Stephen Anderson on emotional design

Paul Boag

A chef in a restaurant wants his food to be more than edible, he wants it to be delicious. As designers we should want our websites to be more than usable. Stephen Anderson shares techniques for delighting our users and ensuring they love our sites.

Paul: So joining me today is Stephen Anderson. Good to have you on the show Stephen.

Stephen:Thank you. Good to be here.

Stephen Anderson

Paul: So I heard you at SXSW this year and thought I have to get this guy on the show. You gave a brilliant talk . How would you describe it? How would you say that it was about?

Stephen:Well the phrase that I’ve started using is the title of the talk, and it’s actually caught on, is “Seductive Interactions”. It’s actually caught on in conversations where people have started saying “Oh yeah. He’s the guy that’s started talking about seductive interactions.”. as if it’s a different type of a thing. It was really just the title of the talk but it’s becoming a phrase that people are using. Basically what I’m interested in is what motivates people to take certain actions online. So if you look up the definition of seduction it’s encourage people to take up a certain behaviour. There’s a second half to that definition and it’s frequently sexual in nature but I just ignore that part and cross it off. [Laughter] But the way I talk about seduction, it’s things that happen both online and offline. They happen anywhere there are humans are involved where we have a real good time; we get seduced by whatever it is. This can be a first date which is the analogy I use in my presentation. Or It could be going going to Disney World or a good concert, any number of experiences.

Paul: So how did you get attracted to this? What’s your background? How did you end up looking at this as a subject?

Stephen:So my background if you go back about 12/15 years, I started off as a web & graphics designer. Of course there’s that period of maturity where you start thinking more about what people want to do on their site, can they find their way around the site. You start to think about usability, information architecture and those things. Then you start to think about product strategy, business goals and what we are trying to achieve here from a business perspective. Eventually where this journey has lead me is to a fascination to psychology. What makes people make certain decisions or behave in certain ways. In many ways this is full circle for me because before I started off as a designer, I was a high school English teacher, teaching in gifted and talented classrooms. At that time I really got fascinated by some of the burly brain science and some of the learning theories. Particularly around what can help students remember things or retain knowledge, what can get their attention. If you’ve got a classroom of 9th graders for 90 minutes you really need to figure out how to motivate them and how to keep them engaged. So I guess I had a trial by fire early one with young kids. But now I’m applying a lot of those things to the web context.

Paul: So this seems to be becoming a growing area in popularity. I’m seeing more written about the role of psychology in web design. How do you see it fitting into the equation alongside things like usability for example? Because it isn’t a usability issues. It’s more of an engagement issue.

Stephen: Yeah, an engagement issue or a motivation issue. In fact I draw a pyramid I called the User Experience Hierarchy of Needs Model.

Design hieratchy of needs

It’s kind of gripping on what Maslow did. I talk about how there’s basically six stages. The first is you have this great idea: something that’s functional and works. The example I used to explain this is the development of mobile phones. So you look back to the original Motorola phone, it’s this big giant brick but everyone’s jumping up and down because you don’t have to have lines; you can walk around freely. And then over time it moves up and you’ve got to work on the reliability. Let’s make the cell network more reliable. Eventually people start to think about usability It makes sense for engineers but let’s make this make sense for most people. So you start thinking about form factories, you start thinking about usability and things like that. So that’s all the bottom half of the pyramid Then the top half is the part that I’m really fascinated by. There’s often a shift from making things usable, removing the problems, removing the barriers to making it convenient. The distinction I draw there is if something;s convenient it works a lot more like I think. A clear example of this would be Google Maps. Prior to that you had Map Quest. Map Quest was a perfectly usable product but then Google Maps comes along and you can drag it, you can resize, you don’t have to click arrows. You can do all these things that are much more natural. So that’s an example of moving from a perfectly usable map system to one that’s more convenient. And then of course the highest levels are the ones that I really enjoy talking about, what makes something pleasurable. That’s where we start to engage people on an emotional level, a seductive level and make things fun. The highest level of course isn’t one that you can cause or create but it’s one that you can design the conditions for and that’s meaning. Actually designing products that add meaning to people’s lives. So if you look and go back to that mobile phone example. We had the original Motorola brick that people carried around. Then you have some efforts for making things more usable You have Sony Ericsson, a design company and an engineering company coming together to create what’s supposed to be a more usable, a more friendly phone. But there’s a point at where you have to switch from what’s the task we are trying to do to what’s the experience we are trying to create. I would roll the clock back a little bit before the iPhone and look at the original Motorola Razor and although it didn’t revolutionize the actions, it was the first mobile phone where someone said “This is the industrial design. This is the form factor I want to create. Let’s make the engineering confirm to this form factor.” So they were starting with the aesthetic experience of holding this phone, opening this phone and it was an enormous success for Motorola and then the iPhone comes redefining interactions, setting the bar for those. Of course that’s a very meaningful device for people. It’s a lot more than a phone. It’s a mobile computer device that we’re all tied too. Anyway, that’s kind of my framework and how I think about all these things. And of course when you talk about psychology and motivation, that upper half of the pyramid where you’re making things fun, meaningful, engaging, playful. All these things appeal to us on an emotional level.

