Have you ever been fully engaged in a digital experience and didn’t quite know why? The content or your original objective became less important than the actual experience, and you found yourself interacting with it out of pure self-fulfillment? If so, then you have most likely experienced emotional design.
I was first introduced to emotional design at the 2010 Future of Web Design Conference, during a presentation by Aaron Walter, a User Experience Designer from MailChimp – easily my favorite of the day. The basic concept of emotional design revolves around our physiological needs as humans to emote and bond. And while the web as a digital experience (both desktop and portable) has a history of being impersonal, the rise of social media has completely changed the digital landscape, making it less private and creating a greater voice for the individual. This in turn creates a greater need for HCI (Human-Computer Interaction). In simple terms: Emotional Design creates a connection between man and machine. A metaphor Aaron provides really puts this in perspective: “Designing an interface to be usable is like a chef creating edible food.” Yes, edible is an acceptable result, but one is not necessarily left with a pleasurable or memorable experience. Creating a user experience that’s purely usable isn’t enough. As users, we desire personality with our interactions. Personality is the way we connect with one another. Products and services should be designed more like people with personalities than objects. Designing for emotion can create bonds with our targeted users, which ultimately gains their trust and has them coming back for more.
A successful emotional design creates an experience that is both pleasurable and memorable, rewarding users with positive emotion. Aaron offers his own graphic explanation that connects Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs with a number of users’ needs (figure 1). We start at the bottom, building a functional experience by serving a purpose for our targeted users. Moving up the pyramid, we need to make sure that it’s reliable; users can count on our service. Next, our experiences need to be usable; users can understand how to perform basic tasks and remember how they function. The top layer – which is the most often ignored – is our need to have a pleasurable and delightful experience. The overall idea Aaron communicates is that it’s good to create something useful, but creating something that our users can enjoy and possibly connect with can be much more effective.
One standout example that Aaron gives is exemplified in his work with Mailchimp. Mailchimp is an email marketing service which functions much like Constant Contact, but with an exception: Frederick Von Chimpenheimer IV, a cartoon chimp (figure 2). Every day users are greeted by Freddie at the top of the page with a new message. An example given was “Why am I smiling you might ask? Because I’m not wearing any pants!” Aaron describes Freddie as a no-harm-no-foul treat for the site’s users. If you like the joke, great – it brought you enjoyment. If you didn’t care for the joke, it’s no big deal because he’s not in the way of your workflow, nor is he telling you to do something. Users have actually responded positively to Freddie. Take this featured tweet for example: “Oh MailChimp monkey. Just as I get frustrated w/ wrangling email addresses, you’re there w/ your little witticisms to cheer me up”. What Freddie offers MailChimp users – who could possibly be performing repetitive tasks – is enjoyment, making the site more pleasurable and in turn, more usable. Over time Freddie is also creating a tone between the audience and the application, which Aaron relates to human conditioning. Users of MailChimp have created Flickr accounts and blogs dedicated to the collection of day-to-day Freddie quotes. MailChimp Customer Service even reports users telling monkey jokes right back at them. Other Freddie treats include unique login screens – much like Google (figure 3), and a very unique way of measuring a previewed email by extending the pop up window (figure 4). I’ll let the picture explain itself.
MailChimp is just one of many examples out there. Companies like Apple and Google have created their businesses around the concept of designing for emotion. Going forward, we should strive for more out of our digital experiences. The ability to simply use a site should only serve as a portion of our business objectives and user needs. Going back to Aaron’s graphic, we should always keep that top layer of pleasure in mind when creating our digital experiences. We are now living in a social age, giving us more opportunity to connect with one another and become more personalized. Expressing our personalities allows us to be more human through our digital experiences, further making the need for the experience to be more human. Let’s create experiences that don’t rest on their ability to be just usable, but exceed by being enjoyable.
Below are some additional examples.