Dear User: Let’s Be Friends

What lessons does one of the most influential business books on dealing with people hold for those who design digital experiences?

This is an adaptation of a conference presentation. If you enjoy the article, please help me share these lessons by recommending it to your favorite conference organizer!

Hey there! I’m Scott. I’m a designer and a content strategist. I mostly work with words. It seems like a lot of designers can say that these days. Chatbots. Voice interfaces. Smart assistants. Look around for writing advice for today’s digital designer and you’ll discover a popular refrain: Write like a human!

It’s good advice. It’s a good starting point. But it raises a question…what kind of human? After all, the world is full of humans we probably don’t want our brands to sound anything like. Jerks. Creeps. Braggarts. Buffoons.

This guy, for instance.

Some companies have tried to automate sounding human. It tends not to work out so well, as in the case of Microsoft’s “Hitler-loving sex robot” Tay, a short-lived machine-learning experiment which quickly reflected back some of the worst aspects of social media.

This really happened.

Whether the words are written by a person or written by a program that was written by a person, nearly every interface is a human automaton, a self-operating machine that replaces interacting with a person. (Games and control panels are generally exceptions, though I’m not sure every designer is clear on that — when did microwaves get so chatty, anyway?) There’s a human analog for just about every app, site, or service. Personal assistant. Librarian. Cashier. Instructor. Coach. Mom.

So yes, write like a human. But to do so effectively, we need clarity around what kind of human. We need principles that can guide us in the design, programming, and writing of these automatons. Once you realize you’re really just trying to design a good and friendly human, there’s a whole world of resources on interpersonal relations to draw upon.

For me, the go-to book on human-to-human interaction was written in 1936 by a guy named Dale Carnegie. It’s called How to Win Friends and Influence People. You’ve no doubt heard of it, though I find that very few designers have actually read it. I put off reading it for years because the title makes it sound like a phony business book for stupid phonies. And in some ways it is. But it’s still useful.

The first thing I tell skeptics is that “win friends” is an old-timey phrase. The spirit of the book is about thoughtfully and genuinely conducting oneself in a way that earns respect and generates interest. It is not about growth-hacking your way into phony relationships, although one could certainly apply it that way. As with most things in life, you’ll get as much cynicism out of it as you bring into it.

The other thing I tell skeptics is that Dale’s lessons have been incredibly important to me personally. Not everyone needs to learn how to be less of an asshole, but I did. I’m grateful for having been guided toward a Dale Carnegie Institute training program early in my career. The whole thing was cheesy and uncomfortable but it was also very valuable. Life is like that sometimes.

In the course, they gave us something called The Golden Book. It’s a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of all of Dale’s lessons. In it, the first two sections from How to Win Friends… are combined into one easy-to-memorize list:

Dale Carnegie’s 9 Golden Principles for Being a Friendlier Person

  1. No criticism
  2. Sincere appreciation
  3. An eager want
  4. Genuine interest
  5. Smile
  6. Use their name
  7. Listen
  8. Speak of their interests
  9. Make them feel important

I’m going to explore how each of these golden principles can be applied to the practice of user experience design, with examples drawn from popular apps and websites that do either a very good or hilariously bad job of effecting these principles. Let’s go!


Principle One: No Criticism

Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.

This one sounds simple. And it is! Like other seemingly simple axioms — always tell the truth, do unto others— applying it thoroughly and consistently can have a tremendous impact. But it’s also hard.

We want and need our users to do particular things in particular ways. When they don’t do those things, or don’t do them the right way, a natural instinct is to blame them. “You’ve screwed up. You did the thing wrong. You are bad at using our software.” But we don’t have to rely on our instincts. We are designers.

A lot of brands make me feel like this is the book their designers are reading. Via The Practical Developer

Criticizing and blaming your users is never, ever necessary. There is always a way to avoid it, though you may have to get clever.

First, consider whose fault it really is. Did the user “screw up”, or was your interface hard to use? Hard to understand? Hard to navigate? Is it possible there was some intermediary issue that you didn’t predict, like temporary signal loss or a strange interaction with browser or accessibility settings? Even when it’s the user’s “fault” — say, typing their zip code incorrectly — is it necessary to blame them? After all, couldn’t you have determined zip code from the rest of their address? Or perhaps you didn’t really need to ask for it? Or perhaps there’s something screwy with the user’s autofill settings that’s been driving them nuts for weeks, and you yelling at them about an incorrect zip code is just salt in the wound? Huh? Yeah! Now who’s yelling! I am! At you!

