel­come text may seem hos­pitable, but users want imme­di­ate answers for their ques­tions. We fill our nav­i­ga­tion with evoca­tive names, like “Atrium Level”, that con­fuse with­out con­text. The more we seek to meet their needs, the bet­ter their expe­ri­ence will be.

Effec­tive web design is never cen­tered on the web­site owner’s per­spec­tive. It is grounded in under­stand­ing the end user.

Jeffrey D. King

About the Author

Jef­frey D. King is a web designer and con­sul­tant in San Diego. Jeff is pas­sion­ate about the inter­sec­tion of busi­ness and the inter­net. As a stu­dent of design, usabil­ity, brand­ing, and entre­pre­neur­ial strate­gies, he can help your orga­ni­za­tion achieve online success.


  1. Very well-​​written com­ments on your stay at the Hyatt and how it relates to poorly con­structed web sites. I really would like to work with you guys on my Finan­cial Aid web site. Please call me at (215) 260‑9558. Thanks,


  2. Thank you Barry. It was a plea­sure meet­ing you at IECA. Alva will call you later today.

  3. I loved the article…and its metaphor.

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  1. […] J.D. (2009). Aes­thet­ics Over Usabil­ity. Retrieved May 29, 2009, from http://​king​desk​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​a​e​s​t​h​e​t​i​c​s​-​o​v​e​r​-​u​s​a​b​i​l​i​ty/ Pos­si­bly related posts: (auto­mat­i­cally generated)Side-by-Side Refrig­er­a­tor­Pack­age Machinery…in […]