Designing for Emotion

These are intense times and we’re all feeling a lot of emotions. Tuning into your customers’ emotions—fluctuating from fear and uncertainty to joy and hope—is essential to connecting what and how you design to those you’re designing for.

Aarron Walter shows you how to bring designing for emotion—all emotions—into your process so you can create better, kinder customer experiences.

Designing for Emotion

Aarron Walter: VP of Design Education – Invision

Aarron is going to talk about the intersection between design and psychology and how design can shape the way we feel. But to do so, let’s go back to a simpler time: 2011. At that time Aarron had a much different view of the world and the web. He had the spirit of revolution in him that Sir Tim Berners Lee had.

The idea of the web was to bring us together, to make us feel connected and to create a platform for equalizing our learning, our economies and our cultures. But history shows that revolutions start with great ideals that often turn into evolutions and deviate from what we anticipated.

There is a gap between good intentions that we bring to our work but sometimes unintentional negative outcomes result from products we create.

Fast forward to 2020. Tim Berners Lee recently said:

We demonstrated that the web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places. The increasing centralization of the Web ended up producing – with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform – a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti human.

Anti human is a fascinating phrase. So many headlines we’ve seen recently are about data breaches, identity theft, upending democracies, by using the platforms and tools that our community has been creating for many years. We have created an anti-human outcome. This tool that can be used to bring us together is also a tool that can be used to tear us apart.

Aarron’s book Designing for Emotion came out in 2011. At that time he wanted to challenge the design and software community to set the bar higher than creating usable, reliable and functional software. If we look to other design arenas such as architecture and industrial design, there is a rich history of creating something beyond functionality, to also be emotionally engaging and delightful. Let’s design for delight was a common catchphrase in 2011.

In 2020 that now seems a very myopic view. We want to keep usability, reliability and functionality top of mind, but designing for delight covers only a very narrow conception of the human experience. We need to design for ALL emotions, including mistrust, fear, anxiety and stress. This year highlights this need, and we should be designing for the full spectrum of emotions, not just delight. The rest of this talk will dive into some examples of how and who is doing that and what lessons they may have to offer.

Trust and fear. Or mistrust and fear. There is no industry currently as fraught with mistrust and fear as banking and the fintech space. So many practices in this industry are designed to be confusing and misleading, but there are some institutions trying to address this.

Rudy Adler at Wealthsimple:

Banks are so distrusted because they have a very confusing way of talking about things and presenting fees. It’s almost like their business model is purposely confusing…We know what we do is different – it’s hard to explain automated investing to someone who’s never heard the phrase automated investing, let alone to someone who’s never invested a penny. We wanted to make a site that provided information as simply, clearly, and beautifully as possible. And we wanted a central metaphor that was fun, elegant, and the opposite of tech-confusing.

Demo of Wealthsimple’s homepage. The metaphor Rudy was referring to is a Rube-Goldberg machine, which you can Google and find crazy contraptions. Automated investing works the same way – you invest money and there is an algorithm that helps you optimize for high returns.

Wealthsimple’s website is an interesting case study of a site designed to try and take the edge of mistrust and fear around banking. Tools such as social proofs as on the site, but more remarkable is the high production value – the clarity of and simplicity of the communication. Wealthsimple won a Webby for this site, so if the craftsmanship for the marketing website is this sophisticated, it gives the impression that the behind the scenes algorithm must be equally as sophisticated.

Once you’ve signed up and invested, you see your portfolio. When markets take a big downtown things get scary and lead to panic reactions, and typically banks only show a short timescale. But markets do rebound over time, and Wealthsimple defaults to a four year timescale. Perceptual cliffs become mere potholes.

Apple is another good example of a company who differentiate themselves from major competitor Google by positioning their competitive advantage as optimizing their products for privacy. Your data will not be shared, encrypted or given out, even when asked for by the government.

Designing for inclusion and empathy are as fundamental to the human experience as it gets.

Project Inkblot by Boyuan Gao and Jahan Mantin created a framework called Design for Diversity which can guide teams in inclusive design. If we aren’t actively thinking about inclusion in product design, we are very likely excluding. which is both bad for business and bad morally.

Some examples of this framework. Question 1: What’s the worst-case scenario of what we’re designing, and who would be the recipient of that? This is a way to put our biases out ahead of us. Good intentions aren’t enough.

Airbnb as an example of the gap between intention vs impact. Often admired for good leadership, well funded, and diversity of staff and investors. Yet the platform is fundamentally built on trust between host and guest. But the platform is still inherently biased, particularly in areas such as the United States. A 2015 study found that

Applications from guests with distinctively African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names.

