Can a utilitarian product be fun? How about a business website? I’ve finally got around to reading Don Norman’s latest book, Emotional Design, and in this and perhaps future entries we’ll discuss some of his insights. Norman is a human factors expert best known for his book, The Design of Everyday Things. He’s also in a partnership with web usability guru, Jakob Nielsen. The latter is famous for his preference for spartan web site design, exemplified by his own useit.com site.
The underlying thesis of Norman’s book is that perception of and even usability of a product (or website) are affected, sometimes strongly, by emotional interaction with the user. This is a departure both from his past writings and also, seemingly, from his partner Nielsen. In the past, Norman emphasized functional design. A wall of perfectly smooth cupboard doors, for example, provide no clue as to how to open them and are frustrating to the new user. Attractive design, but awful usability, right? The new Norman (Norman 2.0?) would recognize that the owner of a stunningly modern kitchen would derive emotional satisfaction from the sleek design of the cupboards and would readily tolerate the minor, short term inconvenience of learning how to retrieve a dinner plate.
One of the chapters in Emotional Design is Fun and Games. Norman recognizes that one of the emotional characteristics a product design can embody is fun or playfulness, and that for many users this can be a powerful draw. He shows a couple of examples, the first being a cute tea strainer designed by Stefano Pirovano and made by Alessi. It appears to be a little seated figure holding a metal basket for straining the tea leaves; in use on a mug, though, it transforms itself, now appearing to be a figure clinging to the rim of the mug. This evokes smiles when viewed, and Norman thinks that it’s a good example of fun design.
Another example is a juice extractor designed by Phillipe Starck – it looks like a cross between a War of the Worlds tripod and a chrome spider. What makes this product fun, Norman says, is that it is both attractive and, more importantly, surprising to the user. At first, its appearance is striking but its function isn’t obvious – the little surprise that occurs when a user guess or is told its purpose is the fun part.
Web sites can be fun, too. Norman contrasts Google’s playful use of an ever-longer Gooooogle logo to show how many pages of search results were found with the utilitarian, emotion-free approach of competitors Yahoo and MSN. This tiny bit of whimsy creates a positive user feeling without diminishing the user’s perception of the utility of the site.
Clearly, playful web design isn’t appropriate for all situations – incorporating humorous elements in sites devoted to injury law, oncology, etc. would alienate more viewers than it would attract. Still, who would have thought that a search engine could be a playful site? It’s quite possible that a few sites in serious niches, like heavy machinery builders or church sites, could differentiate themselves by striking a lighter note.
I think there are a couple of important considerations for a site considering a more playful approach. First, humor is a tricky thing – be sure to use “good” humor, i.e., humor that has broad appeal and is unlikely to offend anyone. Your objective isn’t to create a stream of gags that reads like a Jay Leno monologue. Rather, it’s to add a few grace notes that shows you have a sense of humor.
Second, and more important, is maintaining consistency. The site itself should be consistent – plugging a Flash game into an otherwise dry business site makes no sense at all. Google, by comparison, adds multiple playful notes; most obvious is their home page logo which of often features cartoon characters or other modifications to reflect a holiday or some kind of anniversary. Elsewhere, you’ll see flashes of humor in the text. The overall impression adds up to an image something like, “Yes, we’re really smart, but we’re fun people, too. We do great work, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” (Clever strategy for a firm some people think is bent on domination, or at least monetization, of everything. :)) Adding a bit of play on your website should just be one element in shaping the image of your business. Other elements of the business should be consistent – both external communications and the character of the business. Google, like many tech companies, encourages a work environment that may be intense at times but which retains room for fun and personal interests. Hence, there’s reinforcement of a playful, relaxed company image rather than dissonance.
Do you know of a stuffy website that could benefit from a little loosening up? Would that more relaxed website personality engender more trust from visitors, and increase their comfort level in doing business with the site? If so, consider building in a bit of playfulness. It could increase the site’s bond with its visitors, and might even make them a bit forgiving if some aspect of the site that doesn’t quite meet their expectations.
One example of incorporating a more playful personality I worked on involved a popular feature on web site: an “advice” column in which visitor questions were answered by an expert. Simply by having the primary responder let her natural wit and sense of humor show through in her responses, that portion of the site was transformed from a dry, stodgy question and answer feature into something that communicated not only the expertise of the company but also its personality.
As Nielsen notes in a subsequent chapter, people tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects – they yell at their computer, and assign trust levels to devices ranging from kitchen implements to the gauges in their car. Imagine you visited two restaurants, one where you are served by an exceptionally friendly and helpful waiter with a good sense of humor, and one where your waiter is professional but haughty and uncommunicative except for taking your order and answering direct questions. If your dinner arrives from the kitchen with a minor problem, in which case are you more likely to shrug it off vs. vowing to never return? Most people would be far more forgiving of the restaurant perceived to e friendly, helpful, and more “human”. Now, if you have a website, which restaurant would you prefer to resemble? (But don’t try TOO hard to be playful – we’ve all had a waiter that was overly familiar or that talked too much. Find the right balance – Google has.)