Complexity and User Experience

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The best products don’t focus on features, they focus on clarity. Problems should be fixed through simple solutions, something you don’t have to configure, maintain, control. The perfect solution needs to be so simple and transparent you forget it’s even there.

However, elegantly minimal designs don’t happen by chance. They’re the result of difficult decisions. Whether in the ideation, designing, or the testing phases of projects, UX practitioners have a critical role in restraining the feature sets within our designs to reduce the complexity on projects.

Why you should reduce complexity in scope

Over-designed and complex products typically stem from a ‘more is better’ philosophy. Expanding the feature count beyond what’s truly needed is perceived to increase the overall value. Essentially, increasing scope has connotations of giving your audience flexibility. Equally, reducing scope implies you’re limiting your customers.

If we begin to discuss scope as complexity, instead of flexibility, it changes the conversation as it reinforces there’s a correlation between the two. Indeed, they’re really the same thing. Complexity is scope. Every new feature creates additional guesswork. To put it bluntly, increasing scope means there’s more opportunity to screw things up.

If we begin to discuss scope as complexity, instead of flexibility, it changes the conversation as it reinforces there’s a correlation between the two. Indeed, they’re really the same thing. Complexity is scope.

As well as making things more difficult upfront, unnecessary features set up additional complexity with future releases. This is because the user interface groundwork early in projects establishes constraints. We have to live with the consequences of our initial design decisions through future iterations. So a tight focus on features early on is crucial. The alternative, trying to solve too much too soon, means initial design decisions become high risk.

As well as reducing the technical complexity, an elegantly minimal feature set clarifies the proposition of your product and simplifies the experience for the user. Any feature that doesn’t help solve problems for your audience should be thought of as a distraction, an unnecessary obstacle that undermines the value of your product.

Properly defining scope

Where to define the scope isn’t easy. Different users will have varying requirements. There’s also the grey area, where removing functionality can result in a drop in the value and revenue of your product.

Also, simplifying a design to reduce it’s perceived complexity doesn’t always work and can create significant barrier for users. A good example is financial software, where the user interface is built around tasks which are inherently complex.

However, simply because a task is complex doesn’t create an excuse for designing a complex user interface or user experience. We should architect solutions around how much control is truly needed. Truly exceptional experiences are crafted when complexity is removed whilst the level of power and control is maintained.

Preventing scope creep

Once your initial scope (or the level of complexity you’re comfortable with adopting) has been defined, the best approach is tackle one feature at a time. Design the first iteration around the most critical and well understood problem.

From this approach additional features can often feel like a simple and natural extension, an easy way to make extra revenue. Despite the sometimes low cost of designing additional features, there are hidden costs.

Additional features can often feel like a simple and natural extension, an easy way to make extra revenue. Despite the sometimes low cost of designing additional features, there are hidden costs.

Unnecessary features are a distraction for developers and designers. They draw people away from optimizing the little details or other things you could be doing to help your existing customers. They also dilute the core proposition of your product and the prominence of the most important features.

Clearly understand what new features you need to add and what the implications of developing them are. Classify features into mandatory and nice to have and the put all the mandatories through a review to ensure they really are mandatories. Ultimately, you have to accept there’s a gray area where, as you strip out features, the expected revenue will fall.

Why you should reduce internal design complexity

Complexity cannot simply be expressed by feature creep. It can still exist within a minimal viable product, as features themselves can behave in unnecessarily complex or unconventional ways.

Despite successfully restricting a tight constraint on features to an elegant minimum, we need to think about the complexity of the features themselves. This can lead to instances where the most appropriate remedy to internally complex features is an additional feature.

Here’s an example. On a recent project, a client insisted on an autosave function for a particular part of an interface when the addition of a save button would have made the interaction and its outcome much more intuitive to the user (as testing later confirmed).

The increased complexity of expanding the scope of the minimum viable product was offset by the decreased internal design complexity of aspects of the system’s technical and user interface.

So, a minimal feature set doesn’t necessarily translate into a simplified user interface. Cumbersome interactions or poorly designed user journeys can easily offset the benefits of removing unnecessary features. Equally, it’s sometimes necessary to expand the system’s scope to to reduce the internal design complexity of certain features.

