February 7, 2012

Emotional design (or the Hallmark Cards approach to interfaces)

Why design for emotion?

It’s no longer enough for an interface to be usable, it needs to be an expression of the personality of the business behind it. Today’s audiences are not just more sophisticated, more social and more expectant of a human face to their technology, they want nothing less than pleasure from their digital services.

The careful use of emotion in our interfaces can make them more forgivable, more human. They can create a genuine connection with our audiences.

The argument for emotional interfaces

Association with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs - this is something you’ll see a lot and is a kind of fallacy of false attribution. You can see it here in a good article arguing the case for the existence and value of emotional interface design is Aarron Walter’s piece on Think Vitamin. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is appealing in it’s simplicity and the model lends itself to being recomposed in ways that suit someone’s assertion. The problem is that Maslow’s work here is contentious, very specific to Maslow’s culture and lacks decent evidence to back it up. However, it does sound impressive…

Another argument for emotional interfaces is more subtle and seems to be structured around the idea that as we engage with our interfaces as though they were people we should therefore try and make our interfaces as personable and likeable as possible. The problem with this is that whilst it would be lovely if our interfaces could behave like beings with emotion, it isn’t actually true. Investing our tools with human characteristics is a very peculiar form of anthropomorphism, pretending that our shiny chunks of technology are in any way like us diminishes what it is to be a person.

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.”
Generation Why? by Zadie Smith

That’s not what an interface is for

It’s pretty rare that anybody actually wants anything from the interface itself (other than we freaks who design them), what we actually want is something which lies beyond the interface — most usually these are described in terms of needs. The interface isn’t a destination, it’s a means to an end.

You can have emotional content - literature, film, art often conceived to affect the reader or viewer’s emotions but the interface’s role here is to stay out of the way, to disappear and allow the content to reach its intended audience.

Tools with emotion

The trouble with designing for affect is that it’s incredibly dependent on the viewer - their context, their emotional state. The cardinal example is Microsoft’s Clippy which while well-intended as a way to soften the learning curve, and help the user understand how to get more out of the product ended up being excruciatingly irritating.

Ghastly,” continued Marvin, it all is. Absolutely ghastly. Just don’t even talk about it. Look at this door,” he said, stepping through it. The irony circuits cut into his voice modulator as he mimicked the style of the sales brochure. All the doors in this spaceship have a cheerful and sunny disposition. It is their pleasure to open for you, and their satisfaction to close again with the knowledge of a job well done.”
From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

A brand whose values were about recognition - seeking to understand ways in which they could better recognise their customers. It’s a noble aim, but the reason we advised not to pursue this too hard was the potential for recognition to become annoying or even creepy. Sometimes you don’t want to be recognised, and there’s all sorts of reasons for this — the problem would be that it’s approaching impossible to genuinely not recognise someone when you’ve made every effort to design a system that’s capable of recognising people.

Tools which understand our emotions?

As a human being understanding the emotional state and mood of another person is an incredibly nuanced thing, there’s no way that our technology is anywhere even close to being able to respond and react to our emotions.

Who wants emotional interfaces?

As usual, a lot of this is the usual fluff that we designers and consultants like to talk up to help differentiate our offering to clients, We’re different because we think about the emotional qualities of the interface” sounds great, it sounds compelling (and it sounds like the sort of thing you’d have to pay a bit more for…)

Another reason we like it is that it gives us another reason to go back and talk to the client (that is to say, sell) with a story which — backed up with a touch of Maslow — would run along the lines of, Now that your site’s functionally usable, how about we introduce some personality and emotion into it?”

Sadly, genuine emotion has very little to do with it.

The trouble with emotion

Manipulative interfaces — do we really want to create the equivalent of greetings cards with trite messages about love and care, shorthand for genuine emotion. Unless we’re creating something very bespoke for a few people we’re intimately familiar with, creating any sort of interface is going to end up in front of people you have very little understanding about, and while all those personae and user stories will help get you in the right place, they simply don’t give you enough information to make informed design decisions about how to move the emotions of a person you’ve never met.

Literature is a good example of content that has the potential to move us emotionally, but as anyone who’s discussed their favourite books with like-minded friends will know, the responses that people have to books can vary wildly - our responses are personal and unique to each of us. Aside from the problem that interfaces simply aren’t content, the idea that we can create something as emotionally engaging which won’t piss-off at least as many people as it will delight and enchant’ is ridiculous.

Please say what you mean

It’s another way to sell the same old thing: good design created with thought and care which understands its role in meeting its audience’s need.

Why is this not enough, why are we constantly seeking to redefine what good design means?

Sadly, I suspect it’s because, out of fear and insecurity we feel the need to mystify design and protect our positions. This is sad because it’s an unnecessary waste of energy — good design is incredibly difficult: having the strength and rigour to ruthlessly follow the path towards goodness isn’t easy.

It’s hard for a designer to seek to become invisible, to leave no fingerprints.

UX Emotional design Maslow

Next post
Design Process - The DDL We’re building Tesco’s Digital Design Language (the DDL) like a product, using iterative design to continually optimise the guidance on the toolkit.