Designing using emotion and personality with Aarron Walter

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Web Show we talk about building your online personality with Aarron Walter.

Skip to the interview or this week’s links.

This week’s show is sponsored by the teams at Opera and Media Temple. Why wouldn’t they with Abby on the show.

Paul: Hello and welcome to, the podcast for all those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul Boag and joining me as always is Marcus of the Lillingtons!

Marcus: Of the Lillington Clan?

Paul: Yes.

Marcus: I don’t know how much use I am going to be to you today.

Paul: Why? What’s your problem? You’ve always got an excuse.

Marcus: No, I was on top form last week. I made that up, I have no idea I probably was not. I do have a genuine excuse this week, other than I have a million things to do and things keep breaking, but anyway that’s by the by. I’m just really tired.

Paul: That’s not a genuine excuse!

Marcus: Oh alright. I’ll explain why. I went to see a friend of mine, a band friend of mine who lives in Christchurch in Dorset.

Paul: Lovely place – a lovely part of the world is Dorset.

Marcus: Isn’t it just? But anyway, he always comes up to us for Band practices, there is seven of us, so it’s fair enough. But we did say, Andy – we’ll come down to see you. This was in January, and we finally got around to go down to see him last night. This was in Christchurch. I was driving, so it wasn’t like boozy or anything like that, and we left his about 11.30pm and basically most of the roads on the way home were closed, including the M3. So I got back in about 2.00 – 2.30am.

Paul: I don’t care. I don’t care.

Marcus: So I am a little bit…. Zzzz.

Paul: You should have drunk a Redbull and got yourself on the show.

Marcus: Oh no, that makes me feel horrible. I don’t like Redbull, unless it’s got some alcohol with it. Then it’s different.


Paul: Hey, let’s talk about something far more important. Me.

Marcus: I was going to say, it’s got something to do with you no doubt.

Paul: I wasn’t actually, it wasn’t what I was going to say at all. I just threw that in at the last minute. Have you encountered Meerkat and Periscope?

Marcus: No.

Paul: Oh, you are missing out on the new revolution man! It’s what all the cool kids are doing!

Marcus: Here we go. How long is this going to last with you?

Paul: About 30 seconds. Actually I think it’s quite interesting. It’s been around for years. Isn’t it funny how things have their moment in time? Essentially these are two apps that have come out at a pretty much identical time. One is produced, I believe by Twitter – Periscope is produced by Twitter. The other one Meerkat is built on Twitter, so it’s designed to integrate with Twitter. Basically both of them allow you to stream video of anything. So you can just start it and stream, and people can comment on what you are doing and engage with you in a lively and interesting manner.

Marcus: Ok.

Paul: And there’s something strangely addictive about it. I must have spent 20 to 30 minutes yesterday, watching Natalie Downs show me her guinea pigs. And that’s not a euphemism.


Marcus: I don’t understand why was she showing you the guinea pigs in the first place?

Paul: This is the weird thing about it, people are streaming their drive to work and their walk along the beach or whatever. See there was something like this years ago, called Quick but it was before there was decent 4G internet around so it never really caught on. But this seems to be going ballistic. It went nuts with Meerkat at South by Southwest. Periscope has just come out and seems to have gone nuts as well. And it’s the in thing. So every now and again, my phone beeps and says one of my friends is streaming some piece of video.

Marcus: So rather than saying ‘I am eating my toast’….

Paul: … you show them!

Marcus: This is what’s wrong with Twitter isn’t it.

Paul: You can’t see the interaction of eating the toast. I want to see someone chew. That is my dream.

Marcus: And that’s it. You can hang your boots up after that has happened.

Paul: We’re done with the internet at that point.

I’ve also quite enjoyed doing it as well. I’ve had a couple of little goes.

Marcus: What? Eating your toast?

Paul: Well no. I’ve decided to be a little bit more interesting by talking. Actually I don’t know whether that is more interesting. But the first time I was talking about technology and about Periscope and Meerkat are the next evolution and it won’t be long before we will be walking around and streaming our lives all the time. And I got into the privacy issues surrounding that. And the second time I was just talking about happiness and success and it’s really good because you’re videoing but you’re chatting with people at the same time, and they’re commenting back. I like it.

Marcus: What if no one is watching or commenting back?

Paul: At the moment, that’s not a problem as I think it’s all relatively new. So it’s like as soon as you put a video live, everyone jumps on it because people have downloaded and installed the app but they don’t necessarily want to broadcast. So at the moment there are more listeners than broadcasters. Eventually that will change and yes, you will be competing for people. At the moment, when I start a periscope talky thing it immediately posts that to Twitter. That’s the idea, it’s integrated with Twitter, so if you have followers on Twitter then they are going to come and watch you on the video.

Marcus: But what if they’ve got something else to do, like… anything?

