Mirror, Mirror, on the Screen
According to Don Norman (author of Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things) there are three levels of cognitive processing. The visceral level is the most immediate and is the one marketing departments look to when trying to elicit trigger responses and be persuasive. Behavioral processing is the middle level, and is the concern of traditional usability or human factors practitioners designing for ergonomics and ease of use. The third level is reflective processing.
Reflective processing is when our desires for uniqueness and cultural or aesthetic sophistication influence our preferences. Simply put, it is about seeing ourselves positively reflected in the products we use. What that means to individuals and their own self-images is highly subjective (see the picture at upper-left), however—and again according to Norman—designing for reflection is the most powerful way to build long-term product/user relationships.
Unfortunately, reflective processing is often dismissed by interaction designers as a style question they shouldn’t concern themselves with. To be fair, applying superficial style has too often been used in ways that cause major usability issues—a fairly common occurrence with brand websites for consumer packaged goods. One that comes to mind (although perhaps not the most egregious) is Coors.com, with its wood paneling background image where the navigation gets lost. It is superficial style with no reflective trade-off because not only is its usability quite poor, it is also completely product-centric rather than customer-centric. On the flip side, and what seems to be a recurring problem, is that many very usable digital products and services fail to generate the levels of adoption, engagement, and retention their creators were after because they lack that certain je ne sais quoi that connects with users at a deeper level.
The point of this article is to make the case for reflective processing design in a way that does not detract from usability’s chief concerns. When reflection-based design goes deeper than superficial stylization tricks and taps into our reflected sense of self, products become much more rewarding and life-enhancing, and have a higher potential for a more engaged and longer-lasting customer relationship.
Equally important, and deserving of attention from a UX and user-centered design perspective, is the fact that products that successfully address the reflective level are almost unanimously perceived as more intuitive and easier to use. Norman famously makes that case by pointing out how the original iPod click-wheel navigation was perhaps not the most usable solution but was perceived as the easiest because of Apple’s amazing instinct for reflection-based design.
Reflective Processing in Action
One example of a purely digital product that goes beyond the behavioral and visceral processing design aspects to connect with users at a deeper reflective level is Instagram. What started as a simple photo-editing tool for consumers, quickly became a ubiquitous social image-sharing app that speaks to each user’s creative and nostalgia-imbued sense of identity. Instagram is now woven into social media users’ habits as an intuitive extension of social interactions that also satisfies a reflective sense of aesthetics. It has, in many instances, usurped the more direct—and perhaps more usable—approach of simply uploading unedited photos. Facebook saw immense value in Instagram and bought the company for at least twice its market valuation.
Someone designing a LOB application might ask: "Why should I care about reflective processing when designing business software?" The answer is that it is not just a matter of creating amazing engagement, like Instagram. Attention paid to reflective processing also supports usability and user-centered design objectives, no matter the application or audience. An application that people feel connects to their reflected sense of self will elicit more engagement and be perceived as more intuitive and easy to use.
Here’s the challenge: Effectively designing for reflection is perhaps the hardest task for a designer to perform, as there are really no predictive models, much less a rigorous and empirical process to follow. Success stories typically get attributed to luck, and being able to intuitively tap into the collective zeitgeist to produce creative digital products people can personally relate with. But does that always have to be the case? Aren't there some tools we can all use to better our odds? Here are a few approaches that, in my experience, have worked in favor of designing for reflection.
Be a cultural anthropologist
Being aware of current cultural trends within a target user group is crucial for many reasons, but also plays a role in designing for reflection. Think of some strong current cultural identities at the moment—the bohemian-chic global traveler, for example, or, in the case of a business environment, those who identify themselves as conscious capitalists.
How can functionality and tonality be reflective of a particular notion of self or style that a group identifies with? Spend some time with the target group in their context—in a non-transactional manner that favors intimacy and relationship building—and find out.
Cultural anthropology can also be employed by hiring cultural ambassadors (also referred to as reverse mentors) who help set the tone for your product. To be successful, reverse mentors typically go beyond simply asking the target set their opinions and observe attitudes and behaviors on their turf.
Many designers start by basing their work on universal design principles before trying to apply some cultural specificity, when working the other way around can unlock better adoption rates. Start with a reflective level user experience in mind when defining what the product is, then apply universal design principles and reflective level UX should flow out with more fluidity.
For instance, at the outset of the Nike+ product and user experience concept development process, Nike and their creative technology partners not only learned more about the behaviors and attitudes of casual runners, they also immersed themselves in their particular lifestyle. As a result they learned the importance of a number of self-reflecting attributes such as enjoying music while running, goal-setting, and the weaving of social interactions in building up motivation and keeping track of performance. These attributes did not evolve out of a usability study. They evolved out of a deeper understanding (a keen observation) of how the particular target behaves, and, in this case, how running contributes to their reflected sense of self.
To further enhance a deep connection to users, Nike developed the whole experience with a modern, purposeful, utilitarian, humorous, cool, and not-too-techy interaction and user interface style that reflected the aesthetic aspirations of “casual runners who aspire to be serious about their running and fitness.” The Nike+ series of apps has been a massive success and is credited with helping the brand increase its running shoe market share by 10% (and has also branched out to include training and basketball). There is no question that although many other running performance-tracking apps are out there on the market, Nike+ dominates because of its superb reflective user experience.
Approach it like a digital brand-building exercise
Another way to look at designing for reflective processing is to think of it as digital brand building. Successful brand building is, in effect, the process of aligning a brand’s external attributes (its messaging) with its inherent attributes (its promise) in a way that complements its target audience’s reflected sense of self.