“What happens to user experience in a minimum viable product?”, by Ryan Singer, http://feltpresence.com/articles/9-what-happens-to-user-experience-in-a-minimum-viable-product

“The Dirtiest Word in UX: Complexity”, by Francisco Inchauste, http://uxmag.com/design/the-dirtiest-word-in-ux-complexity

“Uncertainty and Scope”, by Ryan Singer, http://feltpresence.com/articles/4-uncertainty-and-scope

“How Instagram Stays in Focus”, by Joshua Porter, http://bokardo.com/archives/how-instagram-stays-in-focus

“Flashback: Every time you add something you take something away”, by 37signals, http://37signals.com/svn/posts/2917-flashback-every-time-you-add-something-you-take-something-away

Managing internal design complexity

Managing ‘internal design complexity’ relies upon a paradox. The phrase implies the complexity of any given single feature. However, the significance of ‘internal’ complexity is not constrained to a single feature. Managing internal design complexity requires us to assess the solution at two levels simultaneously. Only through critical end-to-end analysis of the solution can we make a similarly effective judgement about whether any single feature is as simple as it can—or crucially—should be.

When looking at a feature set and deciding what can be safely eliminated without endangering core goals, reductionism is a double-edged sword., Taking the simpler view inherent in the ‘Minimal Viable Product’ mentality will result in cleaner, easier, more elegant and achievable designs. No less regularly, however, the process of reduction blinds us to unseen compromises in the functional simplicity of the solution as a whole.

The broader, zoomed out view may actually guide us to adding function to a feature here or there, all in the service of simplicity at the more general level.

Take the above example of the autosave function: the complexity of correctly intuiting the behavior of this single feature is one thing. Adding a function to the feature reduces the chance of the feature being misunderstood or misused. Beyond that, however, it would also have ensured that the instance of counter-intuitive behavior does not set precedents for how the wider solution is perceived.

This is the paradox: you can have the most elegantly minimalist feature set imaginable, but you will not attain simplicity if you don’t apply the principle of simplicity both holistically and flexibly. Features that are simple in isolation can become a contagion.

Conclusion

A core difficulty with discussing complexity and user interfaces is that it’s easy to misclassify the level of complexity. It’s a qualitative concept. As such, it’s important to keep a check on the subjective nature of our discussions. We have to be aware that complexity can only be reduced to a particular point, past which designs can lose both their utility and appeal.

It’s also not whether a design approach is more or less complex. The issue is that we’re talking about the experience of the system, not a quantitative measure of complexity. Ultimately, to determine the impact of scope complexity and internal design complexity across the overall user experience, complexity needs to be understood within a context.

The result is that many of the discussions on complexity and simplicity are polarized around whether or not complexity is an additive property. But, perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that, you should have a clear opinion on the products you make. Software should have your personality ingrained within it.

Are your users S.T.U.P.I.D?

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Are your users STUPID?

It is an honest question: how smart are your users? The answer may surprise you: it doesn’t matter. They can be geniuses or morons, but if you don’t engage their intelligence, you can’t depend on their brain power.

Far more important than their IQ (which is a questionable measure in any case) is their Effective Intelligence: the fraction of their intelligence they can (or are motivated to) apply to a task.

Take, for example, a good driver. They are a worse driver when texting or when drunk. (We don’t want to think about the drunk driver who is texting.) An extreme example you say? Perhaps, but only by degree. A person who wins a game of Scrabble one evening may be late for work because they forgot to set their alarm clock. How could the same person make such a dumb mistake? Call it concentration, or focus, we use more of our brain when engaged and need support when we are distracted.


So, what does a S.T.U.P.I.D. user look like?

Stressed

A subtle reminder like this would have saved me a few weeks ago.“Fear is the mind killer”, Frank Herbert wrote. Our minds are malleable and easily affected by their context. The effect of stress on the brain is well known, if not well understood. People under stress take less time to consider a decision thoroughly, and they choose from the options presented to them rather than consider alternatives. Stress is often due to social pressures. Car salespeople know to not let a customer consider an offer overnight, but pressure them to buy right away.

Tired

Tiredness is one of the largest causes of industrial and motor vehicle accidents. Interfaces used by tired people should take into account their lowered sense of self-awareness and number of details that the user is likely to miss. A classic example of an interface used by sleepy people, the iPhone alarm clock is typically set right before bed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ring if the phone is set to vibrate, the default state for many people. When a user sets the alarm, it would be useful to override the vibrate feature, or at least remind them that it won’t ring.