Paul: See that’s the thing. People haven’t got anything better to do. Now what happens, you pick your moments. I did one just before this podcast, because I know Friday afternoon, nobody’s doing anything are they? And also, the other thing with Periscope – I haven’t gotten as into Meerkat, because simply it has the ugliest interface that has ever been created, ever, no offence to the designer who created it.


Marcus: The ugliest interface ever – no offence?

Paul: Yes.


Ok let me re-word that. It is not in line with my personal design aesthetics. Does that sound better?

Marcus: It does sound better.

Paul: Yes, obviously you are recording it as well, and then it gets uploaded, so people can watch me eat toast later.

Marcus: Yes I get the idea of looking at videos, that’s what YouTube is. But I am not sure I am just going to drop everything because someone is videoing eating their toast.

Paul: You’re getting old. I can see the kids seriously getting into this. I think it’s the future of everything. I think the internet, the webpages are dead now. This is it. This is what it’s all about.

The thing that annoys me most about the future of the web, bearing in mind this is it. Is that all the videos have been in bloody portrait.

Marcus: Oh right yes.


See I told you!

Paul: See this is what amuses me. We now have a conflict of culture. On one hand you have all these apps and everybody is recording their videos portrait. And then you record a major incident – someone recorded yesterday a skyscraper collapsing, so it was new, important news. And of course the video is unusable by mainstream media because it’s portrait instead of landscape.

Marcus: Well that’s stupid, isn’t it.

Paul: Exactly.

Marcus: They would have sat around the table and said ‘Well is it going to be portrait or landscape?’ And portrait won? Why?

Paul: Well that’s how people hold their cameras isn’t it. It’s quite an old fashioned view to say videos should be landscape. I actually think they should, it annoys me when videos are in portrait. But why? Give me a legitimate reason? Because TVs are that shape? That’s shit.

Marcus: And your computer monitor is, and you can turn your phone on it’s side. If I take a still image with my phone I can do it either way.

Paul: Yes you should be able to do it either. Anyway. There you go.

So I thought I’d mention it, because then it makes this podcast look like it’s topical.

Marcus: Fair enough. I will go and have a look, definitely.

Paul: Well you want to be watching mine, obviously. You know you want to watch me eat toast.

Marcus: I really don’t if I’m being completely honest. Maybe listening to you talk about happiness.

Paul: Yes, I’m talking about happiness and talking about the future of technology. I’m going to talk about productivity too – I’ve decided that’s going to be my next one. I learnt a new acronym. A.M.A. I never knew that one. Do you know that one?

Marcus: No.

Paul: Ask Me Anything. So apparently after this video, I have got to do an Ask Me Anything session. Sounds dodgy to me.

Marcus: That does sound very, very dodgy.

Paul: You’re opening a can of worms. But not it’s been said on the podcast I have to do it, otherwise people will say ‘Whatever happened to your AMA session?’ ‘I LOL’d at your AMA session’.

Marcus: Yes… my brains not working at all. I’m just going to giggle along and dribble.

Paul: I can tell. You’re not really contributing to the podcast I can tell – as normal.


Marcus: That hurt.

Paul: You’re just a comedy side kick. Do you remember back in the day when Chris Evans was at his height and was on Radio One, on the Breakfast Show? He used to have people that I swear he just paid to laugh. That’s all they did, just sat there and laughed at his joke. Well you are that. Although you’re not paid.

Marcus: Yes, I was going to say. But I’m that dribbley today I didn’t pick up on the fact that I’m not being paid.

Paul: But what’s even worse is that this is a really good advert for Headscape. Hire Headscape and you could get a sleepy Marcus working on your project. That’s great isn’t it!

Marcus: One of the reasons I am tired is that I am so busy working on projects, preparing for projects. So there you go.

Paul: So yes, there we go. Shall we talk about our sponsor this week?

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Talking about cool apps, actually, this is a very cool app. This is Opera Coast. Because you know Opera has been sponsoring it. And you’ve already downloaded the Opera browser, which has become your default browser.

Marcus: And it still is.

Paul: And it still is? Two whole weeks later?

Marcus: I know, it’s amazing isn’t it.

Paul: I’m gobsmacked. You could be lying of course.

Marcus: No I’m not lying at all. I suspect it will continue to be my default browser forever now.

Paul: Because you are just too lazy to change it. Until like, Chrome sponsor the show.

Marcus: It’s fine though. It does the job perfectly well.

Paul: There are a lot of people who listen to this have actually gone and downloaded it and they have been Tweeting about it. And it is extraordinarily fast. I thought it was just me but it’s really good over my shit internet connection at home. But anyway that’s not what we are talking about.

We’re talking about Opera Coast which is an IOS app. And this really is a really cool application. It’s just going ‘Right, screw all the normal things we think about a browser, we’re just going to do it as we want to in a totally different way’. Because if you think of it, the UI of a browser hasn’t really changed in 20 years. You have the bar along the top with the address bar. You’ve got backwards and forwards buttons and home and all that. It’s just not changed really. They’ve hidden a bit more of it, and it spans to show the address bar, and even on the mobile phones, all they’ve done is scale down the desktop version. It’s not exactly imaginative thinking is it?

