Logic and statistics drive many usability discussions. How many users accomplished a task? How long did it take on average? What labels caused delays? Likewise, emotion is often discussed in context of interactivity and aesthetics. Emotion and usability sound like separate topics but they closely intertwined, so much so they are impossible to separate.
I will go out on a limb and claim emotion is actually the most important aspect of usability. This Because emotion is the root of all behavior, how one feels ultimately determines what they will or won’t do on a website. Let me explain further.
It’s no surprise that difficult websites cause frustration. This seems logical, but frustration is an emotion, not a logical process. Inversely, things that are easy to use actually produce pleasurable emotions. While rarely acknowledged, accomplishment from minimal effort literally feels good. These pleasurable emotions are caused by two factors. First, our natural inclination is to conserve energy (mental or physical.) Therefor accomplishing something while conserving energy feels rewarding. Second, being “skilled” likewise feels good. If you have ever played a sport or instrument you felt pleasurable emotions as you improved your abilities. You experience similar emotions when using a website effectively (on a smaller scale.) Thus when you go to kayak.com and book the best tickets for your trip with out trouble in minimal time you feel good as a result.
Inversely, usability issues make you feel bad about yourself. Even when you know the website is at fault, you often internalize the issue. The old “Why can’t I find it?” is hidden self-deprecation. When tasks take longer than they should or cause you to expend unnecessary mental energy you experience a wide range of negative emotions. You don’t feel as if you have approached this task skillfully, just the opposite in fact. Thus it’s ultimately your emotional response to usability that shapes the experience.
While there are a wide range of areas that usability and emotion intertwine, there are three core areas that are important to understand, visceral, behavioral and reflective. Don Normand details these three aspects of emotion in his book “Emotional Design.” These three aspects of emotion each have a direct influence on usability. Let’s explore them bottom up, or better yet, nervous system out.
Visceral Emotions and Your Mind state
Normand describes “visceral” emotions as feelings derived from the central nervous system. These are emotions directly tied to what author Susan Weinschenk calls “old brain thinking.” Specifically this portion of our body controls urges for food, sex and survival. These thoughts originate from the central nervous system and not the brain. They happen the quickest, before your brain has processed the situation. Because these feelings happen before mental processing they are subconscious. More important, you are often unaware they influence you.
The most relevant application of visceral emotions to usability is the “Aesthetic Usability Effect,” a phenomenon where a more attractive interface is considered to be more usable than an unattractive one all else equal. This occurs because a cluttered, overwhelming interface causes your body to react the same as it would a dangerous situation (a mild one of course.) Your focus narrows, pulse increases and when confronted with an issue you are likely to retry the same solution rather than alternative, untried methods. Inversely, attractive interfaces have the opposite effect. Your focus widens, your pulse slows and as a result creativity increases. In this situation, problems are addressed by modifying your approach. You find an answer and move on with out realizing there was a problem in the first place.
The visceral impact on usability is completely driven by subconscious emotional responses to visual stimuli. But not all areas of emotion and usability are subconscious. We also have behavioral emotions, which are conscious and are impacted by using a website.
Earlier in this post I mentioned the pleasure one receives by performing a skillful task. That pleasure is a form of behavioral emotion, which are emotions resulting from physical activity. Think about something you do physically that you enjoy, be it navigating a keyboard with ease, chopping up food or expertly driving a car. That enjoyment is primarily a result of positive emotions caused by performing a task in a skillful way. The enjoyment of skilled activities is a major contributor to the advancement of the human race. Early man felt good using tools, thus they used and developed more of them. Today, behavioral emotions play a large role in web usability.
Navigating the web is largely considered a cognitive task, most of the effort is put into thinking and making decisions. The fact remains that with a few exceptions using any computer requires both mental and physical effort. Thus buying a ticket to the latest movie falls into the behavioral emotion category. When you buy that ticket easily you feel good, you are a skilled web user. When it goes poorly, you don’t receive that gratification and often feel more negatively towards the situation than logically rational.
These emotions are not tied to aesthetics, they are a result of how you use the site. Poor usability leads to confusion, errors and ultimately negative emotions. Good usability makes you feel positive about yourself, leading to positive emotions. It’s no different from expertly dicing an onion.
Traditional user experience design and information architecture are the largest influences of behavioral emotion. The fewer mistakes a user has, the faster they can find what they are looking for and achieve their task the more skilled they will feel. While UX design is a vast subject, you can minimize mistakes with a proper visual hierarchy, clearly labeled elements and you design using common web conventions.
The final stage, “reflective emotions” is the one we are most aware of and have greatest control over.
The best way to understand reflective emotions is through demonstration. Think back to a memorable happy holiday. What made it enjoyable? What made you feel good? The positive feel you’re experiencing is commonly described as “nostalgia,” and is a form of reflective emotion. Reflective emotions are contemplative, occurring when we consciously examine a situation and derive pleasure (or displeasure) from it.
Reflective processing is what allows you to appreciate the nuances of well-composed music, elegant prose and a witty debate. Out of all the emotional levels we are most aware of this one. It’s also the slows emotion we experience and it’s influenced by the two levels before it (behavioral and visceral.)
Reflective emotions are a complex subject but when it comes to usability the effect is simple. Interacting with any website will trigger a series of emotional responses. If those responses are primarily negative you will reflect back on the website with negative emotions. If positive, your reflections will also be positive. Not surprisingly, this final impression of the website is often the difference between a user coming back or visiting a competitor.
Summary: Usability Impacts Emotion and Emotion Impacts Usability
Humans are incredibly complex, making usability (or user experience design) a difficult practice. To manage this complexity, many UX principles focus on data. While effective, focusing too much on data skews the motivations of behavior, often making them seem based on logic. Humans are not logical beings however, they are emotional first and logical second. To really understand usability’s impact on a website you must first understand how the user feels and what is triggering their emotional state.