Untrained

Training for enterprise applications is more often discussed then enacted. Users are thrown at an application with a manual and a Quick Reference Card. Applications that are not designed around the user’s workflow have to explain their conceptual model while they are being used: “where” things are stored, how to make changes, who to send things to.

Complex systems that are used infrequently are a particular problem. In the design of the automated external defibrillator, it is assumed the user may have no knowledge of the science or training on the device, and will be using it in a chaotic, stressful environment. The frequency of use should drive design. Yearly processes, like doing your taxes, should assume that the users have never done it before. In rarely used interfaces, customization is likely to be less useful, but a comparison to previous year’s entries is very useful as they remind the user what they did before.

Passive

Nothing reduces effective intelligence faster than doing a boring task against one’s will.

More important than the user’s mental model of an application is their mental attitude toward the task. Someone sitting in the front passenger seat of a car may have the same field of view as the driver, but unless they are focused on it, they will not remember the path driven. Nothing reduces effective intelligence faster than doing a boring task against one’s will. When a user is passive, complexity becomes insurmountable. Games aimed at casual gamers know to keep the interaction model simple, using a flat navigation and avoiding “modes” (e.g. edit vs view).

Independent

User centered design is a powerful approach because it recognizes that there are many reasons people use a system. Airline booking sites are used to buy tickets, but also to see if the family can afford to go on vacation. The designer should recognize that they cannot solve every problem, but should give users the tools to help themselves, to work independently of the application’s intended method. In internal enterprise systems, the top user request is often “export to Excel”. This often reflects that the system does not meet the user’s needs. Excel empowers the user to do ‘out of the box’ actions. It is the API to the real world.

…The top user request is often ‘export to excel’…. Excel empowers the user to do ‘out of the box’ actions. It is the API to the real world.

Distracted

People are multi-tasking more than ever, whether it is simply listening to music while driving or playing Farmville while watching TV. Effective multi-tasking has been shown to be a myth, but it is a popular one. Paying “partial attention” to multiple activities has significant impact to your perception of an interface. Users are often said to be on “autopilot”, clicking on things by shape, rather than reading the text. An interface cannot rely on the user having a clear and consistent working memory across multiple screens. The task and details must be re-stated at each step to remind the user the step they are on and what they need to do. Frequent, automatic saving of user entered data is essential, especially as connections can time out.

Help S.T.U.P.I.D. users by designing S.M.A.R.T.

Start-ups often experience a shock when they emerge from the hothouse of heads-down development. Their intended customers barely have time to listen to their idea, let alone devote time to explore its features. The contrast between a small group of friends working intensely together on a single project with the varied needs and limited free time of their customers can be a disheartening experience.

Projects often fail not because the idea is bad, but because the value their service will provide is not easily understood. The question I ask my team is “What problem, from the user’s point of view, are you solving?” It has to be a problem the user knows they have. If the problem is not obvious to the user, in terms they understand, the solution doesn’t matter. Focusing on the problem keeps a project from drifting into fantasy requirements: solutions looking for a problem.

Design teams often use themselves as model users, but…. The user knows nothing about the product, doesn’t understand the concept, and doesn’t care.

Design teams often use themselves as model users, but they are almost the perfect storm of differences between themselves and the users.

  • They know the product exists and what it is supposed to do.
  • They understand the internal concept, including its past and future ideas.
  • They care, personally, about the product. Their success depends on it.

The user has none of these things. The user knows nothing about the product, doesn’t understand the concept, and doesn’t care.

What can be done to make S.T.U.P.I.D. users S.M.A.R.T?

Simplify

Why are simple apps popular these days? It is not that people don’t like features, it’s because instant comprehensibility trumps powerful features. In the old search engine wars, Google may have had a better search algorithm, but they became known for having a simpler design. Yahoo and others tried to become portals, losing sight of the users primary goal. I advise people to “Design the mobile version first” to help them focus on the key user benefits.

The down side is that any successful project expands and adds features to address additional user needs. What starts out as “Writer for iPad” can end up as Microsoft Word. Simple is not always better, but keeping the new user in mind helps find the right balance.