Sometimes blaming the user happens in subtle ways. It’s often baked so deeply into common patterns that we might not even notice.

The most common sign in screen in the world.

That’s a sign-in screen from my utility company. Consider our no criticism principle and look carefully. Anything jump out?

There’s a word that catches my eye: Forgot. Forgetting is usually a bad thing. It’s a blame word. You forgot my birthday. Ben forgot to pick up bagels. With that word choice, this interface is subtly blaming the user. It implies that the only reason the user doesn’t know their username or password is because they forgot it like a dummy. And sure, maybe they did forget. But maybe they never knew it. Maybe they’re on a different computer and don’t have access to their password application. Maybe something is screwed up on your end and the correct username isn’t being recognized. Maybe they are experiencing a cognitive impairment from illness, injury, or medication. Maybe they’re drunk! Maybe a loved one is sick or has died, and they’re trying to sign in on their behalf to pay a bill or update information. It doesn’t matter why, because the effect is the same: the user is getting blamed. And that doesn’t feel good.

An egregious and trendy violation of this principle is a dark pattern knownas confirm shaming. Confirm shaming is that thing where a button on a pop-up should say something simple, like Dismiss or No thanks, but instead has some critical, judgmental baloney like No thanks, I’m a big fat dummy who hates money and wants to die alone.

A few examples of confirm shaming, some from the excellent sites confirmshaming.tumblr.com and cruelestoptouts.tumblr.com

In each of these examples, the language used on the dismiss button is some form of criticism or passive-aggressive complaint. Worse, it’s putting words in the user’s mouth, forcing them to criticize themselves! Not cool.

Let’s look at a positive example. The web app Trello gave me a masterclass in not blaming the user when my credit card expired a while back.

It’s a common enough situation: the user’s credit card has expired and a recurring payment couldn’t go through. Instead of leading with a user-blaming “Hey dummy, your credit card expired!”, the main alert instead says the problem is with the product, Trello Gold.

The follow up information states a fact: You are overdue… It’s not criticism and it’s not a complaint. Just a fact.

In the very same sentence, they immediately move it back to focusing on them: …we are having trouble processing your credit card.

This is nuanced, I realize, but so is most human interaction. We just don’t have to think about it as much in person. We can cover for language that is less than perfectly kind with actual human warmth and charm. Our apps don’t have that advantage.

Principle Two: Sincere Appreciation

Give honest, sincere appreciation.

In this principle, Dale stresses the importance of avoiding flattery. If you’re going to compliment someone, make it genuine. And if someone is important to you, find a way to demonstrate that sincerely.

In most cases, the best way to live this principle in your designs is by doing nothing. We rarely know enough about any one user to give them a genuine compliment or show sincere appreciation from within an interface.

Unfortunately, many designers do not do nothing. They do something that is increasingly my biggest pet peeve: Awesome Talk. Awesome Talk is the flattery and empty emotional language sneaking its way into welcome screens, confirmation screens, and everywhere else in our apps and sites.

Zappos…loves me? What? Why do they love me? Why are they telling me they love me on a mobile nag screen about downloading their app? I know I’m a bit of a crank but I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene from my favorite documentary, Idiocracy.

In this scene, the greeter drones “Welcome to Costco. I love you.” over and over, without emotion, to everyone entering the store.

Once you start looking for Awesome Talk, for that flattery and puffery, you’ll see it everywhere. Here’s a grocery store congratulating me for signing in:

Personally, I reserve congratulations for things like graduations, marriages, and receiving the Nobel prize.

And here’s YouTube getting flirty:

They slip a “Congrats” into the subject line, throw me a “Nice job” in the heading, and to seal the deal, tell me I’ve been inspired lately! Nevermind the fact that this is not even a personal account, but a brand account, which they clearly knew.