Paul: So let’s talk about that idea of motivating users. Obviously most websites have a call to action, whatever that might be. What kind of techniques are you talking about here to motivate users.

Stephen: There’s definitely a lot of things that I talk about in the presentation that are more of the presentation vent. But there’s also things like how can we leverage psychology to make the message easier to understand or easier to comprehend or understand why it’s important to me. So I tried to cover all of those things. There’s easy things that people do already like testimonials. Lots of sites have testimonials and that’s an example of social proof. Where we see these big brands or familiar names or we see a lot of people endorsing something. That just puts us at easy and let’s us know I feel safer giving this entity, the site, my personal information. So that’s an easy example. I’m interested in the more playful things where you create I wouldn’t call it a game but you create a game-like experience or create something that’s very playful. The example that I use in the seductive interactions presentation is the music site iLike. There’s a little game that I’ll mention in a minute but when you are signing up on the registration process it’s pretty routine until you get to the part where they want to know what kind of music you like. If you’ve signed up for any number of music sites there’s a pretty familiar pattern or a pretty familiar point you reach in the registration where you get the familiar empty form field where it says “list you favourite bands or artist, separated by comma.” So we have to recall from memory who are our favourite bands that we like. Or we might list 5 bands and then continue on. iLike does something very different where instead of giving you the empty form field they splash up a screen of randomly selected bands and they say “Click on the ones you like.” First of all it’s a very surprising or unexpected interaction so it’s getting my attention as it wasn’t what I expected. I’m seen all these pictures of bands, most of them I recognise. Even if I don’t care for the music, I recognise the music and I don’t have to recall anything from memory. It’s just very fun. My hand doesn’t leave the mouse. Instead of going to the keyboard I can just click on things that I like. So I start doing that and there’s about 3 bands out of the 35 that I click on the first page and I get to the bottom where it asks “Do you want to see more or are you done with registering?”. Of course I haven’t clicked my favourite bands yet so of course I want to see more. End of story, I recount that I went through ten pages of clicking more they basically didn’t give me the option to continue. But it was lot of fun just doing that. Seeing what they would splash up next and would the results on page 5 be better than page 3, when they see that I’m not clicking any bands from a certain genre. So there’s not a game per say to that but it’s very playful and game like in it’s engagement. So that’s an example I use. The flip side of that, I talk about having a fun time and I think I clicked on 35 bands, the flip side of that is the business goals where these music sites really want to know what your personal tastes are. For them the gold mine is your data – what you like. So if you compare business results for a site like that versus many of these other music sites, I offered up 35 bands I like where on other sites I might only offer 4 or 5. It’s a win/win. I had a great time and they got more data out of me.

iLike Rate Artists

Paul: This issue of game like playfulness. It’s something that’s been coming up again and again recently. A lot of people are looking to the computer or video games industry for inspiration. Do you feel that there’s a difference between making a website game like and making it playful and fun?