So what these guys have done, which is really weird isn’t it, because you get apps, such cool apps with cool touch devices and swiping and all these kind of things and then browsers that are stuck in 1994. So what Opera have done is recreate the browser as if it’s a cool IOS app. So it’s got this really clean simple interface that provides a really good browsing experience for a touch device. There’s no toolbars, there’s no small little buttons, there’s no clutter, none of that kind of stuff and it feels more like an app. And what’s really good is that when you open it up, your websites, the websites that you visit often, they feel like apps as well. So the websites are presented like applications so you can full screen. It’s just such a better way of approaching the browser. So it’s very cool, very cool indeed. Definitely worth downloading. Obviously because it’s Opera it’s incredibly fast. It’s got loads of suggestions in it, which is really cool and it’s using the same Opera turbo caching wiz stuff and the same Opera Mini technology but it’s completely different interface. So it still does the aggressive caching and compresses sites and compresses videos so you don’t buffer as much. All the kind of stuff we were talking about last week. And it takes a different approach to security as well, so it basically simplifies the whole security thing. Instead of getting all these different messages ‘Is it secure, is it private, does it do this, does it do that, has it got malware?’ it makes it all so much more simpler. It works across both the iPhone and the iPad and will synch automatically between the two with no set up. It just does stuff. Go play with it. The only thing I don’t like about it is the logo. I don’t like their logo. So what are you going to do about it Opera? You may be a sponsor on the show, but I don’t like your logo. There. I’ve said it. Next time I see Bruce Lawson who we’ve had on the show, I’ll have a fight with him over the logo.

Marcus: That would be quite funny, you two.

Paul: It would really, it would be quite pathetic I think. Let’s be honest, Bruce would beat the shit out of me wouldn’t he.

Marcus: I think he might have done once, but not sure about now.

Paul: You reckon?

Marcus: No.

Paul: You reckon he’s over the hill do you? He’s past his prime? I hope he’s listening to this.

Marcus: He was an angry punk once, I don’t know if he still is.

Paul: Anyway, shall we talk about our interview?

Marcus: Who’s on this week?

Paul: So Aarron Walter is on this week, the Director of UX at MailChimp. He’s also the author of ‘Designing with Emotion’. You could interpret that two ways, couldn’t you? Because it could be designing to add emotion in, which I think is what it is, but I prefer to imagine it as you’re designing while crying a lot.

Marcus: Or angry.

Paul: Or really kind of stabbing those pixels. I don’t know. I’m in a really strange mood. He speaks all around the world, he’s taught design at colleges and universities across the US and Europe for nearly a decade. I didn’t know he did that. I also didn’t know that he has provided design guidance to help the White House, the US Department of State and others.

He helped the White House – how cool is that?

Marcus: He’s very cool.

Paul: Very grown up and proper.

Marcus: He’s a cool designer. He’s got a lot of good things to say.

Paul: He has, so shall we hear what he has to say? We are talking to him, unsurprisingly about emotion in design and personality, online personality. So here we go with the interview, where I am not in such a ridiculously strange mood.

Interview with Aarron Walter

Aarron Walter
Aarron Walter is Director of UX at Mailchimp and author of Designing for Emotion.

Paul: So Aarron, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s really great to have you.

Aarron: Oh my pleasure, happy to be here.

Paul: Have you been on the show before? I’m struggling to remember.

Aarron: I have, but it’s been a very long time. It’s been a couple of years at least, I think.

Paul: Wow.

Marcus: I can’t remember that at all. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention that day.

Aarron: It must have been a stellar interview then.

Marcus: I probably wasn’t in on the interview that time. I don’t do all of them.

Paul: To be honest it’s probably more of a reflection of Marcus’s growing senility if anything I think.


Marcus: Fair point.

Paul: Great to have you on the show. You’ve become this kind of poster boy or not so much you, but MailChimp and my extension you, have become this kind of poster boy for creating brands with real personality and character. And that’s what I want to talk a little bit about today if you don’t mind.

Aarron: Yes, sounds good.

Paul: And all the great stuff you’ve been doing around brand identity and that kind of stuff. Because no offence meant but when you talk about a newsletter/email marketing platform, it’s not the sexiest of products really?

Aarron: It’s really not. It’s one of those things that people need to do it. They need to send emails and they don’t necessarily want to do it. That’s probably why to us, creating a really great experience is important. Because we know it’s like the last thing on the person’s to do list. They have to send emails and they have to have sent it yesterday, so they are under a little bit of stress.

