Aarron Walter on designing for emotion

Mandy Brown: So tell me how you came to this topic. What’s “emotional design” and where did it come from?

Mandy Brown: So tell me how you came to this topic. What’s “emotional design” and where did it come from?
Aarron Walter: Emotional design is a topic that I became interested in when I was hired to redesign MailChimp in 2008. I was already an avid user, and a big fan of the brand, which is delightfully light-hearted. The tone of the copy and the clear personality struck me as honest, like the people behind the brand weren’t trying to construct an inflated image of themselves. MailChimp just felt very human to me and I saw that as a strong competitive advantage.

So when I was hired to redesign the app and later build a UX team, I spent a lot of time dissecting the pieces that shaped the experience, and experimented with new ways to carry that through. I played with copy a lot, and noticed that, if well-crafted and properly placed, it really had an effect on people. I started to notice people tweeting the little greetings that Freddie the chimp makes at the top of each page. They even started posting screenshots of the greetings on Flickr or their blogs.

I spent a lot of time thinking about copy in every nook and cranny of every page and every email sent by the app. That lead me to question the sorts of things MailChimp would say, and what it would not. It felt a bit like writing a character in a screenplay. I was trying to define the boundaries of a personality, and that was a huge revelation to me. Brands can be personalities, and that makes them feel more human and relateable to their audience.

Much research ensued, which led to a talk that I gave for An Event Apart in 2010 entitled, “Learning to Love Humans: Emotional Interface Design.” The topic seemed timely as other companies were making similar discoveries about this different way of communicating with customers. I became a bit obsessed with the topic, and felt I had to gather my research and ideas into a book.

Emotional design is such a layered subject. It touches psychology, interaction design, content strategy, user experience, graphic design, customer service, and so much more. It’s about constructing a personality that resonates with your audience. Remember the days when we were all obsessed with creating a “brand”? If you ask me, I think personality is the new brand.

MB: That seems easy enough for a company with a chimp for a mascot, but what about an art museum, or a hospital, or a transportation authority? Can everyone afford to be that up front with their personality?
AW: I think so, and I’d go so far as to say it’s essential. Apes and jokes are not required when designing for emotion. You can craft a personality that inspires trust, or empathy. If you look at apps like BankSimple or Mint, they’d suffer a crisis of credibility if humour was at the centre of their design persona. Instead, they use design principles and an appropriate tone in their copy to suggest their app is trustworthy. Things like a typeface or colour palette can play a big role in communicating personality as much as the tone of copy.

Personality not only attracts people, it can also repel them. That seems scary when you’re in the business of building a broad user base, but it can work to your advantage. You want to attract the people who are passionate about your product or service, and make them feel connected to you. They’re the ones who talk about you on Twitter and Facebook, they’ll tell their friends about you. In many ways, passionate users are your marketing campaign. It’s your product or service that will peak their interest, and your personality that will inspire loyalty and devotion.

People that aren’t passionate about what you have to offer are going to create more support requests, complain, and generally cause trouble, which will cost you money. Personality can be the filter that keeps away the trolls and problem customers while endearing you to those that are ready to sing your praises.

MB: How do you go about finding the right personality for your product? There are some obvious answers: a bank shouldn’t be funny, a portfolio app needs to be savvy. But beyond that, how do you construct a personality, a person, out of pixels and tubes?
AW: It helps to have a clear understanding of your audience. We user experience designers spend a lot of time talking to users to learn about their motivations, expectations and goals. We boil down what we’ve learned into user personas that are archetypes of the people we’re designing for. But if we’re trying to build a real relationship with our audience, we need to understand both sides, and that means researching ourselves as well. You don’t have to do a big, formal study on your company, but you can at least consider the people behind it and the culture of the environment. Start to identify keywords that describe the personality of your organisation and look for common threads.

This little exercise will help ensure the personality you create comes from an honest place. The last thing you want to do is concoct a persona that’s not really who you are, as that’s difficult to keep up, and your audience will sense that it’s inauthentic.

I’ve developed a simple little document called a Design Persona that makes this process a little more formal and can help you share personality concepts with colleagues. A Design Persona helps you find the basic traits of the personality you’re creating and sets the boundaries of what the personality is not. I created a Design Persona for MailChimp, and defined the personality traits as follows:

FUN but not childish
FUNNY but not goofy
POWERFUL but not complicated
HIP but not alienating
EASY but not simplistic
TRUSTWORTHY but not stodgy
INFORMAL but not sloppy

There are many other sections in a Design Persona, but this one exercise of defining what your personality is and isn’t will give you a very clear picture of how to present yourself to your
customers. This can serve as your guide as you design new interfaces.

MB: Alright, now that I have this Design Persona, how does it affect my workflow? How does the persona evolve over time? Isn’t this just more work? I have responsive web design and HTML5 and CSS3 and so many other things to learn, too!
AW: Once you’ve created a Design Persona, pin it on your wall, share it with your colleagues, and use it as your guide when creating design comps, writing copy or designing interaction patterns. Always ask yourself, “WWMDPD — What would my Design Persona do?”

And don’t feel like your Design Persona is set in stone. Revisit it from time to time to see if it’s still reflective of your company and your brand. If it’s not, make changes accordingly.

Working with a Design Persona isn’t going to tax your design schedule. It takes very little time to produce. It’s a framework for emotional design that can help your team share a vision for the experience you’re trying to create for your audience.

Mandy Brown is co-founder and editor of A Book Apart and a contributing editor for A List Apart.

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