Stephen: Absolutely. In fact I draw a distinction between game and game-like. I’m currently giving a similar talk called “Serious Play”. It’s really about how I can bring a lot of these ideas that I talk about to more traditional business applications like a college enrolment form or filling out your tax returns. These things that we traditionally consider kind of boring business apps.

Paul: Yeah because when a lot of people think about their website they think “Well there’s no way I can introduce game features into filling out a tax return”.

Stephen: Correct. Well there are actually ways you can do things like that but I what think a lot of people are doing is looking at the success of things like FourSquare and GoWalla or the site StackOverflow, which is a knowledge sharing site for programmers and developers, and they are saying “Great. How can we make our sites more game-like?” They’ll point to Four Square and say “Yeah, we want badges and we want levels. We want points. We want all these things.” I think you are seeing right now a whole wave of sites that are throwing in these very basic game mechanics: points, levels, scoreboards, achievements and so on. The comment I make is that if you are building a game, even the best game in the world, games often have an unlimited duration. So you think about that new Xbox game you get in the mail on Friday afternoon and you hibernate over weekend playing the game and you emerge Sunday night or Monday morning having completed it. There are obviously other games like FarmVille where there’s this idea of an appointment mechanic where they want you to keep coming back in short bursts over a sustained period of time. Even that, when you talk t FarmVille fans, after 3 or 4 months can get a bit tiring. That’s just one reason that I tend to shy away from making things a pure game. The other reason is that I find it kinda cheap and easy to use game mechanics. What I’m more interested in is why any of these work in the first place. Why did I care that I got a badge from FourSquare for checking in 50 times. Why is this important to me? Or more to the point the awful idea of mayorship in FourSqaure where I become the mayor of a place I check into frequently. OK It’s kind of a nice perk. I’m the mayor here because I’ve checked into a place more than anyone else but there’s a point at which someone else checks in and ousts you as the mayor and suddenly you have to drive back and go to that restaurant or go to that bar to try and reclaim your mayorship. I’m fascinated by why these work in the first place. So rather than talk about things like levels and mayorship or points, I talk about things like appropriate challenges which have universally gone back thousands of years. We love challenges. Variable rewards. The most baltant example of that being slot machines. Pattern recognition, curiosity, reputation status, social proof. These are all things that are timeless that motivate us. So if we can start with that as our basis, I think we’ll come up with creative things like mayorship rather than just copying those things. Mayorship is an example where, if you go to psychology there’s this idea of loss subversion. Once we have ownership of something we really don’t want to lose it. it’s also tied into this idea of endowment effect where we may not have valued it before we had it but now we have it we value it much more than we probably should. It may be mayorship on the surface but they are tied into these deep psychology principles.

Paul: Yeah. Are there people out there that you feel are doing this particularly well at the moment? Are there examples of sites that are particularly using these psychology principles?

Stephen: Oh yeah. I mentioned iLike and there was a second half to the iLike story where they literally created a game. A music playing game where you have to identify a song within a certain amount of time. One of the clever things there is that they introduced this idea of status by way of your best streak. When we say status a lot of the time we think of how we are standing relative to other people but status also means how you are standing relative to yourself. So if you look at the classic video games, Pac-Man, Q-Bert and things, it was “Can I beat my high score?”. For the really good people there was a leaderboard – could you be on the top 10? But for most of us it was “Can I get better than I was before?”. Which is tied back into the status. I’ve recently began using MailChimp quite a bit. I had an example or two in my presentation but I hadn’t really been a user until about a month ago. I started using their service and they have just got so many playful things built in across the site. One of these is that at the top of the page, no matter where you are at, there’s always their chimp, or their monkey, or their mascot. There are these random phrases that he says. Sometimes it’s a random phrase and he says “I kissed a chimp and I liked it”. You know, little funny things in reference to pop culture, music. Other times it’ll be links to just funny, non-secular videos like who would win in the challenge between Chuck Norris and Iron Man. It’s a link and you click to it and there’s a YouTube video where someone has the Iron Man action figure and a Chuck Norris action figure and there are fighting it out. It’s just fun stuff not really tied to the task you are doing on the site. But what MailChimp is that people using the site, doing these tasks that are not necessiarly the most enjoyable things in the world but they are smiling, in a good mood while they are using this. People have talked about “I was doing my newsletter and I looked up and saw the chimp and I just smiled. It just made me feel better.” And the interesting thing there is that there’s quite a bit of psychology around our emotions and how we are more relaxed or in a happy state of mind where we are more likely to find workarounds to troubling situations. Dan Norman talks about this in his book called Emotional Design. Talks about an ATM study where the more attractive ATM was perceived as easier to use. The interesting thing is that you can go back to studies in the forties and there’s a very famous study where they ask people to… it was a creative problem challenge where you had to figure out how get a box of matches stuck to a wall or hold up a candle to the wall. I’m getting fuzzy on the details but basically what they found from that was that people that we agitated and of a foul disposition where much less likely to find the solution compared to those that were in a more relaxed state of mind. We see this in other areas such as brain storming. Part of the reason why it’s good to get everyone relaxed and comfortable at the beginning of a brain storming session is so that our brains are able to make those connections. All these ideas are really human principles that can be applied any place a humans involved whether it’s online, offline or whatever the interaction may be.