Paul: And it’s the way that you’ve manage to strike that balance so well. Of making an experience like that a very easy to do, very straightforward, but at the same time you’ve injected some personality and some character and just the occasional little thing that makes you smile and grabs your attention. So it’s that kind of stuff I want to look at.

To start with, from your perspective and the work that you’ve done over the years. What do you feel the key component is, that you should be considering as you build your brand online? As you’ve worked on the MailChimp brand over the years. What do you keep your eye on, if that makes sense?

Aarron: Well, I feel like the brands that create the best experiences, they don’t have fears or preconceived notions about putting themselves into their work. I think that for a long time, people have thought like when we make things in our professional lives we have to check ourselves at the door. We have to be very buttoned up and proper. And there is certainly a place for that, for creating a very professional brand experience but I think that you can be professional and not be devoid of humanity. And I think that if you’re going to make a really great product, making it an experience where people just feel like they understand or they get a glimpse of the people behind the product that makes it a lot more memorable. It certainly makes it a lot more tolerable. To tolerate an experience where you might not necessarily want to be doing this work, or you don’t want to spend… it’s not your life’s goal to sit in an application for the next two hours. So how do you make that more enjoyable and more tolerable and help people get their work done by making them feel better. I think a big part of it is just being yourself and putting yourself into your work.

Paul: It strikes me that there is a bit of a balance to strike here. For example the MailChimp brand is interesting. Because I’ve worked with the app for a number of years now and it’s kind of evolved over time. I feel like I am sensing you finding the sweet spot here between the kinds of professionalism, the clean, slick user experience that allows people to do what they want to do with minimal clutter, and minimal fuss and also keeping that element of personality and humour. For example, I’ve noticed you’ve become a little more clean and simple than you’ve used to be. So some of the little things that used to be in the interface have disappeared, things like the MailChimp’s arm popping off, or the little link to a YouTube video and those kind of things. What went on there to lead you from where you were to where you are and getting that balance?

Aarron: Yes we’ve run a lot of experiments over the years and early on I was experimenting and there are sometimes where the experiment went well, and sometimes when they didn’t go so well. When we were small and it wasn’t such a big customer base at the time and it was very US centric, it was a lot easier that a sense of humour was easy to manage and it wouldn’t blow up in your face. And you could take some liberties that were a lot of fun for us. Then we grew a lot and most of our customer base is now outside the United States and so we have to think about cultural scenarios and cultural situations where American sense of humour doesn’t always play well in different places.

It’s always fascinated me that the United States and the UK were siblings to a certain degree and yet we are so different with certain cultural things. There were some places where humour and informality in certain places did not play very well in the UK.

Paul: Can you give us an example? Sorry to interrupt you.

Marcus: I am dying to know.

Paul: Yes that’s too tempting isn’t it.

Aarron: Yes, so I can’t give you one specific example but the general perception that we would hear from time to time from people in the UK was ‘This is not professional, I am trying to do business here and this is not how you should do business’. So it was the perception of what’s proper and what’s not.

Marcus: Isn’t that funny, I think that we think, the same but the other way around. We think that Americans are more kind of corporate and worried about professionalism and we are more fun. Isn’t that weird?

Paul: It is weird because I would have said exactly the same Marcus because we associate ourselves with the Monty-Python bizarre, off the wall sense of humour and yet the feedback you were getting wasn’t in line with that.

Aarron: And another thing was that a joke that plays well in the US might not play well in the UK. It’s not that it’s ill placed but that it’s just not as funny as it doesn’t play that sense of humour. So the take away I learned and I saw a lot of my colleagues learning with all of these experiments through the years was that when you are injecting personality into a professional application that’s used by millions of people around the world, there is a lot of complexity and nuance to be considered.

And so where things are requisitioned, where you go all out, it has to be very carefully considered based on the emotional context. How does the person feel at that moment? And there are so few places where you can actually make a pretty strong prediction about this is how they feel right now. And there are sometimes, if it’s a stressful moment where it’s an error or something or there’s some kind of notification that a servers down, something is not as it should be, any sort of humour or informality there just exacerbates the situation, just makes people feel mistrustful, like they are not being taken seriously. And that’s just very dangerous.

That’s a lesson that we learned very early on. But for us Paul, I think you nailed it that we are slowly refining and sanding off the edges, trying to figure out how that works. And to some degree personality comes through just in type choices and layout and colour and that survives in multicultural user base pretty well for the most part. There are some places where colour choices communicate differently. But for us, after you send an email campaign, actually right before you are about to press the send button, which is super scary for people, because they’ve worked on the email for a long time and they are about to get it out, there is this fear that with email you can’t suck it back in. Send it and it’s gone. And if you have a mistake it’s just out there for everyone to see. So the animation, there is a sequence of animations, before you press send there is Freddy’s finger over a big red button and he’s sweating. Sweat is pouring off his arm onto the button. And so you press send and afterwards you get this high five animation and that’s one of those places we know that emotional context. Because we are customers and we use our own products and we send to lots of people. And we know that stress, and we know afterwards that it feels like ‘Man I just want a cocktail right now as I’ve finally got this thing off my To Do list’.

