Why You Should Design UX with Personality in Mind

Emotional context matters everywhere

Jonathan Foster
Jul 10, 2018 · 4 min read
A strong UX design process considers the complexity of a multifaceted personality

Creating a digital personality

I just stumbled onto something new in Microsoft Word. The UI in the backstage greeted me with a simple, “Good morning.” It felt friendly. And that’s an important point — I felt something.

I care about this because I am designer of personality, surrounded by a team of excellent personality designers. For over five years, we’ve written what Microsoft Cortana says with a creative eye on how she says it. So, a “Good morning” from Cortana might push a little farther into the playful realm with, “Hope you have a tremendously outstanding day.”

I am also part of a team ensuring consistency in the voice and tone of Microsoft products and services. For personality, think a principled approach to designing bots and agents. For voice, think a principled approach to UX. Both are centered around an empathetic, often casual tone, keeping things brief and helpful. Once kept very separate, I’m now seeing them as less and less divergent.

Automating an automated bot

When we build a bot, we put a lot of thought into how deeply we should invest in it. And what is the feeling of that personality? A lot of people think it’s a “make me laugh” feature. But to designers, it’s a much bigger deal with much bigger impact. It requires trust in imagination, and a lot of hard thinking. For example, by giving a bot a name, you’re creating an apparent independence that elicits powerful customer expectations. You’ll very quickly find yourself in the world of designing a persona, an entity with depth of character, opinions, likes and dislikes, and intentions, which are very often outside the business objectives for your bot. And while all this is considered personality, all of it is not required to bring the feeling of personality to your bot.

In the future, much of this work may not need to be designed in the same way it is today. Recently, we expanded upon our Cortana work by building a new project called Personality Chat. The idea is that Microsoft can now provide bot designers and developers a catalogue of various ready-made personalities and the small talk libraries that support them. Your hotel bot can express buttoned down propriety; your pizza bot can say, “Dude. Pesto.” Coolness factor: this is both an authored and an automated experience. Our writers are tasked with writing premium responses for the different personas and training a Deep Neural Network conversational model to talk like those personas.

So, why all this hoopla around personality? Why invest at all?

My team values personality design because we know that, as humans, we are not only hardwired to anthropomorphize our computers and devices, but we are also emotionally engaged with them. Stanford University’s Clifford Nass was a pioneer of such research (I recommend The Man Who Lied to His Laptop), and many others continue to explore human-to-digital relationships every day. If we know that people are capable of empathy for a digital experience, then why would we not focus on what it feels like?

Going beyond the bot

But here’s the big reveal for me: personality is not just about bots.

What’s noteworthy is the research that supported the decision to design a personality for Cortana, is the same foundational research that supports our passion to create voice and tone principles for Microsoft products. In the recent past, I would bristle at the thought of conflating those principles with the ones we created for Cortana. Now, not so much.

Designing an empathic experience that acknowledges people are emotionally present when interacting with their phones, PCs, speakers and cars is not too different from making sure an error message sounds right, but more importantly, feels right. Across our experiences, we not only focus on the customer intent, but also the emotional context of that intent.

So now when I’m asked, “Do you put personality into the applications and services you have at Microsoft?” I answer, “Yep. Particularly if you’re feeling it.”

To learn more about the history of personality design, check out my other article. And if this story resonates with you and you want to join our team, check out our positions here.

To stay in-the-know with what’s new at Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or join our Windows Insider program.

To stay in-the-know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Dribbble, Twitter and Facebook, or join our Windows Insider program. And if you are interested in joining our team, head over to aka.ms/DesignCareers.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Jonathan Foster

Written by

I'm at Microsoft leading the Windows and Content Intelligence UX writing team. We make sure the best verbal design is in our products and UX. (views are my own)

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

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