Friday, April 03, 2009

Designing With Emotional Intelligence

Cover of "Don't Make Me Think: A Common S...Cover via Amazon

I loved this quote from Kate Sheehan's (Loose Cannon Librarian, Darien Library) section of the Computers In Libraries 2009 presentation on Innovation - "our chief export as a profession is kindness". I've been thinking a lot about emotional status lately - largely in response to the conference & having just finished reading David Lee King's excellent new book Designing the Digital Experience on the train home from the conference (and no, I rarely read that fast at all - that's a testament to how great the book was for me)!
I have a student intern whose major is Sociology. She's been wonderful in doing usability testing and interviewing of potential site users. Because she didn't have a background in web design, I gave her my copy of Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. It's the Don't Make Me Think part of the title that seems to almost require an exclamation point. Does it mean that people are lazy? No - the Don't Make Me Think! is a plea to not be frustrated by a website.
The very title of that book reminds me that one aspect of the digital design experience many people forget to talk about it is the emotional aspect. In David's book, the importance of tying a positive emotion to your organization really hits home. He talks about how people feel about brands like American Girl and Build-a-Bear and how we've moved from a products & services-based economy to an experience-based economy. We have to extrapolate this to our library web design - are we designing a positive experience for people or a negative experience?
Certainly, a key aspect of our humanity is our emotional state. It shapes our decision-making processes profoundly. Have you ever avoided situations or people because you knew that you would feel worse after going through them or dealing with them? I think we all have - it's human nature. It's a survival mechanism - figuratively and literally. Because emotions play into our overall well-being. People under stress, people who are depressed, people in any form of negative emotional state are far more likely to die than those who are not.
So - are our websites making people feel good? Feel connected? To your organization? To you? To others? Do they feel safe, validated, in control, open, ready to learn, to share? Do they feel supported? I would argue that all too often the answer is an emphatic "no!" So... is your library taking good emotional care of its users online? (heck, does it take good emotional care of its staff?)
Long-term ill will necessarily destroys institutions and whole industries. I would argue that the subconscious negativity that many harbor towards various organizations or professions can ultimately destroy said organizations or professions. One example - newspapers (having worked at a newspaper, I recall the number of times I would recount my employer's name & people would roll their eyes and talk about the biases it had & how someone they knew had been so badly mis-portrayed or mis-quoted and how unfair the newspaper had been to do that) have had a bad rap for a while. Now how are they doing? That's not the whole story, but I would say that it helps to form a backdrop/an environment in which that industry could wither and people would let it go. If there's more of an emphasis on creating positive experiences, as David's book explains, at every "touch point" that users interact with our organizations, we will be fortifying our "brand" (our library/organization) and ensuring that it not only survives, but thrives in an environment when information is so ubiquitous online.
Some of our greatest library supporters are parents of young children. For these people, the library fulfills some raw and basic emotional needs, as well as providing practical support. The new parent finds a place of validation and warmth. Others facing similar joys and challenges are found there - stories can be shared. It feels safe. There is a happy buzz, an infectious burble around story hour. Children love story hours, parents feel relief and comfort - the support of a community institution. The positive experiences that young families have at the library are often the foundations of an overall positive view of the institution that overlaps even into later life, when the family's changing needs may make them less likely to visit the library so regularly. Still, if there's a referendum on budget cuts to that library, you can be certain that these families will be on the side of the library.
So... emotions are life and death. Emotions also translate to dollars.
Look, advertisers have always known this. They sell cars based on the ways they can make people feel - "safe", "sexy", "privileged", "proud", "in control", "at peace" (a la those commercials with the SUV off in the wilderness or at the beach, bringing you to some beautiful place where you can leave your troubles behind).
Wouldn't it be great if your website made your users feel like rock stars? If it made them feel like the digital space was designed for them? That it was so easy to use, it met their individual needs so specifically, that felt like they were masters of the universe? How often do we get to feel like that in today's world?
So how do you design for your users' emotional well-being? First, have empathy for the user (
BTW, a key criteria in your Digital eXperience Design team's leadership should be empathy for users. Just a thought.) A technique for building empathy is described in David's book, and is used a lot in the world of software development - the creation of "personas". Create a "character" to represent a common class of your users - but give them a name, try to picture their face, assign an age and other demographic characteristics. Talk about their roles in daily life that may lead them to your site. Then imagine the many ways they might try to use your site & where they might run into difficulties. (This is a little trick that the folks at CraftySpace - Drupal developers par excellence, with a focus on libraries and schools - mentioned to me recently.) Create "use case scenarios" building on these personas. The concept of the persona reminded me of how we used to characterize some of our most popular work in the newspaper - we called them "Hey Martha!" stories. The idea was to write a story that so piqued someone's interest that as they were reading it, they felt the need to read it outloud to others. That's a strong emotional response - that's user engagement.
Additionally, when you're engaged in digital presence design, don't forget how powerful multimedia can be in invoking emotions and creating experiences. People increasingly seek out immersive experiences. They can view videos, hear audio, see stunning photos online & comment on all of it. They expect and desire this type of thing. Don't create an emotion of frustration by not providing it. Open up further, be creative, "surprise and delight them", in the immortal words of Paul Holdengraber (the keynote speaker for the 2nd day of CIL) of New York Public Library, Getty Institute, etc., fame.

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