And that high five experience, it really resonates with people and connects. We spend a lot of time on the animations, but we didn’t spend a ton of time having to think where to place that, because we knew that was what people felt at that time in the process. And I feel now after all those experiments that’s the most powerful experience that we’ve created in terms of emotional design and personality in the design. People remember that. They remember that and they talk to people about that.

Paul: I guess I’ve got two follow up questions from that. I’ll do them one at a time to give you a chance.

The first one is how do you test that? How do you establish what is working and what is not? Because we’re not talking about dropout rates or bounce rates, this is emotional elements of personality and those kind of things and they are much more abstract concepts. So how do you go about testing as to whether they are resonating well?

Aarron: Well, this question speaks to a larger issue I have with our industry which is this obsession with numbers and data and proof. Wanting proof and that proof happens when you quantify and count things. And there certainly could be a process that we could develop where we could go ‘count all of the tweets and the photos posted to Instagram and Facebook’ with people actually high fiving their screen. And we see videos of people actually high fiving their screen so hard that they knock over their iMac. We see that stuff but we don’t necessarily need to quantify it to know that that is ‘working’. What does that really mean to have that work? Because what’s at stake? You’ve already completed that process. There is not much at stake. What’s at stake is really what the perception of MailChimp as a brand and the experience inside of the app. And those things are so impossible to count and I often feel like we get too obsessed to be counting everything. And there is a place for that to be quantitative, but there is also a place to be qualitative. And that’s something I think is just underappreciated. And so in a nutshell, we don’t count it, we don’t try to quantify.

Paul: You say you don’t quantify it, but you are still monitoring how people are responding to it through social networks and YouTube videos and the rest of it? Is that a fair comment?

Aarron: It’s fair. We see it and we know that people are talking about it and therefore it’s struck a chord. And so if we see any comments on it we wouldn’t necessarily think ‘Oh this isn’t working we need to go kill it’ I think we probably arrive at that decision at some point when we decide we’re changing the design of this work flow and this thing, I don’t know whether it’s terribly important to keep but we wouldn’t make that decision driven by numbers.

Paul: No that makes sense. That brings me onto the second part of this. Is that as you’ve gone on and you’ve moved out of the US market and you’ve become more of a grown up company for want of a better word, do you feel you’ve lost something in personality by having to do some of these trade-offs? Or do you think that you’ve just grown up, if that makes sense?

Aarron: I don’t feel like we have lost anything, I feel like we’ve done a lot of experiments and what it seems like from our perspective is that the brand perception today is still quite strong and maybe stronger than it has been in the past. I would say that ‘how do we know that?’ We travel and visit customers a lot. Last year we travelled something like 100,000 miles to three different continents to talk to customers in person. And of course we do surveys, you don’t necessarily learn a ton about branding perception from a survey, you get some hints but talking to lots of different customers in person you do start to get a feel for about how people perceive the brand.

We experiment with making toys and giving away a lot of interesting things to customers because it’s fun for us to make and we know that stuff, even though it’s not quantifiable, we want to treat our customers well, we want them to always feel like we are going out of our way, above and beyond. To listen and treat them well because that’s the way that we want to be treated. So there is a bit of a golden rule in how we design things and in our approach to marketing as well. The notion that we’ve grown up and we’ve had to leave a lot of things behind certainly doesn’t ring true for us.

Paul: Ok. It’s interesting that you talk about the soft toys that you’ve made and all the other offline bits and bobs that you do. I record videos now that I do a lot. One of your little MailChimp figures sits on my shelf and is on every video that I send out and I am always getting comments ‘Oh what’s that? Where did you get it from?’ So it obviously works to some degree, but I am interested as to whether you approach your online and offline brands slightly differently. For example, I get the sense from looking at your app compared to some of the offline marketing stuff that you do, that maybe you’re a little bit more risky or braver offline than you are online? The classic example that just makes me laugh every time I see it is your 2012 Annual Report where you see Freddy, being your mascot with his back to the camera and his bum cheeks hanging out. I don’t imagine you doing that online in your app, but you seem to do it offline. So is there a difference in your mind?

Aarron: I think so and that’s the nuance that we’ve become more attuned to over the years is just the emotional context. And we want to help people be successful and productive and we don’t want to do anything to get in the way of that. And so if it’s an annual report or it’s a billboard or it’s a fun toy then you can pretty much go wild and do anything you want because the stakes are so low there. In fact the stakes that are high are ‘is this fun and interesting and meaningful’. Do I keep this vinyl toy on my shelf? It’s got to be kind of cool in order for you to desire that object and want to keep it around. But in the app we certainly need to be very productive and focused and it can feel like a consumer experience. And that probably speaks to our design ethos that is that people are very familiar with a great app experience because consumers are connected to devices.

