Emotion in design

Our creations need to be more human, says Aarron Walter, lead user experience designer at MailChimp. He argues that the task of designing a pleasurable experience is made easier when we create a distinct personality for our interface

We’ve spent the past two years cooing over social networking, and pondering how it’s changing our lives. The shine on that topic is starting to dim. As we move on to new objects of our affections, I can’t help but notice one tangible outcome of our social revolution. For better or worse, we’re just a little bit more authentic.

We’ve spent the past two years cooing over social networking, and pondering how it’s changing our lives. The shine on that topic is starting to dim. As we move on to new objects of our affections, I can’t help but notice one tangible outcome of our social revolution. For better or worse, we’re just a little bit more authentic.

We’re openly sharing the mundane moments of our lives in which we expose our insecurities, our passions, our flaws (drunken office party on Facebook anyone?), and our raw emotions. Our public face is no longer so different from our private face.

That shift changes our expectations of the brands, products, and services we consume. We want them to be as human as we are. After all products can be people too. We’ve seen this to be true in the Volkswagen Beetle, the most successful single design in automotive history and a cultural icon for generations in no small part to the smiling face formed by its headlights and swooping hood that greets its drivers.

Apple illustrated this point elegantly in its recent ad campaign dubbed “Get a Mac” in which the young, laidback hipster Justin Long plays the role of a Mac effortlessly tackling complex problems while his foil John Hodgman plays the un-cool, dweeby PC who bungles even the most basic task. The ads are not about features, they’re about a relationship you will build with a product. They’re about personality and emotion.

Examples of emotion in design history abound. Until recently, emotional design has not been a high priority in web design because we’ve been fighting battles on other fronts–spreading the word about web standards, translating the history of layout in graphic design into our medium, and making our interface design process user-centric. Today, we enjoy the spoils of our victories from these battles, which have made the web a more stable place to publish, and more enjoyable for our audiences. But we can do better still.

Usable = Edible

As web designers, if we’re aiming to create a usable interface, it’s the same as a chef striving to make edible food. When we go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, we’re hoping for more than just an edible meal. We want amazing taste and texture, clever presentation, and memorable ambiance. The pinnacle of a top culinary experience is extreme pleasure, something we too often overlook in web design. It’s the experience layer that we create on top of a functional, reliable, and usable system.

The task of designing pleasurable, and emotionally engaging experiences is made easier when we create a distinct personality for our interface with which our audience can relate. After all, personality is the platform for emotion.

Personality

Through our personalities we share humour, confide our trust, and express the entire gambit of human emotion. Carbonmade – a handy tool for designing and managing an online portfolio–expresses their personality on their site with the earnestness of Jimmy Stewart and the exploding, goofy charm of Eddie Izzard. Octopi, and unicorns frolic in a fantastical landscape on their homepage - not your typical fair for a site that is conversion-focused.

Not only does their unique personality set them apart from their competitors, it also helps their audience relate to them like a trusted friend. Carbonmade designer Dave Gorum explains:

“The informality makes it super easy to open a dialogue with our audience. We're like their goofy friend who's really easy to talk to and can make them a sweet portfolio.”

Humour is a powerful tool for disarming skeptics and endearing a brand to an audience. There are many sites that wield it to their advantage. Wufoo (wufoo.com), Vimeo (vimeo.com), and MailChimp (mailchimp.com disclosure: I am the UX lead on this app) are just a few modern interfaces that let personality shine through and have created a loyal following from it.

But as is true in real life, humour is not appropriate in all situations. The financial software Mint (mint.com) uses emotional design to overcome fear and skepticism in its audience who are reluctant to share their financial information in order to gain insight into personal spending habits

Jason Putorti, the designer behind Mint, knew that trust would be a major issue for users, and he used design to win over skeptics. Mint’s pixel-perfect, elegant design not only sets it apart from its bland, corporate competitors, it lets users know extreme care and consideration was given in the creation of this app, which inspires trust. That line of thinking doesn’t hold up well to logic, but Putorti knew logic is not what would win people over.

“Trust is a gut feeling more than a rational process, and visual design affects emotions in a very powerful way, perhaps more than any other stimuli.”

The Risk

Showing emotion in design has real risk. Some people won’t get it. Some people will even hate it. But that’s okay. Emotional response to your design is far better than indifference.

Showing personality in your app, website, or brand can be a very powerful way for your audience to identify and empathise with you. Humans want to connect with real people and too often we forget that businesses are just collections of people. So why not let your personality shine through?

An edited version of this article originally appeared in issue 211 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.