The Emotion of User Experience

Originally, I set out to write up the differences between user experience and graphic design as there are many web designers who promote themselves as experts in usability. I was enlarging it to cover pretty much all other participants in a web project, from product owners, marketers, to developers. Many of whom speak about the importance of user experience and usability, but do not understand how to actually ensure that it is incorporated into their process. Many more of whom who have never observed anyone using the product they create. However, I am going in another direction with this post as I find myself somewhat at odds with folks in my own profession, who after years of research have finally come to view users as people. The new buzz is creating interfaces/interactions that connect to a user’s emotions.


Actually this is not so new, that users have feelings about interfaces, but I now see it beginning to take hold in the user experience field in a way I have not seen before. In some cases, not only taking hold, but taking over. To be clear I don’t think it is a bad thing to be concerned with how a user feels about an interface. Part of the reason that usability became user experience was the realization that you could make something usable, but not needed. The extension of trying to understand what users need is inextricably linked to how they feel. There are many examples of where user’s express anger and even hatred for a UI, so it is something that needs to be understood.

Don Norman in his book “Emotional Design” published in 2005 discusses how users actually love unusable things. What is left out of that discussion is how that does not necessarily translate into success for a product or service. He posits that there is a difference between someone finding value in an item that evokes memories and someone enjoying the use of something because it actually works and does not create more problems than the one it is meant to solve or serve. Certainly he ties together the concept of a design needing to culminate through the visceral, behavioral and what he calls reflective aspects that make up a user’s emotional response to a design. However, in my opinion, a design’s success may not require a user to actually love it or connect to it emotionally at any level. What a design does need to do is establish trust.

Now trust can and often does involve emotion. It is clear that people give trust along with emotion in relationships. Even when the other person proves untrustworthy, there can still be the inclination to trust because of love. It is exactly this aspect that I am wary of having any interface of a product or service similarly taking advantage of this type of connection. Obviously, like relationships, users will forgive a design’s many shortcomings when they have attached sentimental value. User’s of Mac computers and Apple products are a prime example of this. Folks in the PC/Windows camp scratch their heads at the devotion that some folks have for their Macs, as they see many shortcomings from price competitiveness to actual functionality.

Which product has had more success in the market place? Windows still controls 90% of the market, while Apple has grown the last few years it is still a mere 6%. So a more loved and arguably more usable product is marginally successful. If not for iPods and iPhones, Apple would still probably be in comatose mode despite the changes they’ve made to the platform. So let us look at the success of the iPod and evaluate whether emotion played a part of its success.

Did emotional design really make the iPod a success or was it the iTunes and the first legitimate and workable music download service? It also helped that it was simple to convert CDs to iTunes and transfer existing music collections to the iPod easily, but really being connected to all the major labels made a difference in consumers minds. I do not think this involved emotion as much as basic trust. Users trusted that they could satisfy their music needs more completely with an iPod than other devices on the market. It was arguably not better than similar devices in any other respect. The battery was not removable, the storage not expandable or changeable, the style was one form and one color. Like the Ford model T, you could have one in any color as long as it was white. In a parallel to the gaming industry a whole ecosystem developed around providing cases and accessories for the iPod, that contributed even more to its success.

I agree that there is overlap with trust and emotion. However, manipulation or persuasion of a user’s emotions can easily be abused. Intentionally doing it for an interface just feels wrong to me. Building trust is a shared responsibility with other teams, but is the prime objective of user experience. One of the biggest challenges a cross functional team has to deal with is simply fixing the problems that piss user off. It’s hard enough doing this with the limited resources that always seem to be a factor and then UX is supposed to come up with something extra that will make a user now love the product. I’ll tell you what will help make a user stop hating a product, fixing all the little crap that is wrong with it in the first place.

I know my colleagues would say that finding what will make users happy does not mean doing things to trick them into doing something with your interface. However, one example I can give of this is on an eCommerce site, in the zeal to get users to add items to their carts, one proposal was to make the “buy” button read “continue”. This of course was measurably successful in getting users to put an item in the cart. What it did not do is instill trust in the user. They had been tricked into adding the item to the cart. It’s a small thing and it perhaps increased sales for the short term, but it also certainly was turning away other buyers never to return. Without any user experience research into what users were thinking when they clicked the button they could only assume it was an improvement.

This is where user experience is different from graphic design, marketing, or development. It involves assessing what users say they like and what they will actually need. It is about creating interactions and interfaces that build and maintain trust along with the design, marketing, and functionality. Many organizations talk about being user/customer focused but don’t actually follow through completely. Graphic designers are relied on to make usability choices without any understanding of the user’s actual needs. Developers make decisions based on ease of coding and/or in worse cases believing they are like the user. This is not to say they are not smart. In many situations it is because they are very smart that the inclination to just do something is justified on a principle of user experience without the understanding that the context will affect it adversely.

Having said all that, I confess I do love working on my Mac. Also I do love my iPhone’s interface and the interactions and can not imagine using anything else (although I am proficient on Windows and Linux systems). I have grown to love them because of experiences of trust. Could I ever love a bank’s online web interface to my accounts? Will I ever love the ATM interface? Will I ever love using an employer’s intranet portal? I think the best they could ever hope is that I don’t hate them, which is definitely an emotion that is possible when user experience is ignored. As a user experience professional the goal is not to make something people will connect to emotionally, it is to make something they will trust and need. There may be situations where this will result in an emotional bond and that is great, but it is a benefit of good user experience not the product.

Comments are closed.