(See more of this study here)

Airbnb designed an inclusive platform to build trust and also have inclusivity written into their mission statement, but the mechanisms were not built in and so unintended bias is able to occur. As designers, we need to follow up on our intentions and co-create with the communities we might be impacting.

Brian Chesky (CEO and co-founder at Airbnb) now recognizes the problem and is taking extensive measures to address it through their Project Lighthouse Initative. Nonetheless, this is a lesson that we all need to learn.

Question 2 in Project Inkblot – Who might you be excluding? This covers both users and members of your team.

In a design context, one way to cover this is to come up with an ‘all people statement’ – a claim that what you are making will work for all people in all conditions. Once you create this, you can also find the gaps. For example the statement All people can express themselves in all messages using emojis. Is this true? What about people with different abilities, gender expression, geography?

All of this leads to belonging, and how we design belonging experiences. Aarron resonates strongly with this on several levels; he is the father of two African American children, he grew up a white male in the US and enjoys significant privilege. His kids do too, but they still face inherent biases that he does not.

Recently they were playing a board game and his 6 year old son pointed out that all the characters on the board were white. If you are not represented in popular culture you don’t feel like you belong.

Another example of the impact of these small cuts over time is illustrated by the story of Diogenes Brito, a designer at Slack. He designed a small campaign for them and one asset used on a sharing button featured a hand coming down from above, a play on the button being sent from heaven. Dio changed the colour of the hand from the default white hand to a brown hand. Upon launch, people had really strong positive reactions. In Dio’s words:

Why was the choice an important one, and why did it matter to the people of colour who saw it? The simple answer is that they rarely see something like that. These people saw the image and immediately noticed how unusual it was. They were appreciative of being represented in a world where American media has the bad habit of portraying White people as the default, and everyone else as deviations from the norm.

Making a conscious decision to be inclusive can be revolutionary.

Airbnb is working with the concept of priming addressing their inclusivity systems (think Pavolv’s dogs). By priming the mind we can be more inclusive.

Jennifer Holm, designer at Airbnb is using illustrations depicting people of different colours, ages, family structures, and abilities. Putting this imagery in every aspect of the customer experience primes users to see the Airbnb experience as diverse, and to expect to encounter people who differ from you regardless of whether you are a host or guest. This is an emotionally powerful strategy.

Another effective approach we can use is personality, which also connects with many emotions. A great example is Headspace, which Aarron is an avid user of. Headspace uses character animation, colour, and storytelling, to convey a message that says your head is a messy space and that’s ok. This is a space you can work on that.

From Anna Charity, Headspace’s former head of design:

The mind is a complex place, and it isn’t always an easy place to inhabit, which is why meditation is so valuable). We knew we had to develop a style that translated these ideas in an approachable and relatable way. Animation and illustration became integral to the brand. By using characters and storytelling, we could break down the barriers of a tough subject matter and present it in a light-hearted but sensitive way. Characters are a great vehicle to represent the weirdness inside your head; it feels playful and memorable as a result.

Headspace uses personality in their design to design for stress and anxiety which is particularly helpful in 2020 and in doing so have already created a new mindfulness category.

Personality also influences our perceptions. Goodr sell cheap sunglasses and what separates them is that they tell a story around every product which builds personality into the brand. Crazy ames like merlin’s squirrel fetish tells a story about the product. Creates a social connection and talking point.

There is a scientific basis for this. A study by Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker called Significant Objects examined how stories and personalities around products change our perception of value. For the study, they spent $128 on small trinkets from antique stores, then created detailed stories for each, and sold them on ebay for $3612.51, a 28x ROI. Better than most venture capitalists on any given day! By connecting to the story, customers perceive higher value. Same phenomena as celebrity memorabilia – see Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona selling for $17 million USD – less reliable and functional than an Apple Watch, but the story and feeling of wearing it channels his personality and makes it more valuable.

Designing moments is one way to break this process down. Think about the customer journey – goes through peaks and valleys and satisfaction varies. Both of these offer opportunities for designing moments.

