The Browser Company on “Emotional Design”:

Humor us for a moment and picture your favorite neighborhood restaurant. Ours is a corner spot in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It has overflowing natural light, handmade textile seat cushions, a caramel wood grain throughout, and colorful ornaments dangling from the ceilings. Can you picture yours? Do you feel the warmth and spirit of the place?

A Silicon Valley optimizer might say, “Well, they don’t brew their coffee at exactly 200 degrees. And the seats look a little ratty. And the ceiling ornaments don’t serve any function.”

But we think that’s exactly the point. That these little, hand-crafted touches give our environment its humanity and spirit. In their absence, we’re left with something universal but utterly sterile — a space that may “perfectly” serve our functional needs, but leave our emotional needs in the lurch.

[…] If you try hard, you can remember a time when our tools and platforms were designed by people, for people. Operating systems were bubbly and evanescent, like nature. Apps were customizable, in every shape and size. And interfaces drew on real-life metaphors to help you understand them, integrating them effortlessly into your life.

But as our everyday software tools and media became global for the first time, the hand of the artist gave way to the whims of the algorithm. And our software became one-size-fits-all in a world full of so many different people. All our opinions, beliefs, and ideas got averaged out — producing the least common denominator: endless sequels that everyone enjoys but no one truly loves.

When our software optimizes for numbers alone — no matter the number — it appears doomed to lack a certain spirit, and a certain humanity.

[…] We wanted to optimize for feelings.

While this may seem idealistic at best or naive at worst, the truth is that we already know how to do this. The most profound craftsmanship in our world across art, design, and media has long revolved around feelings.

Capitalism forces us to measure everything against time, budget, and profit concerns. Under those constraints, it’s easy to prioritize metrics and efficiency over emotional qualities like aesthetic polish, taste, and delight, whose outcomes are harder to quantify & qualify in terms of “solutions.”

Nick Foster, head of design at Google X, wrote about how the standardized design process (i.e., Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test) doesn’t consider intangible qualities like elegance and craft in solutions—only solutions. Designer Benek Lisefski also spoke to this:

… It’s easy to make data-driven design decisions, but relying on data alone ignores that some goals are difficult to measure. Data is very useful for incremental, tactical changes, but only if it’s checked and balanced by our instincts and common sense.

[The commercial design process] creates more generic-looking interfaces that may perform well in numbers but fall short of appealing to our senses.

Ironically, those emotional qualities are what people ought to understand before numbers. We feel before we think.

An experience optimized for “engagement,” clicks, attention, or profit does not guarantee an experience that is fun, nurturing, or insightful (ex. Facebook1 ).

The entertainment industry faces a similar imbalance. It’s remarkable how much the discourse about the metrics-driven sterilization of digital design parallels that of movies.

Martin Scorsese, in a viral critique of Marvel films: 2

Cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.

[…] Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes. They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

[…] The most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption.

These negative reviews for Uncharted and Jurassic World Dominion echo the same sentiments—that execs and strategists overlook texture, originality, or anything that people actually care about:

All an “Uncharted” movie had to accomplish — all that it possibly could accomplish — was to capture the glint and derring-do that helped the series port the spirit of Indiana Jones into the modern world. […] It fails in the areas where history says it should have been able to exceed it. The areas where movies have traditionally had the upper hand over video games: Characters. Personality. Humor. Humanity! […] Fleischer’s competently anonymous direction contributes to the film’s general flavorlessness, as Nathan and Sully chase new clues to the treasure’s whereabouts (and to the location of Nathan’s missing brother) from Barcelona to the Philippines without any sense of urgency or purpose.

Whoever is behind the scenes of these movies fails to understand that you can actually make more money by making something that is "good". That making a "good" movie means people will want to watch your movie multiple times and then purchase it again later, and purchase more tickets, and purchase the streaming service with your movie, and purchase the box-set with your movie.

Blockbusters do not need to be deep or profound. But even with mega-budget funding, state-of-the-art crews, and audience research, they still fall emotionally flat. Neglecting to optimize for these less-measurable things misses out on a chance for a deeper, more human kind of “engagement.”

Likewise, here’s Braden Kowitz, design partner at Google Ventures, explaining a decision to preserve brand quality by stepping back from optimizing a checkout button for attention:

We cared about more than just clicks. We had other goals for this design: It needed to set expectations about what happens next, it needed to communicate quality, and we wanted it to build familiarity and trust in our brand. We could have easily measured how many customers clicked one button versus another, and used that data to pick an optimal button. But that approach would have ignored the big picture and other important goals.

And again, Benek Lisefski:

Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted. Data is good at measuring things that are easy to measure. Some goals are less tangible, but that doesn’t make them less important. While you’re chasing a 2% increase in conversion rate you may be suffering a 10% decrease in brand trustworthiness. You’ve optimized for something that’s objectively measured, at the cost of goals that aren’t so easily codified.

Yes, product designs and content need to make money, to be functional, and (in the case of movies but not necessarily) to be entertaining. But it’s a shame to leave it at that. Why should we care? Why is it meaningful or even just nice?

“The most profound craftsmanship in our world across art, design, and media has long revolved around feelings,” but the drive toward measurability and profit in all fields has made that harder to grasp.

Optimizing for feelings spans disciplines: the warmth and spirit in a cafe, the refreshing sound & animations in a boot-up screen, the serenity in a reading app, the resonance of complicated characters in a movie… a sense of Scorsese’s revelation in any media.

  1. Regarding the misinformation issue: Facebook’s engagement optimization does appeal to junk-food level feelings (anger, indignance, shock, surprise), but it’s not the kind of enriching emotion I’m trying to discuss here (read on). ↩︎

  2. Another example: George Lucas commenting on this re: Star Wars ↩︎