Traditionally, digital brand building is reserved for marketing departments—not necessarily the most educated crowd where interaction design principles are concerned. What ends up happening, more often than not, is simply a skinning exercise, where the brand’s tonality, logo, and colors are slapped onto a prefabricated piece of interactive media. This might even be the case with a custom application that incorporates usability best practices but offers no inspiring deeper connection to users through its interactions. Examples of this approach abound, as we in the UX design field have frustratingly witnessed so many times. The difference between reflective processing-based design and basic usable design also has to do with the types of interactions, not just product concept and style.
I recently analyzed the difference between the default Apple Reminders app and a third party developer’s mobile app called Stky. Stky functions as a reflective digital product, addressing a specific sense of self by seemingly realizing that to-dos needed to be managed in a much more flexible and fluid manner while not losing the ability to assign a sense of urgency when needed—Reminders less so. The Stky app allows users to create a general bucket of to-dos that they can easily shuffle back and forth from very simple completion-goal timeframes like “soon” and “whenever.” The whole experience is presented in an informal visual style that focuses on the day ahead only. The combination of these aspects seems to effectively connect with Millennials’ reflected sense of self surrounding productivity.
So the question is: What combination of interactions, tonality, and feel allows a function to align itself more with the brand? Wildly hypothesizing to make a point and using an example similar to the Stky app above, let’s assume we’re creating a scheduling/calendar app for suburban Gen X parents. The brand promise statement may go something like this: “For the Gen X parent overwhelmed by their children’s schedule, Brand A is the smart application that makes managing and keeping track of their kids’ activities a breeze.”
The important part of the positioning is that it addresses through its promise a specific pain point that can be construed as part of the target’s reflected sense of self. Knowing that, would you create a “My Account” tool to help them manage their preferences or invent something entirely new under the label “Our Ride” or “Rear Hatch” because carpooling or mobility are such big parts of that lifestyle and sense of self? That would imply that one of your research findings is that these things are a crucial part of that specific experience. You would also know what features to include in the tool based on user research. To flesh things out further, you might take inspiration from the best in brand advertising. I’m thinking of what Toyota did with their very clever minivan "Swagger Wagon" campaign aimed at Gen X parents—a great example of reflective level communication in advertising.
Try to inject some of that brand building into your design process. Applying the same principle to all aspects of the experience—architecturally, in the content, and into the visual details—will almost certainly raise your odds at producing reflection-based adoption, engagement, and retention.
Conduct fast generative research
Unfortunately, we don’t always have the resources to hire reverse mentors or the time to conduct extensive cultural anthropologic or ethnographic research. Luckily, there are cheaper and quicker ways to glean some valuable information that could be used for reflective processing design.
Conducting a few non-directed user interviews that focus on the larger picture, not just user tasks as defined by business requirements can help tremendously. By broadening the conversation with interview participants, researchers can discover actual user goals and attitudes that may inform the functions of a specific tool or the aesthetic of the tool from a reflective processing angle. And it doesn’t have to be overly involved. Even five relatively short interviews can produce amazing insights.
Because during non-directed interviews users are not limited to commenting on the current application, (or a planned one) but instead invited to openly speak about what makes them (as humans) successful in achieving their goals, they are likely to reveal attitudes, behaviors, and a reflected sense of self that would otherwise not be displayed or expressed. (For more on non-directed interview techniques and methodology read Mental Models by Indi Young.)
My firm recently conducted research and redesign efforts for a line of business application on behalf of a large manufacturer. The study uncovered that users were resorting to makeshift workarounds away from the application in order to conduct a task they deemed crucial as customer reps. (It’s important to note, this task was not initially identified by the business.) Such a finding would have likely never been discovered had our user research focused strictly on an evaluation of the current application. We would have been stuck focusing on the tool only—trying to improve existing functionalities. Instead, we uncovered a significant opportunity for reflective level design.
Customer reps were performing a self-motivated task that is an essential part of how they consider themselves successful at their job. A large part of this user group’s reflected sense of self as customer service reps is the special relationship they cultivate with their customers. That is why a tool that reflects that back to them is instantly and subjectively perceived as a benefit. The results have been unanimous, with overwhelmingly positive feedback of the entire application’s design during user testing, thanks in large part to this reflective feature.
Reflective processing isn’t anything new to most UX practitioners. Many in the design disciplines have more or less identified the phenomenon using various descriptions to essentially say the same thing. It is the “Style Captures the Attention” section of Steve Tengler’s excellent UX Mag article “Five User Experience Lessons from Tom Cruise”. It is what some call the Apple effect—that special ethereal quality that helps us emotionally connect to the products we use.
It’s just been much harder to embrace in non-consumer product development environments that aren’t highly competitive. As discussed above, the outcomes are hard to predict and it is not just a matter of applying a thin layer of style to our products and services. We have to dig deeper to find what it is that will connect with users at the reflective level. Up until now, the extra effort has rarely been considered worth it.
However, as digital applications increasingly surround us and we have an ever-expanding choice of products and services to use, designing for behavior (usability) and visceral response (persuasion) will gradually become commoditized. There is no doubt in my mind that the next critical differentiator for UX practitioners will be to offer knowledge, guidance, and creative solutions specifically addressing reflective processing. The good news is we have some tools that can help us and as we push forward, using these tools more often, we will eventually have more predictable models.