An Event Apart Minneapolis: Aarron Walter, "Learning to Love Humans: Emotional Interface Design"

One of the most charming presentations at An Event Apart Minneapolis was from Aarron Walter, who talked to us about learning to love humans, something we have all struggled with from time to time, I’m sure. Aarron is also the author of Building Findable Websites, which I am reading and enjoying right now.

Really, the only flaw in the presentation is that Aarron is apparently originally from Iowa. I tried not to hold that against him, as I’m a Minnesotan. I jest of course, I suppose because I’m human.

I cannot convey the ease and warmth of this talk, although perhaps it might help to share that mechanical robots graced many of the slides. Charming, giant mechanical robots. I dug the touchy-feely nature of the presentation, probably because I’m an ENFP.

Aarron began by going over how times have changed. Facebook and Twitter exposes our humain frailties.

He then reviewed Maslow’s hierarachy of needs. Humans need more than the base of the pyramid, physiological and safety needs. We also need love/belonging, then esteem and finally self-actualization. Similar to the Maslow pyramid, Aarron proposed a new pyramid demonstrating that humans need websites to be functional first, then reliable, usable, and ultimately, pleasurable.

Having sites be pleasurable is what has been missing on our journey through the history of the web.

Sites should be usable, of course, but Aarron compared usability to edibility. Is that the high bar a chef would strive to achieve? A food can be edible but not be pleasurable. Think spam. Completely edible. But pleasurable?

One example Aarron gave is Wufoo, a site that specifically sets out to make the task of creating forms and their accompanying databases not only easy, but explicitly pleasurable.

The web is a platform for emotion, so you have to ask yourself, what is the personality of your website?

To get at that, he reviewed the concept of gestalt, which is wired into us and lets us figure out what belongs with each other, what doesn’t belong. Our brain looks at contrast and other factors to create groupings in our mind. Our designs help create those groupings, or gestalt.

One particularly awesome example: Zebras have stripes so when they are in a group, predators can’t pick out individuals. Similarly, an example I cannot endorse: if you’re speeding, it is better to speed with others. “Because there are predators out there.”

One key emotional design principle is that people will forgive your shortcomings, follow your lead and sing your praises if you reward them with positive emotion.

As an example, check out these iPhone apps: Convertbot for converting units and Weightbot to track weight. People love the way they look and function. The designer at TapBots said, “We wanted users to have an emotional connection to our apps. Most people don’t have love/joy for software like geeks do.

Humans want to empathize. Personality invites empathy. Adding character to apps and sites makes people want to use them. Clever copy and humor can help generate emotion, adoration and loyalty.

A prime example is a web service Aarron works with, MailChimp. MailChimp is a mass email provider, like Constant Contact. However, at the top of each page is a chimp. And on every page, the chimp says something different and humorous. The chimp dresses up for holidays. In one example, Star Wars was involved. Clearly, the designers at MailChimp have good taste.

Another fun site? has a lot of fun interactivity.

A different way to create emotion can be found on Cracking jokes on a financial institution website would be really inappropriate. Instead, great design inspires emotion.

Another principle? Forgiveness. Find an interesting, fun way to say sorry and people will forgive you.

Another challenge? There are always human limits. When there is too much clutter, gestalt fails. This proves Occam’s razor: the simplest solution is usually the best.

Also, people are lazy: We strive to find the path of least resistance. To overcome this, bribery works in getting people to do things they don’t want to do. Provide a small reward, a bit of visual joy, and people will overcome drudgery.

Employing these techniques means taking risk. Unfortunately, there will always be party poopers. How do you deal with those who don’t want to have fun, but just want to get things done? MailChimp has “party pooper” mode that eliminates humor from the site. 0.007% of their users turn on this mode.

Progressive enhancement is a key principle of web design. Can do we do this with emotional design as well? Add fun in for special events as a way to start. The Google home page does this nicely, altering their logo for holidays. The Pac-Man Google logo is perhaps the best example.

Circling to the beginning, Aarron asked if we have changed now that we constantly connect with each other online, a huge change in how humanity connects with each other.

I really enjoyed Aarron’s talk about adding emotion and personality to sites and am percolating with ideas about how to be more human.