Empathy In Your (inter)Face

In The Media Equation Reeves & Nass find that people interact and respond emotionally to computers pretty much the same way we interact and respond to other humans. Stephen P. Anderson illustrates pretty much the same thing in his book Seductive Interaction Design:

We identify with (or avoid) certain personalities
Trust is related to personality
Perception & expectations are linked with personality
Consumers choose products that are an extension of themselves
We treat sufficiently advanced technology as though it were human

If the interface is cold, heartless and unforgiving, we respond to it emotionally the same way we would if we were interacting with a cold, heartless, unforgiving person.

Here are some examples of some notifications that something went wrong. Which do you prefer?

While perhaps technically accurate and helpful to a programmer, the first error is pretty much useless to the regular user, who is left to wonder in dismay at what just happened and what it means to the action they were performing.

This explains in very human-readable terms what probably just happened, what the error code is (for those who might care), and some possible solutions (retype the URL, send them an email).

Here’s another way to look at it

You’re shopping for a spice called Garam Masala. You know what it is (if you don’t, try some!), but many don’t. You walk into the store and ask to be directed to the spices. You spend a few minutes searching but just aren’t able to find any garam masala — so you ask an employee for some assistance.

You: “Pardon me — do you know if you carry garam masala, and if so, where I could find it?”
Employee: “No.”
You: “No? No you don’t carry it or No you don’t know where it is.”
Employee: “Yeah.”
You: “Ummmm…okay.”


You: “Pardon me — do you know if you carry garam masala, and if so, where I could find it?”
Employee: “Hmmm…I’ve never heard of it. How’s it spelled? Let’s see if we can find it.”
…employee helps you look…
Employee: “I’m sorry — if we do carry it, it doesn’t appear to be in stock. I’ll ask my supervisor about it. Is there a way I can reach you to let you know what I find out? Meanwhile, you might try <Super Spice Store> — they tend to carry a really large variety of spices and you’ll probably find it there.”
You: “Sure — thanks!”

Which scenario would make you feel more at ease? In which scenario are you more likely to return to that store again even though they weren’t able to help you out this time? Which scenario is more like interacting with a heartless, unempathetic machine?

One example of this that has always bothered me is the PoS system (aptly named) at the grocery store. You slide your card and type in your PIN. When the cashier has finished ringing everything up (if, in fact, you didn’t slide it too early and have to do the whole process all over again) you’re presented with something akin to this:

Total: $123.35

Is this amount okay?

[ YES ] [ NO ]

And every time I want to hit the [ NO ] button. What if I feel that this amount is too costly? What if I really only want to spend $95 instead of $123? Heck, what if I want to pay more? Most of the time, if I’m honest with myself, and the machine, I must hit the [ NO ] button. I can’t though, because I know that’ll probably void the transaction, which is why I’m here in the first place. So, I’m forced to answer ‘yes’ to a question that I adamantly believe should be answered ‘no.’ The machine made me lie, and now I’m not only unhappy about the cost, I’m unhappy about the experience.

What if you at least corrected the English in the question, and instead you were presented with this:

Total: $123.35

Is this the correct amount?

[ YES ] [ NO ]

This is actually what the system is asking for. Now I’m not being asked to lie — but now the computer, whose job it is to add things up since the abacus, is asking ME to do its job for it — add up all the values, calculate sales tax etc. This doesn’t breed confidence in the system. I could guess, by we pretty much trust the machines to know these things. So now I’m not sure — did everything get rung up correctly? Did my sale items register at sales prices? I don’t know if it’s really correct. Is there an “I don’t know” button? Nope. This message still lacks and I’m forced into answering something I’m not comfortable with.

I LOVE the convenience technology affords us, but it’s not justification to substitute an impersonal experience for a cold, heartless one. We can have convenient tech and warm-n-fuzzy mom-and-pop-shop-style interactions too!

Cause I’ve got an idea!

What if it went down like this…

You’ve swiped your debit card. The system knows who you are now (your customer rewards card is linked to your debit card) and pulls up your recent purchase history etc.

Hey Brandon! Your total today is:


Is this amount okay?

[ Sure ] [ Not Really ]

You’re not really feeling the total today, so you click [ Not Really ]

I’m sorry about that. How about this total?

Total: $115.00

Is this amount okay?

[ Sure ] [ Not Really ]

Hey — that’s cool. It just gave you a $8.35 discount! Maybe it’s still too high, and heck, it won’t hurt to try again…you click [ Not Really ].

Dang — I’m really sorry. That’s the best I can do today Brandon.

Total: $115.00

Would you like to continue with your purchase, or come back another time?

[ Continue ] [ Come Back Later ]

Now you’re feeling like you were able to get a deal and have a positive interaction with the (more humane) system. You click [ Continue ].

Thanks for your purchase Brandon. I’m printing out some relevant coupons that might help you save a bit more next time.

Heck, even if you clicked [ Not Really ] and it straight up said the first time “sorry dude, no deals this time” you’d feel like you’d at least tried and the machine empathized with your lack of desire to part with your money.

You see, as it life, even when the answer is NO, when executed well and empathetically, you can foster good-will and trust with your customer/user which will encourage repeat business. It’s not hard — just inject some personality into those dialog boxes and copy. Breathe some life into those warnings, errors and success messages. After all, it’s not really the computer we’re interacting with, but the designers and programmers that brought the system into the world.

So all you supermarkets and convenience stores out there with your fancy PoS machines and rewards cards — build me something cool and empathetic that might potentially throw me a bone now and gain with some relevant coupons or an immediate savings of a few bucks just to let me know you value me as a customer and understand what my needs and desires are. That would make me RAVE about you to my friends and family and return again and again in the hopes that maybe this time I’ll get the response:

“Hey Brandon, you’ve been a loyal customer over the past few months, so today, your milk is on the house. Have a great day!”
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