And if you’re not careful with your code, automated praise can come across as sarcastic:

From the excellent screenshotsofdespair.tumblr.com

The thing about genuine, sincere appreciation is that it’s terribly hard to automate. If you want to build sincere appreciation into your experience, you’ll need to create opportunities for actual humans (e.g. your support team) to be able to communicate with your users. Here’s one example from an interaction I had with the car-sharing service Car2Go:

I’d emailed them about some sort of inconsistency in their web copy and a representative emailed back to say thanks and added 20 minutes to my account. They matched words with actions and that made me feel appreciated.

Principle Three: An Eager Want

Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Take a moment to finish giggling about the word arouse and join me in the next paragraph…

Cool, cool. So this principle is about selling. Dale tells us that if you need to sell something — a product, a service, an idea, a design — you’d be well-served by figuring out how to make the other person excited about it, to make them feel like wanting the thing is their idea. You should use energy and enthusiasm and everything else at your disposal to get people saying YES, I want that thing. Sign me the eff up!

In UX design, we are constantly trying to get our users to do things. We need them to sign up, to register, to enter some info, to complete a form, to go to a certain page, to proceed to the next screen, to opt-in and agree and accept and download and so on. Because there’s so much that we want users to do, it can be a challenge to find that excitement. And so we end up with stuff like this:

Not everything is exciting. It’s fine and good for a button to just say Next during a flow that a user is already motivated to complete. But if we want to redirect the user’s attention, we need to use excitement. The ubiquitous Learn more isn’t going to cut it.

Good writing and clear, compelling calls-to-action can help, but, as we’ve just discussed, we want to be careful avoid Awesome Talk and other empty language. Thankfully there are more tools available to user experience designers than words alone. Cadence. Flow. Animation. Color. Imagery. Performance. To live this principle well in our designs requires big work on small details. Too often, conversations center on what the big call-to-action should be or what color the “Buy” button should be, rather than on how to get our customers excited enough to say “Yes!” before they even get there.

LinkedIn, hellish as it can be, notably popularized a pattern that does a good job of motivating action: measuring completeness.

From Peter Stahl’s excellent talk on Rhythm and Flow.

Clear paths and clear actions create their own motivation. Even a “boring” flow like a survey can be kind of fun if it performs well and is well-designed.

A more traditional approach to creating an eager want in your designs is using aspirational rhetoric. Give people a big idea to grab on to. I like this example from Evernote a few years back:

Granted, if you don’t know who that nerd in the black t-shirt and glasses is, this might not do much for you. But for me, this was a shortcut past any other pitches they might make: if it’s good enough for super-nerd Adam Savage from Mythbusters to use, it’s good enough for me. It made me immediately excited to look into how he used the service and think about new applications of Evernote in my work. And I was already a user!

Principle Four: Genuine Interest

Become genuinely interested in other people

Dale tells us that if you want success in business and life, there is one habit worth cultivating more than any other: being genuinely interested in other people. Become interested in their lives, their challenges, their quirks and preferences, their families and jobs. It’s not something you can fake, and it doesn’t come easily. But the rewards are huge.

The same is true in a design practice. The strongest correlation of this principle in the world of UX is user research. To live the principle of genuine interest in your organization means having a robust user research practice that drives your product and design decisions. It means, at minimum, putting the interest and needs of your users on equal footing with those of the business.

Targeted advertising, endless requests to take “follow-up” surveys, lazy personalization…these things don’t make me feel like a company is actually interested in me. It makes me feel like they have some sort of number that is important to them, and I’ve been reduced to it.

Coming on a little strong there, guys.

I don’t know about your inbox, but I get an unwelcome “we want your feedback” survey email just about every day. Most do nothing to make me feel like the company is actually interested in me as a person.

Apple even managed to make the headline about them.

Again, the principle is to become genuinely interested in other people. Not to merely appear interested in other people. There aren’t any tricks or hacks to this. If you want to get started, consider the book Just Enough Research by Erika Hall.

A research-driven user-centered design methodology is not the only way of living this principle. If you’re in more of a startup mindset, an approach like that described in the book Running Lean is a nice way of putting actual users and customers at the center of your world through interviews.

Principle Five: Smile

Dales tells us that if we want to have an easier time of things out the world, we should remember to smile. The question I want you to consider is not: How do we get our users to smile? but rather: How can we smile for our users? When I’m out in the world, I smile at almost everyone. It’s nice when they smile back, but if they don’t, no worries. I’m going to smile just the same.