So many people have mobile devices and they are downloading a lot of apps and they are experiencing software in lots of different situations. And they know that it can be good and it can be great and it can be fun. And then they go to work and it is oppressive and it is complicated and it’s painful because they didn’t make the buying decision. Someone else made the buying decision for them. And our philosophy in software design is that it’s a free app that you can use to send to a lot of people. And so you can make that buying experience for yourself. That decision. Without having to talk to the CTO or the CIO or whoever controls the budget. And you can try something out on your own. So ‘bring your own software to work experience’. So we need to design software that works for the consumer and not for an external third party buyer who is going to be consulting a checklist of features, like a CTO. And so making things useable and productive and efficient are really important to us for anyone to be able to figure out. And one of our co-founders has often said ‘You’ve got to have beer-can usability’. You’ve got to be able to use the app when you’ve got a beer in the other hand.


Which is a good picture to have in your head when you are defining something. How easy is this to use? Can I drink a beer and get this done?

So we focus on the end user, and not the buyer.

Paul: I think that is a very wise decision in most situations these days because increasingly most people are expecting the same kind of quality from their enterprise apps as they are getting from their consumer apps. And it can be hugely detrimental to the user experience but also to the chance of something being purchased. It’s almost like when, toys are advertised at the kids and the kids pressure the parents into buying the toys. It’s almost that scenario that increasingly employees these days are pressuring their CTOs, are pressuring their procurement department to purchase apps that are user friendly. So it’s a very smart move. I like it a lot.

So that brings us on to the area of professionalism. And that relationship between personality and professionalism and how the two sit side by side. I think many brands kind of avoid humour or personality for fear of miss-judging it and for fear of over stepping the line in some kind of way. And as a result they end up producing stuff that is very bland and very un-memorable and nobody really cares. So what advice would you give organisations like that, or more particularly web designers trying to convince bosses to enable, to allow some of that kind of humour and personality into their brand online?

Aarron: Well I think there are a lot of people that are sceptics and they are sceptics because again they are looking at the numbers and how do we quantify this. They are thinking only about the practical things in life. But there’s so many things that we buy based on emotion not based on a practical decision. A lot of fashion is driven not by the cerebral cortex that we choose something because it’s rain resistant. There are times that we do buy something because it’s rain resistant but there are times when we do buy something because it just feels good. It just looks kind of good, I like that colour. What does that mean? How do we quantify that? Well you don’t, that’s just an emotional response.

I think part of the challenge if you are dealing with a sceptic is making them aware of how much of human decisions are driven by emotion and not by logic. We are more Kirk than we are Spock. And we like to think we are very logical in everything and all of our decisions happen in our cerebral cortex, but it’s just not what happens day to day. So in terms of convincing people to try out a bit of personality in your work, I advise starting small. Because we took a lot of liberties and experimented with a lot of things over the years. Part of that was just the adventure, experimenting with that side of us, but I think for a lot of people don’t get to start with the throttle wide open and they need to start with very small things and see how they perform. They actually do have to think about some kind of quantification. So tiny experiments that are precision placed where people are most stressed out. Where they are most dissatisfied. If you’ve got a place in the app where it’s very confusing, you need to have a strong base of making it usable first and then enhance it with some additional personality.

But small experiments are the way that you convince a stakeholder or boss because chances are you can probably do those experiments without having to ask for permission and then you can look at those and you can measure and then present your findings. Doing a little bit of research on your own about psychology and how the brain works can’t hurt either. I think that can bolster, give you some support when you try and make the case for trying some stuff out. Let’s face it. What’s the most valuable company on the planet? It’s Apple. And by a long shot they just posted something like 74 billion dollars in quarterly profit which is a new record. And how does that happen? I mean their objects are just desire driven. People desire them. There is some logic there but for the most part, people just want them because they make them feel good. So there is clear precedence for how emotional design is used to sell products and to make a company successful, to make a brand very successful. People just need to spend a bit of time doing a little research I think.

Marcus: It’s interesting. I’ve been writing about exactly that recently. I also dropped out for about ten minutes guys. I don’t know if you noticed or missed me at all? My internet failed.

Paul: Aww.

Marcus: Poor me. But I wanted to say something that you may have covered this while I was away, but probably not. But I am both encouraged and depressed by this conversation.


I am encouraged because MailChimp is the shining example of the stuff that I’ve been talking about quite a lot lately which is that I keep seeing very bland character-less design and I think there are varying reasons why that is the case. But MailChimp is a shining example about what you can do and how it can improve the success of what you are doing and I referenced Apple as the pinnacle of that as well.

I am depressed because of you mentioned earlier about the complexity and the nuance of getting this kind of thing right. And that makes me concerned that people are less likely to do it when they should be doing it. So I just wanted to add that in.