Help the user remember WHY their password is failing

Memorable

An app is only as good as the user understands it. That starts with the name – is it cute or does it explain what it does? Is it “pidg.in” or “Automatic Mailbox”? The iPhone / iPad apps’s television ads were effective sales tools, but also trained a generation by simply showing them in use. Each step of a workflow is subject to delays and distractions. Ecommerce sites know to reduce links during the final checkout process. With complex transactions, the risk is greater that the user will have lost their focus. Remind the user what they are doing in big title text. Focus on delivering Clear and Consistent messaging and instructions, for example, adding side notes like Ally.com’s password guidance.

If the user has but one hard drive, why ask?

Accept Autopilot

Standard design patterns are good, but they also throw the user into autopilot. It makes sense to break them for critical decisions. The hard part is determining what a critical decision point is. Observing user behavior, customer service records, and identifying risks to the user’s data are good clues. If something is simple enough that the users are mostly on autopilot, for example installing software, make the default action a single click.

Recovery

The dark side of users on “autopilot” is that they will regularly make mistakes by not paying attention. Mistakes are generally not obvious to a system, but it is good practice to highlight destructive actions and enable recovery. Capture data in little steps. Saving form fields instead of form pages, prevents large data loss. It’s a good idea to highlight and ask for confirmation on big, destructive changes, like deleting a database. “Undo”, common on computers, but slow to come to the web, enables the user to recover from errors.

Gmail lets users undo moving a message to the trash.

Gmail lets you recover items from the trash.

Gmail also let you restore your contacts if you accidentally make a large, destructive change.

An excellent example of protecting the user from their own mistakes

Test in realistic situations

There is an essential flaw in the two-way mirror usability test method. In the interest of copying the form of the lab-coated scientist, these rooms create an artificial aura of “science”. But as ethnographic research can tell you, real world usage is so different as to make the test questionable. It selects for a test population that is free in the middle of the day, motivated by $50, and M&Ms, puts them in an unfamiliar environment with a personal guide to focus on a specific task with no distractions. This is about as unrealistic as it gets.

There is an essential flaw in the two-way mirror usability test method…. It selects for a test population that is free in the middle of the day, motivated by $50, and M&Ms.

In reality, the same person may have a child on their lap and only 10 minutes to look up a flight. The fact that an ecommerce session may expire after a few hours is trivial for some, but significant for people who only have a few hours a day to use the computer. “Universal Design” is a great approach, because methods to help specific disabilities tend to be useful to the general public.

Testing should go beyond the user interface and cover the basic business model. The Apple iTunes video download “rental” is for 24 hours. Unfortunately, people tend to watch movies at the same time each day, for example, after the kids go to bed. If your kids wake up, you have to finish it earlier the next day. Would it have killed them to make the rental 27 hours, so parents could actually use it?

Design for the right level of Effective Intelligence

Effective intelligence obviously varies across situations. People are ingenious at figuring out things they really want, but the simplest task is insurmountable to the unmotivated. Both scenarios are solvable, but an application that makes the wrong assumptions about its users will fail. (Interestingly, this study suggests that easier-to-use design can affect the user’s perception of difficulty, and encourage them to complete the task.)

One should adapt their strategy to the user’s desire and the problem’s complexity. Here’s an unscientific matrix for effective intelligence with software interfaces.

This matrix compares the amount a user desires to complete the task versus the complexity of the task to that user type. Different user types will have different measures of complexity, so one might create several matrices.

Effectiveness matrix

Low Desire, Low Complexity – The goal here is to finish these tasks as fast as possible. Follow standard design conventions, seek to eliminate steps.

Low Desire, High Complexity Complex – Tasks that the user doesn’t want to do are a danger zone. Can the problem be reconsidered or eliminated?

High Desire, Low Complexity – The easiest quadrant.

High Desire, High Complexity – This is the most interesting quadrant. A self-training interface, (integrated help, training modules) can get the user started; they will often take it the rest of the way. Video games often have a “training” level to train the user on basic skills like moving around.

Maxwell Smart. It's a pun on... Oh forget it.

Get Smart

Effective Intelligence is a helpful concept in the design toolbox. User research and testing are the best ways to know your users, but knowing what may limit a user in reality helps design ways to make them smarter.

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Like this article? Want to keep Stephen’s wisdom close at hand? Download the handy, cubicle-friendly, 61kb PDF to hang on a nearby wall and you’ll always remember to design SMART.

