Building Expressive Interfaces

Building Expressive Interfaces

Harnessing Anthropomorphism in Interaction

There is a ubiquitous trait amongst people to believe that all other individuals are like themselves, to attribute our complex emotional state and our behavioral rationale to those other individuals.

This type of communication skill and the ability to turn our verbal language into a documented record is what makes us so successful as a species. In doing so, we’re able to build trust amongst members of our society, pass on detailed knowledge and rationalize people and places.

In fact, our communicational flair is so strong we even attempt communication with non-human entities and inanimate objects. For example, it’s a common-held belief amongst dog lovers that their pets mirror the personality traits of their owners. People use this owner-pet relationship to help them to rationalize and understand the behavior of their pets. In actual fact, this tells us more about ourselves than it does our canine companions.

Known as anthropomorphism, our desire to communicate and to be understood by everyone and everything is what gives us this amazing yet idiosyncratic trait.

As a designer, the question then arises: What can emotionally-aware, trust-winning interface do for the user?

1. Let your Interface be Expressive.

In the last five years alone, our user interfaces have gotten smarter. Not just from a technological and computational perspective, but also an emotional one.

The expressive interface allows us to convey emotion, to provide satisfaction with empathy and to delight with contextually-aware illustrations and animations. Harnessing these techniques wins trust and helps us to create a user-centric environment for our interactive processes.

Designers should look to add delight but be concise when context demands.

Winning Trust

Back in November 2015, Slack suffered it’s first major outage and brought tech to a standstill. Most people made light of the intermittent downtime by taking to Twitter to post a joke or two.

Now, picture the response when Skype incurs downtime — users’ reactions are vastly different. Why is that?

As designers, we know that users will be generally be more tolerant of intermittent malfunctions, providing our interface was designed from a user-centric perspective. We can say with some certainty that Slack’s users are more tolerant to downtime because of the investment Slack has made to capture human equity. Slack’s user experience design is practically a seminar in capturing user trust . Slack has a personality which is actively expressed through it’s playful visual design and over one hundred of playful interactions. Each click and tap serves to make the user feel something. Although similar, the same cannot be said for Skype.

2. Add Context with Pragmatic Interactions

Relieving user frustration through pragmatic interactions is one of the primary ways for Designers to build user tolerance as referenced above.

The concept of failure tolerance borrows from software engineering whereby programmers build proactive alerting mechanisms into their software. These mechanisms would allow the system itself to alert engineers when faults occur. In a similar fashion, an expressive interface would be able to possess a similar level of user-facing fault tolerance.

Thinking about design in this way would allow designers to alert users that a component failure has occurred. Such an alert could deliver empathic and contextual communication to minimize the perceived and actual effect of that downtime on a user.

Just imagine if Slack delivered the last few conversations you were having in the event of downtime…

The user would quickly be able to re-orient themselves and continue going about their critical tasks, ultimately buying Slack’s Product Team a little bit more fault tolerance.

3. Humanist Language as System Default

People trust computers when they speak more like humans.

The scope to reduce friction and frustration through an expressive interface is massive. Such interfaces have been scientifically proven to have an effect on the willingness of users to persevere despite frustration.

A group of researchers at Harvard (Klein, J., Moon Y., and Picard, R. W.) inserted a dialogue strategy known to be effective at relieving negative emotion directed towards a frustrating computer interaction flow. The researchers’ hypothesis was that when a computer system creates frustration on the part of the user, it can relieve that frustration quickly and effectively by means of active emotional support.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers built a system that directly addressed users’ frustration using active emotional support. The system incorporated a variety of active support strategies that have been demonstrated to be effective in a variety of social contexts. From strategies such as allowing incorrect user input to be repaired to simply conveying a sense of empathy through language.

In an experimental trial, participants receiving the frustration-relieving intervention continued to interact with the computer which had frustrated them, for longer than participants receiving a control intervention.

‘This form is invalid’ — Avoid negative language. Users want reassurance not negativity

Designers should try to avoid negativity in Interaction Design. Users want reassurance, not negativity.

Even more interesting is that Klein, Moon and Picard used frustration-relieving dialogue that had been proven to work solely in human to human dialogue. Applying this rationale to user interaction design, we can start see the effect of anthropomorphic behavior. The user was calmed simply by seeing dialogue that looks like it came from another human.

Validation, Error and Malfunction Feedback should be informative, reassuring and most of all, human. Otherwise, they can just serve to frustrate — remember the Twitter Whale?

While a GIF-generator 404 page might seem funny at first, we can say with some degree of confidence that absurd error messages and nonsensical 404 pages actually contribute to user frustration rather than assuaging the undesirable effects that they attempt to prevent.

4. Emotions to Increase Reassurance and Retention

Surveying the technological landscape today, interactive systems are being used to provoke user responses in ways that were previously unachievable or unrealistic. Designers today should recognize the opportunity to shape user journeys and craft interfaces that provoke context-aware emotional responses.

The role of emotional expression in interaction design is not to build artificial humans to talk to our users, but rather to harness anthropomorphism as a conduit through which social interaction can be utilized for user benefit.

Credit — Robin Clediere

In the near future, it’d be easy to imagine scenarios in which Siri reacts to every sigh and Google shows understanding of repeated searches that don’t provide satisfactory results.

Leveraging a Familiar Face

As designers, some of the key aspects of crafting interactions rely on our ability to create scenarios that feel emotionally intelligent. In fact, a study from Stanford University purported to show that humans interact with media as if that media was another person or place.

Remember, anthropomorphism means:

Attributing familiar humanlike qualities to non-human entities, allowing us to perceive those entities as more familiar, explainable or predictable.

Since the inception of graphical user interface there has been a growing body of evidence, some of which discussed above, to show that people respond more favorably to interactive objects that exhibit humanlike behavioral characteristics (emotions, expression, empathy) in contrast to a purely functional or minimalist design.

Although this anthropological quirk seems strange, it could serve as an invaluable tool in the interaction designer’s armory. Familiar, explainable, predictable — shouldn’t all interaction design strive to achieve those paradigms at the very least?

In Summary…

People, not ‘users’.

  • Use conversational elements like illustrations and dialogue
  • Designers should look to add delight but be concise when context demands

Win trust through empathic design

  • Designers should create empathic mechanisms that acknowledge user frustration to benefit both the user’s experience and the larger brand

Be pragmatic

  • Build a sense of fault tolerance by anticipating and dealing with points of user friction.
  • Create pragmatism by building interactions that seem to be aware of context.

Assuage frustration through dialogue

  • Acknowledge the user when they make mistakes
  • Use reassurance techniques as opposed to negative language

Inject a sense of consciousness

  • Create systems that express a level of understanding when users make mistakes
  • Exhibit a tone of voice with interactions that are playful in some scenarios and critical in others