Humans Not Robots: The Importance of Emotional Design in Creating Products

In software design, understanding the user is fundamental.  Few would argue that point; however there is a wide difference in how far some organizations believe ‘understanding’ should be taken.  There are organizations that develop libraries of sophisticated personas with birth-dates, names, and interesting back-stories to ensure they are incorporating the right thought processes when thinking about how their solutions will be used by real people.  They use data insight and usage analytics paired with ethnographic research to define the right capabilities to provide.  They may even forbid the word ‘user’ as part of their vocabulary because it dehumanizes the people on the other side of the technology.

Products designed in this manner often live and die by MAU and DAU metrics (Monthly Active Users and Daily Active Users), because if they cannot bring people back they don’t survive.  They don’t see a product as just an elegant user experience they recognize there is an entire system and functional architecture that has to be designed from top to bottom in order to engage people, simplify their experience, and create a habitual need for return. The products you love to use every day to find information, keep track of the world around you, and see what your friends are doing, are in this category. They take user experience architecture seriously and have reaped the rewards. Their products have been specifically designed to make you want to use them, repeatedly, and instinctually.


How a Consumerism Mindset is Good for “Business”

But not all products fit this mold.  There is a key split that has often differentiated the level of design conducted with technology products, and the line can be drawn between consumer products and business solutions.  Consumer driven products create deeply engaging experiences that will make you want to come back - because their existence requires it.

Conversely, business solutions don’t measure DAUs and MAUs because they aren’t as focused on creating and pushing return usage.  For many of these products, the job of the person using the technology is dependent upon their returning.  Function takes precedence over form.  Focus is narrowed to feature lists, buying criteria of stakeholders, while the emotional connections to people are secondary goals, if considered at all.

Why? Because very few RFPs have, ‘make my employees love your product’ as a requirement.  Those key features and buying criteria are certainly important, but if everyone knows the feature lists because they are in the RFP, how will features differentiate you?  Following RFP feature lists may get you to the table, but it won’t separate you and it won’t make people fall in love with your product.

So then, how do you prove what’s clearly important to consumers in a business-to-business model. The answer is both science and art.


Creating an Emotional Connection

Research in neuroscience has shown that there are different pathways in the brain that seek positive consequences and avoid negative consequences.  Things that feel like a “have to” are interpreted as negative and our brain has a natural response to avoid.  But, things interpreted as a “want to” receive a positive connation and we seek them out.

Knowing that this distinction exists in the mind, what are designers of business solutions to do?  At some level the business product is always going to fall into the ‘”have to” category.  Is it possible to get to the point where an enterprise solution is viewed as a “want to?”  Or is that reserved for social networks and gaming products? Shifting a business solution from “have to” to a “want to” is a complex and nuanced challenge, which may hinge on your organization’s ability to create an emotional connection.

Emotions are less rational and harder to understand; as a result a robotic feature-checklist approach to design does not typically bode well. As neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux shared with the Gallup Business Journal, “In truth, most of what we do, we do unconsciously, and then rationalize the decision consciously after the fact."  As a result, you cannot simply ask people what they are going to love, or why they love something it takes a more indirect approach.  You have to realize a few key points to understand what will better position a product to create a positive emotional response.  But, what are these points?

1. We’re Still Humans at Work

It is a bit obvious, however often underemphasized.  We are humans when we use “consumer-based” products outside of work, and we are those same humans when we go to work. The expectations we have for well-designed technologies are set by the best technologies across all domains. Those are the expectations people bring when using business software and why they are often disappointed.  When you pair less than ideal design with a feeling of “have to”, the emotional response is going to be sub par.  Its also the reason that there is great rejoicing when someone gets it right and incorporates contemporary methodologies and human-driven design interactions into their business solutions.

2. Humans are Lazy Decision Makers

The emergence of the field of Behavioral Economics has shifted the conversation about decision making away from rational versus irrational, and shown instead that the mind is made up of two systems that have a complex interplay that impacts the decisions we make.  System One is fast, instinctual, and based on neural pathways that have been wired to fire instantly when triggers occur.  System Two is more reflective and analytical.  It fires when System One receives information its not quite sure how to process.  Because we are lazy decision makers we prefer to have decisions flow through the System One because it takes less effort.

Understanding the interplay of the two systems is key to creating a design approach that keeps interactions flowing through System One.  This can be really challenging for business solutions, as the business processes they support are not always “simple”.  But as Don Norman noted in his work Living with Complexity, complexity is ok if it fits the domain, think of a pilot in an airplane cockpit, for a professional working in their environment a great deal of capability and information can be processed through System One.  Just don’t make things complicated, and force an unnecessary engagement of System Two.  It takes deep understanding to know where this line will exist.

3. Your Product Exists to Make a Human’s Life Better  

A product could support something basic such as access to relevant time tracking data right when a manager needs it, or something as complex as supporting logistical management of aid delivery after a natural disaster.  In both cases, despite the difference in complexity the solution is really valuable to the human using the product at that moment.  With the right capability, a solution can become a valuable tool in a person’s day-to-day effort to solve problems they have willing committed large amounts of their life to solving.

4. Your Product is Part of a Larger System  

Most business solutions only provide a sub-set of the technologies that people interact with during their day at work, and an even smaller set of the tools they use to complete their work.  Many people have highly fragmented and unstructured work days and need access to capability, information, and resources at seemingly random points.  But even in that fragmentation there is a system, and if you can understand the entire system you’ll be able to better identify the triggers for when and where people need your product.  Knowing those triggers and the context around them then become powerful guides to providing a product that meets humans at the intersection of high motivation, high ability, and the trigger. If at that intersection a person reaches for your product, then you’ve moved a little closer to that emotional connection.

Humans not Robots

The key is to shift the lens away from the robotic world of feature driven checklists pulled from RFPs that were created by procurement teams, and instead see the people behind those needs.  Why do they come to work each day, and how can your product help them get closer to that purpose?  In taking this view a foundation for an emotional connection can begin to develop.

I'll be speaking more on the importance of emotional design and understanding human behavior in product design during my session, also featuring Chief Interaction Designer Matthew Brown, at the Benefitfocus One Place. 2015. conference in Orlando, FL March 9-11.