The Stranger’s Long Neck

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Show Time: 33 minutes 42 seconds

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Gerry McGovern has recently published The Stranger's Long Neck - How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want.

Ireland’s Gerry McGovern shares a few of the key ideas in his recent publication The Stranger’s Long Neck – How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want. Mr. McGovern, who will be teaching a Masterclass series in Canada on the importance of task management this November, discusses several of the key findings in his new book, including:

Trading with strangers

– The customer is a stranger. On the Web, the customer isn’t king—they’re dictator. When they come to your website, they have a small set of tasks (long neck) that really matter to them. If they can’t complete these top tasks quickly, they leave.
– There is an existential challenge going on right now between organization-centric and customer-centric thinking. Customer-centric thinking is winning.

From Long Tail to Dead Zone

– The Long Tail theory says that the Web allows you to sell more of less, that we are seeing the decline of the blockbuster and the rise of the niche.
– The Long Tail is often a Dead Zone of extremely low demand and hard to find, poor quality products.

The rise of the Long Neck

– The Web is exploding with quantity but quality is still relatively finite. Quality is the ‘long neck’; the small set of stuff that really matters to the customer.
– Understanding and managing the long neck has never been more important.
– Remember that the customer’s long neck—what really matters to the customer—is rarely the organization’s long neck —what really matters to the organization.

A secret method for understanding your customers

– A unique voting method that identifies your customers’ long neck.
– Developed over 10 years, with over 50,000 customers voting in multiple languages and countries.
– Used by the BBC, Tetra Pak, IKEA, Schlumberger, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Cisco, OECD, Vanguard, Rolls-Royce, US Internal Revenue Service, etc.

Organization thinking versus customer thinking

– Case study that shows how car company managers think differently about how customers buy cars to how customers themselves think.
– Explanation of how to frame the task identification question.

Deliver what customers want—not what you want

– Case study of Microsoft Pinpoint, a website to help businesses find approved Microsoft IT vendors and consultants.
– What’s the top task of US small and medium businesses when it comes to IT? Security.

Measuring success: Back to basics

– Why traditional web metrics such as page views, number of visitors, etc., are often misleading
– Observation-based technique to measure online behaviour.
– The key metrics of task measurement: completion rate, disaster rate, completion time

Carrying out a task measurement

– The benefits of remote measurement
– How to run an actual measurement session

This podcast has been sponsored by:


Publishers of world class content for students, researchers, and practitioners in the UX and HCI fields. To learn more visit http://www.mkp.com/hci


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Contribute as an editor or author, and get your ideas out there. boxesandarrows.com/about/participate

Emotional Design with A.C.T. – Part 1

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As UX professionals, we strive to design engaging experiences. These experiences help to forge relationships between the products we create and the people who use them. Whether you’re designing a website or a physical product, the formation of a relationship depends on how useful, usable and pleasurable the experience is. Ultimately, we form relationships with products and services for the same reasons we form relationships with people:

  • Pleasurable products are attractive and make us feel good. Attractive people can have the same effect.
  • Usable products are easy to interact with and easy to understand. Good conversationalists are the same.
  • Useful products fulfill our needs in a way that leaves us emotionally satisfied in the long term. Long-term relationships can fulfill our physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.

In a previous article on Boxes and Arrows (Design for Emotion and Flow), I talked about the importance of balancing users’ emotional states to command attention and create flow: the mental/emotional experience where all the user’s attention is totally focused on an activity. The total engagement of the flow experience is highly immersive and encourages user loyalty. The experience of flow during interaction can be seen as one of the foundations for the formation of an ongoing relationship.

In Part 1 of this two-part article, I’ll be discussing how emotions command attention. Then, we’ll dive deeper to explore how design elicits and communicates emotion and personality to users. Emotions result in the experience of pleasure or pain that commands attention. The different dimensions of emotion affect different aspects of behavior as well as communicating personality over time. In Part 2, I’ll introduce a framework for describing the formation of relationships between people and the products they use.

 

Defining “Affective Design”

Some time ago, a friend offered me a ride home after work. I got into her SUV and sat down, ready for the short ride. After a few minutes, an annoying beeping sound started. “Oh,” she said, “You’ll need to fasten your seatbelt to make that irritating noise stop.” Grudgingly, I did up my seatbelt and the noise ceased, but the beeping had accomplished its purpose; I fastened my seatbelt.