Valley moment when things are worst. Intuit, who make tax and finance software have a product called TurboTax. Filing taxes is not typically fun, particularly if you are filing jointly with a spouse who has recently passed away. You have to check a box letting the government know this, which creates a heavy emotional moment for the user. When you check the box in Turbotax a short message comes up saying We’re sorry to hear about your loss. You can count on us to help you get their tax done right. This is a small thing but in recognizing the emotional moment for the user it has a powerful impact, as evidenced by one customer who wrote:

I finally got around to doing taxes yesterday. After our information was transferred from last year’s return, it asked if either of us had passed away. I entered the information that [husband] died on June 15, and a screen came up that said ‘we’re sorry for your loss.’ I sat there and stared at it, crying, for a few minutes. It was so cathartic! Please pass on to the team how much that one little sentence meant to me. Whoever thought that up must be a very caring person.

This likely wasn’t a planned marketing gimmick, just an example of a designer trying to do the right thing. Intuit calls this an ‘ownable moment’.

Peak moments. Prior to joining Mailchip’s design team, Aarron had been a customer, and recognized that a lot of effort went into email design. By the time he hit send he felt like he’d earned a high five or a beer. So they created a high five moment from Freddy (the Mail Chimp) right before users sent out campaign emails. It was interactive, customers could also high five Freddy and have him high five back. This quickly went viral which was a great bonus but it was never intended as a marketing tool. This also led to some accidental discoveries on the science of moments. Timing was key.

Now we’re gonna talk about colonoscopies. Daniel Kahneman (who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow) and Amos Tversky came up with the peak-end rule. They studied the length of colonoscopies and predicted that patients whose procedures went longer would report their procedure was worse than shorter procedures, but the reverse was true. This is because the last thirty seconds is painful. Kahneman and Tversky discovered that the brain has two different parts that it uses to interpret experiences. They called these the experiencing self and the remembering self.

When the experiencing self feels something acute during the last part of a procedure we are more likely to encode that into long term memory. This is what was going on at Mailchimp. By adding the high five feature at the end of a long process, users noticed and stored it more.

There is also a business case to be made for emotional design.

Sam Altman, chairman of Y Combinator says it’s better to build something that a small number of users love, than a large number of users like.

Designers have the same philosophy. People who love your product are less likely to leave, more likely to spend more money with you and tell others about your product.

We are designing in an agile world and partnering with engineers and product people who may want to ship fast and think quantitatively. Designing for emotion is squishy and hard to quantify. That sounds nice, but we can add that after we build our MVP? Every developer ever.

This is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about software design. If you download an app that you don’t like, you delete it. How often do you download it again later? It has to be emotionally engaging out of the gate.

Psychology principle called ‘the primary effect’ First impressions shape our biases and expectations of what comes next. So when we think about what an MVP is, we should think larger than a slice of functionality we can quickly bring to market but a slice of functionality, reliability, usability and emotionally engaging.

Emotional design helps us achieve business goals in many ways such as
category creation (as seen earlier in Headspace example), customer acquisition and retention (as seen in Wealthsimple example), session length and return rate (Duolingo’s language product is a great example of this), and growth and market reach (as seen in Mailchimp example).

Slack is an excellent example of the business value of emotional design. Slack went from video game background turned to enterprise chat and was against Atlassian’s Hipchat which was highly successful already. Slack eclipsed Hipchat by embedding emotion consciously.

Quote from Andrew Wilkinson of Metalab

When you hear people talk about Slack they often say it’s “fun”. Using it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like slacking off, even when you’re using it to get stuff done. But when you look under the hood, it’s almost identical to every other chat app. You can create a room, add people, share files, and chat as a group or direct message one another. With Slack, a bubbly, bright UT, delightful interactions, and hilarious copywriting come together to create a personality which has triggered something powerful in its users; they care about it. They want to share it with others. It feels like a favourite coworker, not a tool or utility.

Slack now has 12 million daily active users, 95, 000 paying customers, and a $15.5 billion market cap.

How do we integrate emotional design into our process? First, investigate the emotional needs of our customers through spending time with them to understand what they think and feel. Tools like empathy maps can guide this process.

Also check out Matter-Mind Studio’s Emotion-Centred DesignToolkit which is free and downloadable.

Map the customer journey and identify peaks and valleys. Don’t need to transform the whole journey, just an ownable moment to meet people where they are. Find your moments, whether positive or negative.

Your mileage may vary! Consider how to measure moments. We all use different sets of metrics, think about how you can influence churn, onboarding, or other elements.

Aarron’s challenge to you is: Let’s revisit what it means to design for emotion. Designing for delight is a narrow view of the world and of what it means to be a human being. This talk scratches the surface of the topic but if you are interested in a deeper dive the second edition of Aarron’s book Designing for Emotion is now available. Thanks and feel free to reach out via Twitter. Aarron NB Two ‘A’s and two ‘R’s in Aarron coz his dad messed up his name at the hospital!