Were you smiling the last time you sat down to design? If not…do you think the user could tell?

One of my jobs in high school was telemarketing. (Sorry.) Though it wasn’t always easy, my coworkers and I found that we had better results if we smiled while on the phone. People couldn’t see it, of course, but they could hear it. A smile helps put people at ease even when it can’t be seen.

Loading screens are a popular spot to insert a smile.

In the above examples, the designers put some fun language onto loading screens. Thinking of each message as a “smile”, this pattern mirrors how one might behave in the real world. The first time a teenage cashier finally makes eye contact and smiles tends to be while we’re both waiting for the credit card transaction to process.

Password reset flow for Louis C.K.’s website. A bit of well-timed humor that made me smile. (Also an exception to the first principle as it’s an effective use of his brand voice that doesn’t read like genuine criticism.)

Microcopy, loading screens, interstitials, email teasers…there are lots of little places that you can add a smile without disrupting the user’s flow. Approach it like you’re adding a vase of fresh flowers to an already well-appointed room. (And not, as many apps seem inclined, like you’re adding carnival games to the middle of a banking transaction.)

Sometimes all it takes to seem like you’re smiling is a bit of friendly language. In this example from Yelp, a boring and perfunctory message about a privacy policy update comes across with a smile with the addition of “Hey there!”

My favorite example of this principle comes not from an app, but a device.

I used to own this little FitBit fellow and wear it just about 24/7. It only needed charging every four or five days. Its screen is very small and affords the use of very few characters. When I’m wearing it, I want the screen to tell me the time, or my stepcount, or my heart rate. I don’t want it trying to talk to me. When I’m charging the device, I want it to tell me how charged the battery is. That doesn’t leave much room for a smile. They got one in anyway. This “CHEERS” greeting on the LCD (and other similar messages) only displays when you disconnect the charging cable — which is also the only time I wouldn’t be annoyed to have a message on the screen!

Principle Six: Use Their Name

Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

Dale stresses the importance of remembering names and using them correctly. Designers are horrible about this. Rigid forms, character counts, ill-conceived policies and more contribute to people all over the world being forced to argue with machines about one of the most important aspects of their identity: their name.

Names are a seemingly-simple detail that you must get 100% correct to not seem like an asshole. Don’t give people nicknames. If they ask to go by Sam, don’t call them Samantha. A hyphenated last name is not an invitation to use one or the other. Learn the names that people give you and use the names that people give you to show that you value the person that name represents.

A Comcast employee did some additional damage to an already much-maligned brand a while back when they updated a customer’s name in the system to something…less than friendly.

I probably didn’t need to tell you not to literally call your user an asshole. I hope. But there are other, more subtle ways of violating this principle that give a similar sting. Poorly-executed personalization, database errors, and business-speak euphemisms can all contribute to making users feel like you don’t even care enough to get their name right.

Help me *|FNAME|* Kenobi, you’re my only hope!

Here’s a two-fer from my utility company, who managed to call me “Customer” and give me a new middle name:

I guess Danger isn’t my middle name, after all.

A popular (and boring) debate in the UX world is about the term “user”. I don’t mind it, but I can assure you that it’s not my name.

Dear User, let’s be friends!

Neither is Customer, nor Homeowner, nor Resident. I could be persuaded with regards to PIZZA LOVER, however…

They have guessed my true name! Now I must return the child to the miller’s daughter.

Assuming you correctly capture and remember a user’s name, don’t be afraid to use it! In this example from Facebook, they manage to get my name on the screen three times and my photo two times, all above the fold.

Repeated use of my name and likeness goes a long way toward making the site feel like a personal space where I am known and welcome.

Personalization is great, but be sure to master the basics first. Be as accommodating as possible with regards to capturing and storing names, and use inclusive policies that take into consideration matters of safety, privacy, gender, race, and language.

Principle Seven: Listen

Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

This is the advice Dale is perhaps best known for. He tells us that we win friends by listening, not by talking.

You don’t need a chatbot to get conversational with your users. In fact, most interfaces are already structured as conversations, especially on the web. The site says something, the user says something back. The site asks a question, the user answers it. The user asks a question, the site answers it. And so on.