This is an example of affective design: design that’s intentionally created to capture the user’s attention, triggering an emotional response that will increase the likelihood of performing a certain behavior. The emotional response can be conscious or unconscious. For example, a brightly colored button will attract users’ attention unconsciously by affecting the degree of arousal (i.e. physical stimulation). And the behavior could be any action, from clicking a button or signing up for a newsletter, to making a purchase online.

To make the unpleasant sound in my friend’s SUV stop, I had to perform a particular behavior. In this case, the stimulus was the unpleasant beeping sound, which triggered my annoyance and led me to fasten my seatbelt. With your latest web app, the stimulus is likely visual, rather than auditory, but the energy that it commands is the same. One thing these stimuli have in common is that they demand and command your attention.

 

Attention

Attention has been described as psychic energy.1 Like energy in the traditional sense, no work can be done without it, and through work that energy is consumed. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) named the mental/emotional state where all our attention is totally focused on an activity “Flow”. Flow is a highly engaging experience, and strong emotional engagement demands and narrows the user’s attention. In order for users to accomplish their tasks and attain Flow, we need to capture and hold their attention by managing the design of their emotional experiences.

The products we design need to attract users based on how they look and sound, persuading them (via their feelings) to approach or avoid. They also need to converse with the people using them. The way these products interact should persuade users to take particular actions in predetermined sequences, while also affording users a feeling of control. If we’ve done our jobs correctly, the result is that users will commit and transact with our system; they click the button, subscribe to the newsletter, make the purchase or book the flight.

These events mark the formation of a relationship between the user and the product or application. Each experience with a company’s products or services shapes the user’s relationship with the company’s brand. In order to build positive brand relationships, companies need to effectively manage the user’s emotional experiences during every encounter with their products or service channels. As we’ll see, the consistent expression of a particular emotion is perceived as a personality trait, and our personality traits determine the relationships we form.

 

Dimensions of Emotion

To understand how emotional expression becomes personality, we first need to understand emotion itself. All emotional or affective states can be described in terms of two underlying dimensions: value and arousal. “Value” judgments are judgments of good vs. bad. We tend to base these conscious judgments on whether something is pleasant or unpleasant.

“Arousal” has been used to refer to the unconscious activation of the body, the brain or a particular behavior.2 It has been defined by levels of anxiety vs. boredom,3 and we can measure it by monitoring heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and skin conductance. To simplify it, you can think of arousal as the level of stimulation or activation. When we combine these two dimensions of emotion (i.e. the conscious & cognitive, and the unconscious & physical) we get a circular model of emotion.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Affect Circumplex (Van Gorp, 2006 adapted from Russell, 1980)3

Because arousal is largely unconscious, it provides an especially powerful channel for designers to command attention and influence behavior. For example, large images, bright saturated colors and high contrast all increase arousal levels. Increasing the size of an image and moving anyone in it closer within the frame will increase arousal levels.4 When the level of arousal increases, the focus of attention narrows and goes to whatever is causing the stimulation. A good example of this is a stop sign, which uses a bright red to command attention within the busy visual environment of the street.

During the product development process, there is often a disconnect between design, marketing and usability for this very reason. Visual designers and marketers are often focused on increasing arousal through the attention grabbing emotional-impact of bright colors and large images, while usability analysts are focused on controlling arousal and reducing negative emotions by ensuring task completion.

 

Dimensions of Behavior

Each dimension of emotion affects a different aspect of behavior. Value affects whether we approach (i.e. pleasure) or avoid (i.e. pain), while arousal levels influence how motivated we are to do either. Both pleasant and unpleasant objects and experiences can increase arousal levels. For example, fear and excitement are both high arousal emotions. The level of arousal also affects how intensely we experience a given emotion, and the more intense the emotion, the more attention is demanded. Arousal also affects our level of motivation. Low anxiety or boredom results in low motivation, while higher anxiety results in higher motivation. This continues to an optimum level (i.e. the balance of Flow), after which motivation and performance decrease, while anxiety increases.

Figure 2: Behavior & Motivation Circumplex (adapted from Russell, 19803 ; van Gorp, 20064)

In the case of the annoying sound in my friend’s SUV, the value of the noise was negative (i.e. unpleasant). This unpleasant feeling creates the urge to avoid. If the volume of the noise had increased, or the rate of the beeping had sped up, this would have unconsciously increased arousal levels, further increasing my motivation to avoid the noise or make it stop.

