Functional design usually provokes a rational response in people. This is a good thing. It means they understand what they are looking at and what’s needed to complete the task they set out to do. However, great design has the power to make people think and feel.
Brands should be designing experiences that make people feel loyal and empathetic towards them. To do that we need to understand how the user interface (UI) we create provokes and influences emotion. In this article, we will discuss how design often stops short of becoming meaningful and introduce the principles behind recognizing emotional reaction and how we measure it. We’ll look at how some brands successfully and skillfully adapt to how their users feel, and we’ll demonstrate some practical examples of applying emotional affordances to any product or service UI.
There’s nothing new in the approach of making an experience usable (good at what it is intended for) and pleasurable (making you feel good as you use it) – from Philippe Starck creating a lemon juicer that was as desirable as any design collectable, through to Peloton combining beautifully crafted bikes connected by an online membership experience.
Recent years have seen many large global brands revamp legacy platforms and build design systems to drive consistency, best practice and an enhanced customer experience. Much of this effort has gone into making their products usable and functional, building out a baseline of digital standards inspired by the systematic giants of Google or IBM, or the OS patterns of Apple and Android.
In many places this has resulted in a ‘best practice cloning’ experience. Can you hide a logo on a platform or service and still recognise the brand? Most organizations unknowingly design up to a line marked as ‘usable’ and ‘functional’, but stop at designing above and into the ‘pleasurable and meaningful’ space.
Data-driven design practices have certainly contributed to this trend. UI design has for some time now been shaped by applying user-centered methods and data has been king in revealing the behavioral characteristics that shape insights. But being data-driven isn’t enough. To put emotion into UI design, you have to include a commonly-missed ingredient – empathy. Understanding why a user does something the way they do will give you a deeper insight on their mindstate.
Spotify has a long history of using data science to influence product features, however they also acknowledged the need to blend this insight with user research. They coined the ‘What-Why Framework’, where user researchers and data scientists partner to examine trends in behavior with techniques such as A/B testing. User researchers then use interviews and surveys to explore how people actually feel about a feature. Combining these disciplines and methods helps eliminate discrepancies that one form of insight alone may present.
An equally important attribute of good design practice is intuition. This can be easy to overlook in a fast-paced environment, where UI is continually adjusted and optimized based on the metrics. An instinct for what users will have a positive reaction toward is a valuable skill that many designers have built up through trial and error. Some designers simply have an ability that affords them the luxury of following what their gut tells them.
Of course most data is actually the breadcrumbs left behind by people, therefore measuring emotional reaction will aid us in understanding our audience and help us create better, positive experiences. A popular approach to classifying emotional responses was created in 1980 by Robert Plutchik – a wheel of eight primary bipolar emotions. By allowing users to select an emotion that best represents how they feel and tracking it over time, you can begin to make improvements to an area of your experience.
There are many ways to measure how users feel when using a product or service, from established sources such as customer feedback and reviews to lab-based methods including facial recognition technology that can decipher a user’s reactions and emotions.
Once these insights are gathered and understood, we can begin to look at any scenario from multiple dimensions, including how a user’s feeling towards a service changes as they move not only through a journey, but over time as well. Traditional ‘personas’ are already static and fall short of representing a single person’s many mindstates. But if we add an emotional dimension to any profile we can begin to consider how to design for that moment. Having a core understanding of the emotional state and needs of users during your experience will empower you to add positive moments, or at least soften the impact of friction.
Love them or loathe them, Uber is a brand that understands the emotional journey a person is experiencing as well as the geographical one. There are many potential pain points during a typical customer experience, and Uber uses design and psychology to address them. Wait times are a common barrier to a good ride experience, and to overcome them Uber has designed key nudges in order to fill the time when a person is waiting. It’s called ‘idleness aversion’, and tactics like gamification (showing how far away your driver is), goal setting (displaying an estimated arrival time) or showing what’s happening behind the scenes (explaining how they estimated your arrival time) all make users feel they are in control and making progress.
We already have the methods available to us to influence how a person feels. Even the most corporate design languages include elements we can use as UI designers to make the right impression. There are many approaches, however four powerful ones to mention are language, animation, illustration and gamification.
Tone of voice can instantly humanize a subject and communicate any message you are dealing with in a more personal, warm and imaginative way. Many brands have developed a human way to talk in their communications, yet struggle to apply the same language to their digital products. Startup brands have had more success at building services that address their customers in a much more human and natural way.
Adding illustration to your UI can create ‘moments of humanity’, breaking up the typical flow of information and aiding the cognitive load. The color, personality and characters that illustration can bring really help make the leap from functional to emotional while adhering to brand values.
Animation when used creatively can be useful to direct attention, or help educate a function or feature of a product. Animation can also add surprise and moments of delight to an interaction. At critical moments of a service users often need reassurance they’ve taken the correct action. An animation can tell a clear story in two or three seconds, when often a longer text description struggles to make itself clear.
Lastly, gamification can enhance experiences by adding a layer of motivation. Of course there is a time and a place for gamification, but even when a user is completing a task, creating an UI that motivates them to progress not only increases the completion rate but adds more pleasure as they go. Think beyond points and badges to affordances in the design that encourage a change in behavior.
When functional and emotional design are combined the results are products people have a strong connection with and feel passionately about. We’ve explored how this benefits the end user, but what’s the additional design effort worth to a business, and why should they invest the time?
To put it simply, people will love your brand more. You’ll make advocates of new and existing customers and these people will not only use your products more often, they’ll share their positive experiences with others. When faced with a purchase decision between two functional products, people will gravitate back to the brand that makes them feel better about themselves. Designers at Apple realized this many years ago, and that allows them to sell expensive products to the same people over and over.
We’ve surely reached a point where most interfaces are highly usable and do the job of the analog service they replaced. Best practice should be accessible through muscle memory by now, and familiar patterns have been designed and implemented even in the less-trodden corners of the digital world.
The creation of future value must come from innovating in a more emotional space, where interfaces adapt to how you feel, and brand experiences are focused on helping people achieve human goals, rather than just those defined by a business. This, to me, is the most exciting direction that contemporary UI design can take.