Get Mental Notes Resources

Paul: Some of these things almost feel a little counter-intuitive when you’ve come from that school of usability. For example, you talked at once stage about making things challenging and actually from a usability perspective that’s the last thing you want to do. You want to make things easier. Then on the other hand you talked about MailChimp and about how they put a link to a video to outside of the work flow of what they are doing. They are actually distracting users from what they are doing at any particular time. There’s a bit of a balance here I’m guessing.

Stephen:Yeah there’s definitely a balance. You’ve got to evaluate everything based on what the context is. But there are some things that are, as you say, counter-intuitive For example, putting in constraints where you might put in a restraint on a review that you can write about someone. It might see counter-intuitive to do so but that introduction of scarcity, in this case character scarcity, actually encourages people to respond because they feel like “OK so 400 characters. That’s easy it won’t take more than 5 minutes of my time.” The site I’m referring to is a site called Ripple. If I wrote to my peers and said “Hey. Give me a review of how I’m doing” our instant response is “I don’t have time for this” or “It’s going to take a lot longer than I have”. But if it’s limited to 400 or 200 characters then it’s a trivial task. So there are those examples. I talk about curiosity and how actually plain hard to get, to go back to the data analogy actually encourages or increases interest, participation or engagement. The fundamental idea of curiosity is that you’re teasing people with specific details that intice them to want to know more. A great online example is LinkedIn where if you roll the clock back on LinkedIn a one point there was this big brick wall where they say “If you sign up, pay our monthly fee, here are all the great things you can get.” So traditional value pitch. Then you have all the personal stuff that you can see what’s freely available. They kind of moved that wall over a bit and they started teasing people with little details. So for example someone at Apple looked at your profile this week. Or a CEO in the gaming space looked at your profile this week. So they are giving you very specific details that are specific to you but if you want to know who in Apple looked at your profile or what CEO in what gaming company was looking at you, you’ve got to pay to get full access to that information. So that’s a great example of using curiosity Definitely some of this is counter-intuitive or seems like it would run contrary to what we know. With the gaming conversations one thing a lot of people would say about gaming is, and to a certain extent playfulness, is that these are definitely less efficient ways of doing things but by trading off efficiency you get more engagement and more involvement A simple example that I saw on a site a few weeks ago… I don’t know how to describe it. It’s in the mall or the shopping centre that you might go to and there are these funnels where you can put a penny or a quarter in and watch the coin spiral down over a period of 20 or 30 seconds. It gets faster and faster till it goes into a bucket. It’s just a playful experience but it’s fun to watch a coin spiral around. But if you peel away the playfulness of that experience part, all you are doing is pulling a coin out of your pocket and throwing it in a bucket. But if people put the bucket in the middle of the shopping centre, no-one would do it. So they are adding this playfulness, adding this inefficiency.

