Future of web design: Aarron Walter and Aral Balkan on making fantastic user experiences

 by Martin Belam, 2 June 2010

I've probably blogged more than enough about the 'Future of web design' conference I attended a couple of weeks back in London. In the last episode of my notes, I was talking about a couple of talks that didn't really hit the spot for me. I thought I'd finish the series on a high though, with notes from two sessions that talked about how crucial it was to make products with brilliant user experiences. I couldn't have agreed more with these guys...

"Learning to love humans: Emotional interface design" - Aarron Walter (Mailchimp)

Mailchimp's Aarron Walter was bringing one of my favourite messages to the audience, that interfaces should be playful, fun and enjoyable to use. He said that we focus on making software that is functional, reliable and usable, but that we don't prioritise software interfaces being 'pleasurable'. He likened it to a restaurant producing food that was edible, rather than trying to produce food that was delicious.

He talked about how humans have a natural reason to experience and respond to emotions from day one, and showed some screenshots for iPhone apps by Tapbots which have interfaces people seem to love and empathise with. Weightbot, for example, allows users to track their weight, but has an interface with a vague resemblance to a human face. Aarron quoted someone as saying that they "adored" the interface - pointing out that they hadn't said the rather more utilitarian "it really allows me to track my weight like crazy!".

He demonstrated the playfulness in the Mailchimp interface, which includes witticisms from the monkey at the top of the page - "Why am I smiling you ask? Because I'm not wearing any pants" - and easter eggs, like the fact that if you stretch a preview email too wide, the poor monkey's arm gets stretched too far and ripped off, spurting blood. They have also done novelty login pages featuring the monkey as a Star Wars character, or in a homage to A.A.Milne. Aarron argued that these touches don't get in the way of workflow, but make using the tool more enjoyable. As ever, when looking at something like that, I was minded of the deathly dull grey interfaces most desktop based enterprise software comes equipped with.

It was a fantastic talk, and the only reason I haven't written about it at greater length is because Aarron has already published it in article format. You can get an overview of his presentation at "Emotional Interface Design: The Gateway to Passionate Users".

"The Art of Emotional Design: A story of pleasure, joy, and delight." - Aral Balkan

"If you are going to behave as a dick, don't use UX as your excuse..."

The best talk of the conference for me was Aral Balkan, and I clearly wasn't alone in thinking that. He was passionate and entertaining, but also had a really solid base of making distinctive and pleasurable user interfaces, which had already been cited by other speakers as having great UX.

I was particularly interested in his take on OAuth integration. He wondered why, if you have carefully slaved over and crafted every pixel in your app, you would almost immediately show your user the door on their first attempt to use it and hand them over to the usually quite dreadful OAuth UX. I was heartened to hear it, because I've been doing a lot of work at The Guardian around issues of registration, sign in and 'social media' integration, and sometimes I'm left scratching my head thinking "am I the only person who thinks this is all a bit...well...broken and ugly and totally confusing and unrewarding for the user?"

With the Feathers app, Aral had deliberately not originally used the Twitter OAuth path. That meant that the app didn't get credited when people used it to tweet. It might have been galling when he missed out on the free promotion that Stephen Fry using it would have given the app, but Aral said sometimes you have to make sacrifices in order to preserve the very best user experience.

This comes, he says, from always putting your user's interests above your own. That will give you more problems, but it is the only way to deliver a truly great experience. As he put it, if you start every project worrying about creating the perfect normalised database structure, you are trying to solve the wrong problems.

Aral also made a statement that encapsulates a big problem for us in the news industry:

"When infrastructure is commoditized, the differentiating factor - the value - is the user experience"

Traditional media companies are not used to having not only their method of distribution commoditised, but also a lot of the news that they carry.

But Aral was making a really fundamental point here, that went back to Brendan Dawes' pointing out the Nintendo DS in his wife's handbag. The catalyst for the dreadful experience my family had the other week with National Express East Anglia, for example, was because some Oystercard displays give you inadequate and ambiguous feedback when you touch your card in. People spend so much time using screen-based technology in their life now, to use their phone, do their banking, watch their set-top box, to buy train tickets etc etc that if you are producing bad user experiences, you are giving people bad life experiences.

You can watch Aral's fantastic presentation on video over at Think Vitamin.

And finally...

That is the last of my notes from 'Future of web design'. You can read my overview post of the whole event - including the couple of typos I only spotted yesterday - on the Guardian site: "'Websites that surprise and delight us': The future of web design".


Not sure how universally popular simian dismemberment is, but I do miss tools with a bit of personality.

The old BBC Documentum CMS whilst mostly deathly dull grey had a few hidden chirpy bits. There was the special combination of keys that conjured up a puppy, and the one that brought up Dreamweaver for all the editors mourning the transition to the CMS.

We were very close recently to having an internal tool that featured an animation with laser eyes as part of the core functionality, but that was deemed too much fun. Boo!

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