I recently spoke with Aral Balkan, the designer and developer of the popular Twitter client for the iPhone – Feathers. The interface design of Feathers has unique points of engagement that is quickly building a strong fan base around it. It’s more than a usable application, it’s pleasurable.
Aral shares some interesting insights into how he is encouraging emotional engagement in his app.
Aarron: How does great design impact a user’s propensity to forgive usability shortcomings, or technical snafus?
Aral: I reject the premise of the question. Great design is design that has few usability shortcomings and technical snafus. Delighters can very easily become a mocking of the user if the base features of the app do not function properly. It’s wrong to see design as separate from usability. We fall into this trap often in our industry because we call everything “design”. What we’re really talking about is interaction design here. It includes elements of graphic design, to be sure, but there is an all-important non-linear, interactive core to interaction design that includes usability. It’s far closer to product design. It includes technical competence. Good user experience is a function of all these elements.
Before your application can create an emotional relationship with the user it must get the basics right. The emotional relationship, the delight, is what you layer on top of this base usability and technical competency.
So yes, if you can create a positive emotional relationship with your users, they may be more forgiving if something goes wrong. But maybe once, maybe twice… if the core of your application isn’t competent you will soon erode that relationship and it may even backfire. Make sure your app competent before considering adding delight to it. Competency is a prerequisite to delight.
Aarron: How does design impact a user’s trust?
Aral:We do judge a book by its cover; it’s an evolutionary trait. We make split second judgements everyday about whether something is friend is foe. In the past, this meant the difference between life and death (and can still do so today, in a dimly lit alleyway, for instance). It’s no surprise that we apply the same, unconscious categorization to designed objects.
However, design is a marriage of form and function. The latter is usually forgotten. Apple’s products are not successful just because they are shiny and beautiful but because they are a joy to use also. So, while looks may initially affect trust, it is function (or rather, the marriage of form and function) that will affect the long-term health of a product.
Aarron: Do you consciously consider emotion in your design work?
Aral:Definitely. My apps are an extension of my character. I see them as authored works; as a conversation. There is a lot of myself in there and I want to have pleasurable, fun conversations with my users. Most of our industry is still talking about features this and features that – the age of features is dead, we’re living in the age of user experience; _execution_ is everything. We should be talking about building empathy into apps – does the app try to understand what the user is feeling and react accordingly? In ‘Avit, for example, if you have a slow internet connection, the little Manto blob gets ashamed, apologizes, even bursts into tears if it takes to long. Even though the problem isn’t with the app itself (slow Internet connection), the app tries to emphatize with the user. It doesn’t just display an indeterminate progress indicator that is emotionless and uncaring.
The bit about how _your_ character is reflected in your apps is important because if your character is a dry, corporate one than that’s what will come across. You have to be genuine. Take the Microsoft Office paperclip as an example. There’s a perfect example of emotional design gone wrong. Why? You have to ask yourself: whose emotions? Whose character? When I see the paperclip, I see Steve Ballmer in paperclip form – it’s everything that people hate about Microsoft (the arrogance, etc.)
Aarron: Feathers has a uniquely cute interface that is atypical of most iPhone apps. Why is that? How does the bird character impact user experience?
Aral:It’s partly because of the target audience – a younger crowd (young at heart?) :) Partly, because the app itself is meant to be fun. Feathers isn’t going to cure world hunger, but it might make Twitter more fun for you. It might help you put a smile on someone’s face with a tweet. And I wanted the interface – and everything about it; the site, the screencast; etc. – to reflect that light, fun, tone. I smile a lot when speaking to people (which really sucks when you have something stuck in your teeth); I wanted the interface to smile too. I tried to translate my smile into a UI.
On the bird character, here are a few tweets I got within hours of Feathers’ launch – you decide :)
@aral I really *LOVE* the singing bird when you send a tweet, twitter is fun all of a sudden!
Very cool feedback via the feathers bird to let you know your char limit. Excellent job @aral
Confession: Sometimes I make too long Feathers-tweets, just to watch the bird turn red. (@feathers_app) :D
Aarron: You’ve show a lot of emotion in ‘Avit as well. Can you talk a little about why that is and how you are trying to shape the user experience?
Aral:Think about how much time we spend interacting with virtual experiences today; on our notebooks, mobile phones, TV sets… User Experience today affects such a large proportion of our lives that we might soon drop the “user” altogether: The stuff we’re designing today affects people’s experiences; their lives. A good user experience today may mean the difference between someone having a good day or a bad day. And there are a lot of bad experiences today. They affect people’s lives negatively. They affect _my life_ negatively. I’m cognisant that, in some small way, the experiences I create can make people happy or they can make them frustrated, angry, and upset. That’s why I spend so much time on – and focus so heavily on – designing the interaction of my apps: I want my apps to make people happy. I want them to get joy out of using them. These are words that we should be using every day when discussing what we’re trying to build – we’re in the business of manufacturing joy and delight, making people’s lives better in small ways; building emphatetic apps.