Paul: I think sometimes we tend to forget that we’re not mindless automatons. We’re not robots as human beings. We don’t always do things in the most efficient way and we don’t desire to do things in the most efficient way. I think that a lot of the time with the usability background that we have, and the way that we have been approaching web design for years, it’s all about taking off the rough edges. It’s all about making that process as simple as possible but perhaps we dehumanise it a little bit in the process.

Stephen: Absolutely and I think we with usability you definitely want to remove the barriers in the UI or the interaction. But I think there’s this idea that the interaction or the experience needs to be easy. What we know from all different realms, from cognitive science to psychology, is that where it’s easy, people get bored and aren’t engaged. In fact the all refining is where people really learn or really can devote to hours or days of their time is when you create an interesting challenge or interesting problem or put out a curious question. Those are the kinds of things that our brains reform and in response to those we get a little bit of a high from solving a difficult challenge. So something that we biologically crave is these challenges. Nothing too difficult though or else we’ll give up. But nothing to easy or we’ll get bored. So I think the trick is to use that appropriate challenge that increases people’s interest and engagement. There was a study with I think it was kindergartener’s I think it was elementary grade school. The teacher would present the children with an interesting question or challenge in one test case. In the other test case the teacher just presented the raw facts. In the case where it was presented as a question that the students had to figure out the answer to a good percentage of the students, the majority of them, actually worked through their recess time to solve the problem. So I think wow! If you can look at elementary kids who are giving up recess and time to go outside on the playground to solve this geography problem or whatever it was, I can’t remember. That’s powerful stuff.

Paul: Absolutely. You played this little mind game on your audience at South By. Because you teased us. Right at the end of the session you gave out these mental note cards and you gave us a little sample of them. I’ve been champing at the bit waiting for the actual ones to be released. Tell us a little bit about those. I just think it’s such a brilliant idea and I really would encourage everyone to get their hands on them when you release them. Explain what they are.

Stephen: So I’ve been mentioning all these principles from psychology and again my background is design. I’m a designer. I don’t have a degree in congitive science or psychology But as I started reading a lot of these research papers or these business texts. Some are just popular best sellers like Predictably Irrational. Things on influence like Robert Cialdini’s book on influence and persuasion As I started reading these I started taking notes on things that they were talking about with the idea of: How can I use this on my next project, my next website or my next iPhone app? How could I use whatever the finding was from this research on this project? I think there’s a very real problem where we come across all these great ideas but then we get into the project we focus on the basic usability things; we’re just getting the project done on time. We don’t leave time and we forget about all these really creative things that make our work exciting. And so out of that I started putting each idea on a separate index card and ended up with a stack of these ideas and cards. I would pull them out whether I was in the middle of a project or beginning a new project. The idea was basically how can we use or leverage this idea from psychology? This thing we know from human behaviour to accomplish a particular behavioural or business goal. So the example I use is let’s say you are trying to get my more people to sign up on the home page. That’s your goal. You need more people to click on that. It could be anything. To get people to come back again. Whatever your business goals are. I translate that to a behavioural goal if it’s not one already. What do you we want people to do on the site? Then the idea is that you pull out one of these cards and say “How can we use curiosity to get more people to register?”. Or “How could we social proof to get more people to register”. The card will offer the definition of that idea and then list some suggested application ideas to get things going. But the idea is that you would draw one of these cards and you would, as a group or by yourself, sit on it for a good 10/15 minutes brainstorming different ways you could apply that principle. A great example, I mentioned social proof earlier on and I mentioned testimonials, and that’s a very clichÈ almost over used way to leverage social proof, but you look at something like There was a campaign about six months ago to fix Outlook basically. When you have to do emails where you basically have to custom write code for Outlook. You can’t just use CSS or standard mark-up So the campaign was designed to get more people involved and promote this petition against this. They used social proof in a really clever way where when you went to the site, they had the message front and centre in a floating box but the entire background was comprised of these avatars from people who had

Paul: Oh yeah. I remember seeing this.