Aarron: I appreciate that. But I don’t think that it is insurmountable. I feel like, people can figure this stuff out if they just give themselves the permission to try. Have a conversation, reflect a little bit. It’s not rocket science. Just reflect a bit about how people use your app. Have some conversations with a few customers and start small. It’s not insurmountable if you just try a few things. How we get to greatness is step by step, right? It’s kind of cliché but it’s true and it’s definitely something I’ve seen over the years as we’ve experimented and tried things. Is that we’ve tried things out and with emotional design too, there is a shelf life. And so something that worked really well, sometimes you just have to call it done and just kill it and try something new. Which is a lot more fun for a designer instead of sticking to the same old thing.

Paul: A couple of times in this, you’ve talked about permission. You’ve talked about how it’s easier to get permission to start small. You need to give yourself permission to do this kind of stuff. It reminds me of a very well-known story that came out of MailChimp about your CEO Ben Chestnut and about how one day he came into the office and discovered that the organisation had a new strap line. And you and a few of your colleagues had decided to do this without really talking to him and he had to come to terms with that. That kind of leads me to the how important it is to have management that support you to do this kind of stuff. Do you think it’s particularly hard to do if you are in isolation trying to do it alone? Do you need buy in from the top to make these kind of steps?

Aarron: I think that having buy in from management is the same case with almost anything in our industry. It certainly makes things a whole lot easier and for us Ben and Dan, our co-founders are believers in chaos and that from chaos comes creativity. That’s where creativity happens. And when you apply that creativity to some practical output that is innovation. And that’s how we get to innovation is by allowing the chaos to exist and allowing for failures and successes. And I know that Silicon Valley likes to celebrate failure and to some degree that’s an ok thing and I think that the language should be not about celebrating failure but about celebrating experimentation and being ok knowing that a culture of experimentation ultimately leads to a culture of innovation. And that’s really how things are driven here. And I realise that that is not the same in every company. That a lot of times, there is a lot of convincing and cajoling that happens with the Boss man or woman but there’s some latitude to be taken. Even on your own, if you are working in a large organisation, small experiments and measuring and doing a bit of research you will be able to make a case as to why personality and emotional design is powerful and meaningful. People do have successes with that. In fact the last chapter of my book has a lot of stats in it, numbers because I knew people had to go to their boss and do some convincing. But I think that working on your own if you are a freelancer, there is an opportunity to try this stuff out pretty easily because you might have to wait for the permission less. And sometimes you will be surprised that you are waiting for the permission and you really didn’t need it, you could have just tried it and then refocused if things didn’t work out. I feel like that is a metaphor for life. We are all kind of waiting for permission for what we want to do in our life and it’s easier said than done to just take action. I really feel that’s how things happen. You just take action instead of waiting for that permission.

Paul: Is it Grace Hopper who said it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission? That’s become a bit of a mantra for me. Let’s do stuff and then worry about the consequences later.


Marcus: As he gives the matches to his son to go and play with. Sorry.

Aarron: No kidding.

Paul: So I have got one last question to wrap us up which is, we are trying to enthuse people to experiment more, to maybe push their brand and their personality more than maybe their natural inclinations would lead them to and that’s all great stuff. But I just want to ask at the end, is there kind of certain dangers that people need to be particularly aware of when going through this process? Are there common pitfalls that maybe that you’ve experienced and wished you’d known at the beginning of all of this?

Aarron: Certainly. Going too far too fast is one of those pitfalls. That you get so excited and you just sort of drip the syrup and honey all over your interface to the point where at every turn there is something clever and witty and you’ve got to leave some empty spaces, right? Some places where it’s not clever and witty and it’s just functional and practical. So balance is an important thing to be found. And consistency is another challenge. And I tried to address that for us a while back by creating something called the design persona that helps you identify this is the personality of our brand, this is how it speaks, the types of language and traits in the philosophies. Having that as a guide early on, even though it took us a number of, maybe two or three years before we got to that point. We had to experiment and have enough experiences under our belt to say, these are the things that are inbounds and these are the things that are out of bounds. But knowing where you draw the boundaries is really important because if you have an organisation that grows you have more people that come in and take liberties with that personality in a way that really can take it in a direction that you didn’t intend. And it can be in subtle ways, just like the writing, the copy in your website, app, blog post whatever. A while back Kate Kiefer Lee, Head of Content here created a really great guide for us and that’s been really helpful for us. I don’t know if everyone needs to create that, but if you are in a large organisation where there are lots of different people writing and contributing, going through that exercise to help you establish the boundaries is important. And I find just the process of going through that helps you get clarity on what it is you are trying to achieve.

Paul: I think that’s incredibly important. We do have this tendency to… it’s almost like when I was at Art College. I’d always come up with the final idea and then I’d go back through and create the justification for it afterwards because I wanted to get on with doing the cool stuff. That’s such a mistake. And I think we still fall into that sometimes as professional designers that we are so busy creating final deliverables, doing all this cool stuff that we haven’t created a framework or a structure within which to operate and so you lose control over your own brand, and so yes, I can totally see where you are coming from.

