Everything has a personality

How to ensure your digital experiences convey the right personality

This article is part of a series based on a talk I gave at Adobe Max and WebVisions last year. To read the other articles in the series, check out Bringing the Humanity Back to Digital.

In my previous article in this series, “What working in the service industry taught me about design,” I closed with this quote:

Reading this was a game-changer for me as a designer. It sounds simple, but the epiphany that our designs have personalities (which I first encountered in Aaron Walter’s incredible book Designing for Emotion) changed the way I think about my work.

As a front-desk clerk for a hotel, I was taught that the persona I showed guests was an extension of the hotel’s brand and would influence the way the entire company was perceived; therefore my attitude should always be one of professionalism, capability, hospitality, authenticity, and warmth. These were the qualities people came back for, because people on vacation are often seeking a respite from everyday rudeness and worry.

Reflecting on what I’d learned about design and personality, I began to research what qualities a design would need in order to create that same welcoming atmosphere we embodied at the hotel, since many digital brands also want to be perceived as warm and trustworthy.

May all our websites be as warm and welcoming as this bear

The Personality Spectrum

In the book Design for Emotion by Trevor Van Gorp and Edie Adams, I learned that brands are often seeking to land somewhere on a spectrum from friendly to unfriendly, and dominant to passive.

An extremely unscientific brand chart I created, plotting brands where I see them on the personality spectrum

Strike the correct balance of dominance and friendliness and your company is seen as approachable, trustworthy and capable. Become too dominant or too passive and your brand can be viewed as aggressive or incompetent.

But what are the qualities that make a brand feel more dominant or passive, unfriendly or friendly? Are there design changes we can make to move a brand personality in one direction or the other?

Yes, it turns out, and the answer seems obvious when you think about it. An interface that is angular, heavy, high contrast, and dense will be perceived as dominant or aggressive. On the opposite end of the scale, an interface with of curves, light, low contrast, and whitespace will feel friendly and welcoming.

We saw this principle in action with the evolution of the personal computer; typically PC’s were heavy, squared, dark, and intimidating. They were seen as machines for savvy professionals only. Apple had a vision of everyday creative people feeling a kinship with their computer. They wanted to make it friendly and approachable, so they redesigned the PC to be rounded, light, and bright. The result is that the personal computer felt actually personal for many people for the first time.

Apple made personal computing feel approachable by changing up the design of the PC; they made it rounded, bright, soft, and colorful.

Occasionally a dominant style is intended and beneficial, such as when the customers also typically have dominant personalities and want to identify with your company as powerful, tough, and full of authority. The Mack Truck site conveys aggression through its use of high-contrast colors, sharp angles, and bold, uppercase fonts, but it may be appropriate here.

Mack’s high-contrast, dark colors and bold, uppercase typography fits its dominant brand

There are other times when a design uses dominant and unfriendly elements in a way that can hurt their brand and their user’s experience. For the purposes of illustration, I’ve chosen one industry to pick on: the airline and hotel booking industry. (Thankfully each of these companies has since redesigned, so this is merely a critique of old work and not a commentary on their design team’s current choices.)

Personality in Travel Websites

Before the internet, we had travel agents to aid us in this anxiety-inducing task; a successful travel agent would have been friendly, calm, and competent. Let’s examine what the personality of our new online “travel agents” are.

The first site I checked out is the popular Hotels.com, which has a very dense interface with bright red colors paired with black and tan. Almost everything on the page is bolded. There are heavy shadows on several elements. There are dozens of calls to action, popups, and ads. They’ve created an additional level of stress with a countdown timer to add urgency, as well as popups showing how many people are booking the hotel at that moment.

Hotels.com in human form

If Hotels.com were a person, it’d be a red-faced stressed out dude pressuring you to hurry up.

When we look at the traits of dominant versus friendly designs listed above, it skews heavily towards the dominant side.

The next site I looked at was Orbitz.com. Again, there’s a very crowded interface, a dark, heavy header, everything on the page is bold, and there’s lots of elements with exclamation points demanding immediate attention. Most elements are contained in by sharp boxes with heavy drop shadows. They use all-caps in both their logo and body copy. There are at least 10 direct calls to action in one small screen space.

The effect is overwhelming. Again when we consider the list of dominant vs. friendly characteristics in a design, Orbitz comes across as decidedly dominant and stress-inducing. This is the last thing users want to encounter if you’re already in a stressful situation, such as booking an emergency trip home because of a family crisis. If we could visualize Orbitz.com’s personality, it’d be a bit like this.

Orbitz’s personality

Compare these experiences to what we find on Hipmunk.com.

Hipmunk is like a breath of fresh air in the space; they use some bright colors, but selectively. There’s tons of white space and rounded edges, and shadows are used sparingly and subtly to give everything a light feeling. The site is generally low contrast, and only the most crucial elements are bolded. They create some level of urgency, but do so in a positive way by highlighting the savings that the customer can expect.

When measuring Hipmunk on the dominant vs friendly scale, it’s clear Hipmunk is aiming to communicate a calm and friendly personality. Considering how stressful the task of planning a trip already is, Hipmunk offers some welcome relief.

This is no accident either; in a Forbes article title “Why Hipmunk is the World’s Best Travel Site,” co-founder Steve Huffman said:

“Our main philosophy is that we want you to spend as little time on our site as possible with the least amount of pain.”

This shouldn’t necessarily be a novel concept, but in the travel industry, it’s innovative.

What’s your personality?

Do you want your site to be more Homer, Coach Taylor, or Jack Bauer on the personality spectrum?

Consider your last few designs, or perhaps one you’re working on right now. If your product were a person or character, what would it look like? Does it have visual elements that convey more dominance or friendliness? Ask yourself what type of personality your company wants to express, and if your work is supporting or hurting that goal.

This is the second in a series of articles based on a talk I gave last year. Check out the first article in the series, “What working in the service industry taught me about design,” or the next article in the series, “Put on a Happy Face.” You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook to find out when new articles are published.

PS. I’m currently accepting new freelance projects, so drop me a line if you’re looking for help with web or product design, or front-end development.

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