This is a very simple example within the relatively controlled context of a vehicle, but what happens when the context becomes more layered or complex? What happens when the design is visual and interactive? As we’ll see later, that’s when simple emotional expressions are perceived as personalities.

 

Emotion and Personality

Humans are such social beings that we perceive the expression of emotion in everything, including products, objects and websites. Because products usually remain the same, any perceived emotional expression becomes a perceived personality trait over time. The person who appears down or sullen the first time you meet is expressing an emotion — sadness. When that same person appears sad the next 20 times you meet, he or she is likely to be seen as “depressed”. When it comes to products and websites, we can think of a personality trait as the long-term expression of a particular emotion. Take a look at the video below to get a better idea.

Figure 3: American Express Video

As human beings, we assign personalities to objects, interfaces and websites based on the way they behave and appeal to our senses. Even though we consciously know that computers and media are not animate and do not have feelings, we still respond socially and automatically when viewing, interacting and evaluating them.5 It has been suggested that products should be viewed as “living objects with which people have relationships.”6 Through the relationships that are formed by using products, people can be made to feel happy or sad, angry or passive, relaxed or anxious, proud or ashamed, and motivated or demotivated.

 

Personality Traits and Relationships

Like perceptions of emotion, our first impressions of personality are based on the information received by our senses (i.e. sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch). These impressions are formed quickly and unconsciously. With websites and applications, personality is inferred from the use of language, user prompts, sounds, navigation, proportions, layout, contrast, color, images and fonts that comprise the formal properties of the design. In fact, these perceptions of personality are so automatic and unconscious, they occur regardless of whether the people experiencing them believe they are appropriate. Other, more conscious decisions about personality are based on how the object we interact with behaves over time.

In human relationships, personality traits are an important part of attraction and conversation. They shape our relationships by determining who we like and what we expect from those we encounter. They also influence how well we get along with others. In this respect, perceived personalities in products and websites are no different. Unlike us, however, product personalities can exist in fictional worlds and be controlled by designers so that they appear at particular times and places. They can often be simpler, more consistent and more easily identifiable than real personalities, reducing uncertainty and promoting trust.5

 

Dimensions of Personality

Although human personality traits are complex, psychologists have grouped product personalities into a small number of categories that have a similar character. They’ve identified two major dimensions of personality that are readily assigned to products, computers and interfaces by users: dominant vs. submissive5 and friendly vs. unfriendly.7

Figure 4

Figure 4: Personality Circumplex (adapted from Reeves & Nass, 19985; van Gorp, 20064)

Take a look at the simple objects below. Are they expressing emotion? As static objects, any emotions they’re expressing will remain consistent over time. If the major dimensions of personality are friendliness and dominance, which object do you perceive to be friendlier? Which do you perceive is more dominant? Check the comments people left below the photos. Happiness is associated with a friendly demeanor, pleasure and approach behaviors, while sadness is associated with unfriendliness, pain and avoidance.

Figure 5: Objects Displaying Personality – (photos courtesy of Jim Leftwich)

 

Designing Personality: Dominant or Submissive?

Dominant visual features could be described as angular, straight, cold/cool, dark, silver, black…with a heavy base. Submissive visual features could be described as round, warm, light/lucid, soft/delicate, golden.8 When a personality is not represented with overt dominant visual or interactive characteristics, the tendency is to describe it as more submissive. Of the two sites in Figure 6, which site is more dominant and which is more submissive? Which site is friendly and which is unfriendly?

Figure 6: Martha Steward and WWE – Submissive and Dominant Designs

Notice which one of the sites above you’re more naturally attracted to. Which one do you feel more compelled to approach or avoid? Which one naturally grabs more of your attention? How well do these sites match the likely personalities of their target audiences? Generally speaking, you can attract the user by presenting a visual personality that is similar to his or her own. When it comes to attraction, we’re attracted to things that look similar to the way we are, or the way we’d like to see ourselves.

 

Friendly or Unfriendly?