Thank you so much. That was absolutely brilliant. It’s a fascinating area and there’s so much more we could talk about. Where could people find out about you and your book and all of that kind of good stuff?

Aarron: Well they find my book on, it’s the purple book, it’s short, it’s designed to be a book that you can read on a flight from Boston to Chicago.

Paul: Are we only allowed it on that flight? Can we read it on other flights too? Just checking.

Aarron: You can read it on other flights too. It would work. Maybe from London to Paris or something?

Marcus: That’s only 45 minutes, surely it’s not that short a book?


Aarron: Yes maybe a little bit further. And then if you want to learn a bit more about me I am just The only trick is my Dad misspelled my name at the hospital and its A-a-r-r-o-n. Aarron

Paul: I never realised that. I have just corrected my show notes so that I get it right when I put it on the website.

Aarron: Don’t worry about that, people have been misspelling my name all my life, including the first time it was written down.


Paul: That’s absolutely brilliant, I love it. Thanks so much for coming on the show and hopefully it won’t be too long before we meet each other again at some conference or other.

Marcus: Thanks Aarron.

Aarron: So great to talk to you guys, take care.


Paul: So that was the amazing Aarron Walter. That makes him sound like some kind of Superhero doesn’t it? The Amazing Aarron Walter – he’s going to be in the next Avengers film. I am looking forward to seeing that.

Marcus: What’s his super power?

Paul: He can make people cry, or he can make people happy. Which way are we going to go with this?

Marcus: Or emotional?

Paul: Yes, see what I did there? It’s clever.

Marcus: Move on.

Paul: Ok, sponsor. That will make me be sensible, surely.

So we’ve talked about Opera. Let’s talk about MediaTemple. MediaTemple are continuing to sponsor the podcast and they are really nice, a really nice, great bunch of people. This week’s research to find about something to talk about how great they are has led me to Virb. V-i-r-b which is their…

Marcus: That’s not how you spell verb?

Paul: I know! Do you think we should tell them? We could possibly get them together with Opera and they could build a badly worded application with a terrible ico?

Marcus: Yes, this is how to big up your sponsors.

Paul: Yep. Criticise their spelling. So Virb is their website builder tool and so if you’re listening to this and you’re maybe marketing people who are not quite hands on web in-the-guts-build-it people and you want to put together a quick blog or an events site, something quick and dirty, not that dirty, actually quite nice, but quick and easy to create, then check out Virb from MediaTemple. There are loads of customisable themes that you can use. They have got unlimited pages, it’s going to be mobile friendly and obviously it’s going to be hosted and included in one big bundle. And then this is the thing I like, the templates that they use are semantically built HTML5 templates unlike some other people I mention, Squarespace that produce the worst code in the word, Squarespace.

Marcus: Future sponsor, Squarespace…

Paul: No they are not a sponsor, so I can be rude about them. So what that means, if you don’t know what it means to have a semantically built HTML5 template is, it will probably make it much easier to upgrade the look and feel of your site at a later date. It will help with your search engine rankings and stuff like that. It stops me getting irritated at your source code.

It integrates really well into social media and systems and that kind of stuff. It’s quick and easy to set up and it of course you’ve got that brilliant MediaTemple support that I like so much. I like calling them, sometimes I get this urge to call them with something really trivial and obvious problem to see whether I can get them angry or not. Do you know what I mean? It’s like ‘I clicked on the ‘e’ on my desktop and it didn’t go to my website and it went to something called google instead’. You know? Something like that.

Marcus: You really did do that didn’t you?

Paul: No I didn’t, but I ought to. By the way, disclaimer. Don’t do this at home kids, you’re just going to annoy them.

So you can get a special discount for being Boagworld listener, use the Promo code BOAG for 25% off your web hosting. Go to Temple and enter that promo code upon sign up.

Marcus give us a joke!

Marcus: Ok.

Paul: And try not to sound as though you are going to fall asleep in the middle of it.

Marcus: Unfortunately I found the list of the twenty-one best jokes told last year and I haven’t told them all, so I have a source. This is by a guy called Will Marsh. I have to admit I don’t know who he is.

‘I raised as an only child, which really annoyed my sister’.

Paul: That’s really funny!

Marcus: And here’s one from Rob Orton, who I also don’t know. These are young people aren’t they.

Paul: Yes, we don’t listen to young people.

Marcus: ‘I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an Oriental chocolate bar. It could be a Chinese Whisper’.


UK joke there – Wispa is a chocolate bar.

Paul: Right yes, so that’s it for this week. Next week Mark Boulton is going to be on the show, talking about typography so that will be good. Looking forward to that, but until then, have a good one!