Emotional by design

Despite what economists may tell us, we are not rational creatures. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people who had damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He discovered that, despite their various personalities and profiles, they all had something in common. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms. Yet they couldn’t make decisions.

Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides. When an emotion is triggered in our brains, our nervous system responds by creating feelings in our bodies (our “gut feelings”) and certain thoughts come to our minds. Our decision – making process is informed by our emotional responses because that is what they are designed to do. Emotions help us appraise and summarise an experience, and make our choices.

In the charity sector (indeed all sectors) we talk a lot about emotional storytelling as a way to encourage support. Which got me thinking more about how we approach digital.  With prospective supporters gathering their information from an entire ecosystem of sources, we strive to make our stories as engaging, as emotional, as possible.

But what about once we’ve got them to our site? All too often we think about the user’s experience purely in transactional terms: how can they find the information they need, what details do we ask them to give us on the donation form and so on. Design and visual cues are indeed important.  A Consumer Reports WebWatch research report, prepared by Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab way back in 2002 found that nearly half of those tested used visual cues, such as the overall design (colours, layout, typography, font size) to determine how credible a website is.  But once we’ve got that covered, how do we deepen that engagement with our users?

The term “emotional design” was defined by Donald Norman in his book “Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things”.  Norman argues that emotions play a crucial role in how we understand the world, and that aesthetically pleasing objects appear to be more effective, by virtue of their sensual appeal (and the emotions they stimulate).  He nominates that icon of design  Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif,  as the manifestation of his thesis.   Personally, it’s why I prefer a Mac to a PC.

Taking that theory into the digital world, user experience designer Aarron Walter, in “Designing for Emotion” builds on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs

Maslow for web design

According to this theory, something has to be functional, reliable andsable (in that order) before a layer of pleasure can be applied. Walter sums up his central premise thus;

“Why are some company’s websites more memorable than others?  On the surface, it might seem to have to do with originality, visual impact and branding.  But what if I were to tell you that the most important factor is how a site makes a visitor feel?”

Once you’ve got the functionality right, adding a “pleasure layer” will make your users enjoy your site more,  hopefully so much that they’ll share with friends and strangers.

How does this “pleasure layer” manifest itself?  It’s the way you interact with people as they go about the site.   Such as making them feel that you’re pleased to see them. From Flickr’s highly personalised, multi-lingual “welcome” message which changes every time you log in to the more simple “Happy Friday”, or whatever day it is, message shown to all visitors to 37signals.com (you don’t need to know much about your users to make it personal).   How many of us even say “hello” to our visitors?

We often need to prompt people to take some kind of action. Here’s a great example from the Everyday app:

Everyday app

You need to have a complete profile (with a picture) before you can upload a video.  That one word, “beautiful”, changes the whole tone and makes you want to do it, not feel obliged to.   Think about the language we’re using to get supporters to sign up to email alerts, donate, complete registrations, share campaigns … Do we really make them want to?

What about once people have made a payment (or indeed abandoned the process) or they unsubscribe from your newsletter? It’s likely in these situations you’ve set up an automatic “trigger” email.  It probably confirms that you’ve processed the transaction, it might (in the case of a donation) have a slightly tailored, branded “thank you” message.  But is there a pleasure layer?  How are you making the user feel?   Etsy,  the craft and vintage site, includes a video of Paul Young’s “Every Time You Go Away” when they confirm you’ve unsubscribed from their mailing list.  It may not stop someone unsubscribing, but it will make them remember Etsy, and remember them positively. Ok, that injection of humour is not an approach we can all take, but it’s perfect for their personality.  And if we think about it, we must all have a Paul Young equivalent.

It’s not just the stories we tell, it’s these experiences, these often small things that will engage our supporters online. Once we’ve got the basics right, we should focus on making websites (and indeed other digital tools) an utter pleasure for users. Emotional design can turn casual users into fanatics, ready to tell others about their positive experience, ready to evangelise about you and your cause with their social networks.

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