Friendly visual features could be described as positive, while unfriendly visual features could be described as negative. Friendliness is not only determined by what is said, but also by how it is said (i.e. the tone of the conversation). Our tendency to assign and characterize personality based on conversation is easily recognizable in the example below. This example uses contrast, visual weight, , color value, size and typography to alter the meaning that is conveyed by the words. The content conveys the message, but the look and feel change how that message is interpreted, altering the meaning.

Which of the statements below would you rather hold a conversation with? Which one do you feel more compelled to approach or avoid? Which one naturally grabs more of your attention? When it comes to conversation, someone has to lead, and opposites attract.


Figure 7: Personality and Meaning4

Similar or Complementary?

Similarity is the theory that people are more attracted to those with personalities similar to their own, over those who display different personalities.5 Complementarity is the theory that people are attracted to people with personalities that complement their own level of dominance or submissiveness (Markey 20079; Personality Research10). It comes down to the old question of whether relationships work better when people are the same or opposite? And the answer is yes.

When it comes to personalities, different things stir our emotions at different stages of a relationship. Researchers found that Similarity takes precedence early in relationships, playing a vital role in initial attraction. Complementarity becomes more important as relationships develop over time.11 People in long-term relationships are more satisfied when their partners are either more or less dominant than they are. Two dominant persons may experience conflicts as both attempt to lead, while two submissive individuals may lack initiative, as neither is willing to lead. (Markey 20079; Wikipedia 200912)

Generally speaking, interaction between the system and the user should be complementary, where the user takes up the dominant role, while the product, interface or service takes on the submissive role. These roles might flip in the case of a guided tour, or an application where the system is guiding the process or has an air of authority.

 

Conclusion

In Part 1, we learned that emotion commands attention. We also learned that affective design is a term used to describe design created to intentionally capture the user’s attention and trigger an emotional response that will increase the likelihood of the user performing a desired behavior.

The value dimension of emotion influences our behavior (i.e. whether we approach or avoid), while the arousal dimension influences how motivated we are to do either. Emotions influence different aspects of behavior, and their expressions are perceived as different aspects of personality over time. Value influences the perception of friendliness, while arousal influences the perception of dominance.

Emotions, Behavior & Motivation and Personality
Figure 8: Emotions, Behavior & Motivation and Personality4

And finally, we learned that customers are attracted to things that they perceive have a personality similar to their own. Over time however, they prefer to interact with things that take up a role which is complementary to their own.

Useful, usable and pleasurable experiences help facilitate the formation of relationships. In Part 2, we’ll look at the different ways people experience love to get an even better understanding of how relationships form. Then, I’ll introduce a new framework that describes how to systematically provide experiences in the different ways that are necessary to form relationships.

Citations

1Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

2Cacioppo, J. T., and Petty, R. E. (1989). The Elaboration Likelihood Model: The Role of Affect and Affect-laden Information Processing in Persuasion. In A. Tybout and P. Cafferata (Eds.), Cognitive and Affective Responses to Advertising (69-89). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

3Russell, J. A. (1980). A Circumplex Model of Affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161-1178.

4Van Gorp, Trevor, J. (2006). Emotion, Arousal, Attention and Flow: Chaining Emotional States to Improve Human-Computer Interaction. University of Calgary, Faculty of Environmental Design, Master’s Degree Project.

5Reeves, Byron and C. Nass. (1998). The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6Jordan, Patrick, W. (2000). Designing Pleasurable Products. London: Taylor & Francis.

7Desmet, Pieter, R. (2002). Designing Emotions. Pieter Desmet. Delft.

8Wellman, Katrin and Ralph Bruder, Karen Oltersdorf. (2004). Gender Designs: Aspects of Gender Found in the Design of Perfume Bottles. In D. McDonagh and P. Hekkert, (Eds.), Design and Emotion: The Experience of Everyday Things. New York: Taylor & Francis.

9Markey, P.M.& Markey, C. N. (2007). Romantic Ideals, Romantic Obtainment, and Relationship Experiences: The Complementarity of Interpersonal Traits among Romantic Partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(4), 517-533.

10Personality Research. (August 1999). Interpersonal Complemetarity. Retrieved December 19, 2009, from Personality Research.

11Vinacke, W. E., Shannon, K., Palazzo,V, Balsavage,L., et-al. (1988). Similarity and Complementarity in Intimate Couples. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 114, 51-76.

12Wikipedia (2010, January 2). Interpersonal Attraction. Retrieved March 18, 2009, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.