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Apps run on machines, but they’re used by human beings – so don’t be afraid to make an emotional connection with the user
While some desktop software can benefit from being businesslike, mobile apps are more like our companions. Give them some personality
Computers, in their PC-era, desktop electronic shrine-like incarnation, are impersonal things. No matter how beautiful they’re made to be, they’re still cognitively demanding impositions onto an otherwise quiet table-top. Charmingly tactile clutter becomes a compressed hinterland around the sacred obelisk of The Machine.
Then you have mobile devices, like your iPhone or iPad. They’re different. They’re portable, for one thing, which means that we cradle them in our hands instead of prostrating ourselves before them, and we also manipulate them using touch, with no abstract input devices getting in the way. If you understand how to pick your nose, you can already use an iPhone.
Humans are emotional creatures. In fact, we can’t help but form emotional connections to each other, and even ascribe feelings and identity to inanimate objects that present any semblance of humanity. We cuddle bears made out of polyester, see faces in pieces of toast, and name our cars Margaret. We’re an odd bunch.
As developers, though, we can use this to our advantage. Long gone are the days when software was rejected for not looking ‘professional’ enough. We crave the personal touch, particularly on these most personal of devices. Anthropomorphism is a potent empathic weapon.
Portability and tactility create powerful associations. The device is with you during your daily life, so we feel companionship – your iPhone has a ‘little buddy’ quality, and you feel bereft without it. Reliance and dependence naturally follow. Holding the device in your hands connotes comforting and nurturing, though we might not like to acknowledge it.
Good mobile app design, like any design, is fundamentally about delight. Not efficiency, functionality or even intuitiveness. You’ve succeeded when your users aren’t just satisfied or pleased, but actually gleeful. Get emotional. I’m not suggesting you design or code while in floods of tears, but acknowledge the feelings factor. Reflect and amplify the love that we mammals can’t help but feel. Make your app more than a utility; try to be a known and trusted ally, a colleague, and a friendly face. Imbue familiarity, humour and even affection into your interfaces, status messages and documentation. Be frustrated at errors. Walk the fine line between warmth and whimsy.
Keep in mind, though, that while cute is good, helpful is better. Gratuitously saccharine interfaces will wear thin quickly, but functionality couched in the visual language of emotional interaction help to win the user’s heart and mind. Hardware and software, when personalised, are profoundly involving and addictive experiences.
A desktop computer – even a laptop – is a machine, a tool, clearly from the world of engineering and electronics and industry. An iOS device is a trusty sidekick, with you come rain or shine. Your iPhone is the Robin to your Batman – or at the very least, Alfred the butler. Don’t forget that your users feel the same way about their own devices. After all, we’re emotional machines, too. Aim for your app to be innovative and capable, intuitive and forgiving. Ideally, even unique. But above all, try to make it your user’s best pal.
Matt Gemmell is an iPad, iPhone and Mac OS X developer specialising in user experience. He runs his own business, Instinctive Code, and frequently speaks at industry conferences.He has written hundreds of articles covering development and interface design at mattgemmell.com, and his clients include Apple and other Fortune 500 companies.