Although certain personality traits moderate visceral influences [17], the visceral level of experience is largely pre-wired and biologically determined. We have evolved visceral responses that attract us to objects and environments that provide a survival advantage and repel us from those that pose a survival risk [66]. We like flowers because they signal forthcoming nourishment, vistas because we feel safer if we can see danger coming, and lakes and rivers because the water they contain quenches our thirst and implies additional food resources [5]. We like symmetrical features in a potential mate because they suggest health and therefore fertility [19]. We dislike dark environments and sudden loud noises because they predict danger [48]. However, we can learn to like some stimuli that are naturally aversive. For example, we can acquire a taste for bitter or spicy foods if we are regularly exposed to them and receive social reinforcement for their consumption [143].

Visceral preferences are based on our sensory impressions and are largely influenced by the aesthetic qualities of the perceived object. They are immediate, emotional, and pre-cognitive. Neurophysiological evidence shows that emotionally evocative stimuli directly impact the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for emotional experience—without involving the higher cognitive centers of the cerebral cortex [e.g., 70]. When we see or hear something that is potentially pleasurable or threatening, we become aroused—measured as increases in heart rate, sweat, and startle responses [14]—and are either drawn to the stimulus or away from it, all this before we can consciously analyze or sometimes even notice the stimulus. Based on our first impression we either like something and want it or do not like it and want to avoid it. This first impression biases any subsequent cognitive evaluation, sometimes reducing a logical analysis of product benefits to nothing more than a justification for a preference already formed at the visceral level [143].

Since the emergence of industrial design in the early 1900s, aesthetic appeal has been used as a powerful marketing tool [35; 101]. Apple Computer’s 1997 launch of the iMac is a recent example of a successful product that relied primarily on aesthetics to drive sales. The iMac’s curvy all-in-one form factor and colorful translucent casing stood in stark contrast to the bland putty-colored box-like computers available from PC manufactures, leading one reviewer to say “Wow! I gotta get me one o’ those right now!” [117, p. 22]. Brisk sales in the first year increased Apple’s market share by 66% (from 3.5% to 5.3%) [138], this despite the fact that iMac offered only incremental functional improvements over earlier models.

While the iMac is one of many examples in which compelling aesthetics led to a popular consumer product [35], the conventional view of the importance of the appearance in business-to-business, industrial products has been that “business products do not necessarily make anyone look or feel better, and they generally do not have significant aesthetic value” [15, p. 123]. However, this perspective has been shown to be incorrect: a study of engineering, marketing, and purchasing personnel who evaluated industrial products like motors, oscilloscopes, and pumps preferred those with attractive visual aesthetics and in some circumstances the influence of visual ascetics on purchase intentions exceeded that of product performance and price [141].

The influence of aesthetic appeal extends to Web sites and software. In a study that looked at user’s first impressions of Web pages, pages high in the subjective attribute of “beauty” gave the best overall impression [118]. Another study measured how persistent users were in browsing for information and found users significantly more persistent on sites whose color scheme they rated as attractive [82]. And in several studies of software for automated teller machines [64; 128; 129], industrial control [52], and MP3 players [51], users who perceived the software as beautiful and appealing also perceived it as useable during their initial evaluation. Perceived usability is important because software that is perceived to be usable is likely to be accepted and adopted [29; 133]. In some cases the initial perception of usability persists even after users interact with the software that is designed to be hard to use [129].

If the visceral level of experience is so compelling and colors perceptions of behavioral attributes like usability, is it the only level of experience we should be concerned with? It is true that visceral experience greatly influences our first impressions and biases our subsequent judgments. However, first impressions do change: for example, one study showed that users modified their original evaluation of the software usability after interacting with it, showing that the behavioral level of experience is influenced by product interaction [51].

Contents, User Experience Engineering (UXE) Essentials Series