Stephen: yeah, yeah. The thing is that this wallpaper of avatars, you saw a thousand faces staring at your, was refreshing every 10 or 15 seconds. If you hovered over a face you could actually see or read their comment. it was a very powerful and very visual way of literally being able to see the social proof, to see that lots of people are engaged and behind them, supporting this campaign. I don’t know if they said “How can we use social proof?” or how they came about that idea but the idea of the cards is that you would be able to come up with ideas like that. By focusing on one principle, one thing we know about human behaviour and saying how can we use it to solve this very specific problem.

Paul: So when are these cards going to be out? When are we going to be able to get our hands on them?

Stephen: I’m wrapping up the work right now and I’m shipping off to the printer late next week.

Paul: Oh excellent.

Stephen: It’s coming along. Print time and the packaging and all that, they’ll be wrapped up at the end of May and they’ll be shipping the first week of June. So my year and a half long journey on these cards is nearing the end, or the beginning depending on how you want to look at it. I’m quite excited to get my hands on those. I have been able to test pilot at some workshops I’ve done. I’ve just been blown away by the response.

Paul: Absolutely. Even with that little preview set that you gave out, we’ve been using them. They’ve been immensely useful. You can find out more about those at At the moment you can pre-order them for $38. So if you are quick and get it in before they actually come out you’ll get it at a discounted price. You get 50 in a pack is it?

Stephen: 52.

Paul: 52. Of course.

Stephen: A lot of people give me a hard time of calling it a deck and not having 52 cards so, hey, I went in and few in a few extra cards.

Paul: That’s good. So for people that are impatient and can’t be bothered to wait for the cards. They want to get into this now. They feel all inspired by what you are saying. Are they any resources that you can recommend? Places that they can go to read up a little bit more on psychology I know you are intending to write a book yourself. Is that correct?

Stephen: That is correct. There’s been a lot of interest in this seductive interaction talk that I give. There’s a lot more ideas than 45 minutes allows to share. I’ve turned that presentation that you’ve seen at SXSW into an all day workshop. That of course that workshop is helping me refine and feed into a book that I’m writing that should be out in time for next year’s SXSW.

Paul: So how about in the meantime? Where can people go? is there a lot of content on the web about this or is it under represented?

Stephen: There is content but it’s just highly fragmented. Again one of the things that I found is that there is always different fields that aren’t talking to each other or aren’t even aware of each other. You don’t see a lot of connections. So a lot of my work isn’t going deep enough. I’m just looking broadly across these different fields. Cognitive science, behavioural economics, neural science, psychology, game design. So one thing I’ve started to do, and it’s still pretty basic, I’ve got a resources section on the Get Mental Notes sites.

Paul: Oh yeah. So you do. You know I didn’t notice that.

Stephen: It’s new. So I’m listing some of the general resources I’ve got through there. My plan with the cards is also to release those online in a wiki format. What I’ll do is for every card will get it’s own page. The goal when that’s released is that people will share ways they use that principle on their project or examples in the wild that people have found. I think that’s key as you only have two or three ideas that you can put on a card. Those ideas are already out of date before the cards have even go to printing. The principles are timeless but the applications are the things that I hope to see a conversation start up around. That’s been the fun part with the workshop. I’ve put out these ideas. I issue a creative design challenge and then I see what comes back. I’ve just been blown away by the ideas that people come up with. There’s some great start up ideas that have come out of some of these workshops.

Paul: That sounds absolutely superb.

Stephen: I’ll just point people to that resources section because I’ve started listing books.

Paul: Yeah I can see. I’m looking at it now.

Stephen: That would be a good single place to start.

Paul: You’ve got two books in there that I instantly that are Made To Stick and None. There are loads of good stuff. I think I’ve mentioned those two on the show but I don’t think I’ve mentioned any of the others. It’s great to check out – Thank you so much Stephen. That was brilliant. Really good to have you on the show. It’s an area that I’m absolutely fascinated by and I can see myself spending a fortune on all the books in your resources section [Laughter].

Stephen: I’ve spent a fortune on them myself.

Paul: I’ll make sure that I keep some back for your book when it comes out as well. Thank you very much for coming on the show. I would very much like to get you back on some point in the future as well.

Stephen: It would be fantastic. So thank you Paul.

Paul: Thank you.

Thanks goes to Lee Theobald for transcribing this interview.

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