If you want your site to seem like a good listener, it needs to not dominate the conversation. Put important choices — what the user “speaks” to your site — in prominent places, ahead of all the talking about yourself. And design those choices such that users can “speak” in a way that feels natural.

One way to evaluate the conversational prowess of your interface is the WYLTIWLT test (pronounced wilty-wilt), as described by Jonathon Richards in his excellent article The Grammar of Interactivity. He posits that a user should be able to read your choices as this basic conversation:

Computer: “Would you like to [thing]?”
User: “I would like to [thing].”

If you can manage that on all of your buttons, the interface will feel that much more like a conversation. It will feel like you are presenting the user with options and then shutting up and letting them talk.

Your/My madness!

This breaks down fast when features and choices have words like “Your” and “My” and “User” built right into the name. Try the WYLTIWLT test on some of the buttons pictured above and you’ll see what I mean.

FreshBooks has a CONTACT US link and phone number at the very top of their homepage.

Making phone numbers, email addresses, and other forms of contact prominent on your website is another way to show that you’re listening. Don’t make a user click through six pages and fill out a long form only to be told that their email is so important that someone will get back to them within three to five days.

Principle Eight: Speak of Their Interests

Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.

If you want to persuade people, talk about what matters to them, not what matters to you. Dale shares an old-timey anecdote to make his point: while he might like strawberries and cream, worms are best for catching fish.

Most websites are pretty bad about this principle. Pages and pages and pages of information about the company: their history, their executives, their news, their products, their news, their awards. What about the user? What do they care about?

To live this principle as a UX designer, we want to be sure that we’re communicating not just the features of our products, but their benefits. We need to not just be telling users what we need them to do, but how and why doing the thing will benefit them. We need to use strong, compelling, user-centered rhetoric to spur action.

The above examples are hardly atypical. While they’ve correctly anticipated that a user might wonder why they have to sign in or join or disable their ad blockers to view the content, they don’t manage to provide any reasons that speak to the benefit one receives from doing so. The Wired example also manages to be pissy and passive-agressive. Telling a user it’s “the right thing to do” will always be weaker rhetoric than telling them how it benefits them, no matter how good of a person they are. Communicating benefits is key.

Another great way to talk in terms of the user’s interest is by — wait for it — figuring out what their interests actually are! I love this example from RunKeeper:

This is more sophisticated than it might look. Rather than simply nagging me to engage with the app, or scolding me about not having run recently, this message is following-up on a choice that I made previously about my running schedule. They’re literally speaking in terms of my interests because I’ve told them this is something I want. Nice!

Principle Nine: Make Them Feel Important

Make the other person feel important — and do it sincerely.

If you follow the eight previous principles, this one’s practically a freebie. If you never criticize the user, if you show them sincere appreciation, if you’re genuinely interested in their problems, if you learn and use their name, if you listen to them and only speak in terms of their interests…well, they are going to feel very important indeed!

This principle is particularly important with regards to engagement and retention. If someone else makes your users feel more important than you do, you’ll lose them. Think about it like dating. Would you rather date someone with flaws who makes you feel great, or somebody perfect who makes you feel like garbage? That’s an easy call.

Status, loyalty, and reward programs are one approach to making users feel important. Stellar customer service is another. I never feel less important to a company than when I’m listening to a recorded voice tell me how important my call is. Get real.

Some brands and services try to take a shortcut by gamifying every little thing and showering users with nonsense badges, trophies, and “awards”.

One great way to make people feel important is to tell them, in a genuine and honest way, that they are important to you. Crazy, right? Having and showing gratitude for your users and what they do for your business can go a long way. There are lots of opportunities for this, you just have to be willing to look for them.

I love this message from Hover. There’s no flattery. No “Congrats on being a Gold-Star Domain Buyer!” award baloney. Just a nicely-worded little warm fuzzy that expresses their gratitude. Email is a great channel for this, as in this example from Baron Fig:


Remember to Mind Your Manners

I hope that you, too, find these principles to be a useful design lens. I also invite you to reflect on manners and etiquette in general as a rich resource of best practices to borrow from for your designs. If you can’t imagine saying it to a real person, it’s probably a bad fit for your design. If it’s a barrier or hoop you couldn’t imagine using in a retail space, it’s probably a bad fit for your design.

Remember, your design is an automaton that stands in for a person: you!

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