Even ‘Boring’ Software Should Engage Users on an Emotional Level

Humor and charming characters help bring life to even the blandest of products

Iris Shoor 13:0909.03.18
Building a great product relies on two fundamental principles. The first one is analytical: measuring any significant action in detail and thoroughly understanding what users do (or don"t do). The analytical aspect must be balanced to an equal degree by an emotional aspect: how to make users relate to your product and love it—how to get them excited and even laugh.


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In the case of most "real world" products, unlike programs and applications, this was already understood decades ago. Take cars for example. On the one hand, they should obviously function mechanically and drive well, but it is equally important for a car to have an emotional effect, whether it is making the owner feel like the perfect dad who takes the utmost care to secure his family’s safety, or like a young rebel embarking on an adventure. For some reason, while almost every conceivable product has an emotional experience, it remains rare to find software products which, besides being functional, also make us feel something.


Entrepreneur Iris Shoor. Photo: PR Entrepreneur Iris Shoor. Photo: PR
Why products should generate experiences


My "a-ha" moment about integrating emotions into software products was when I encountered one of the first versions of Heroku, a boring Japanese cloud services platform. Until then, I thought it made sense to add an emotional aspect into "existing" software dealing with aspects like music or dating, for example. I never thought about it in the context of "serious," B2B, technologically complex products.


We all love to feel, laugh and imagine; it is an inseparable part of our lives and there is no reason it should not be integrated into software products. This is where product managers should learn from traditional marketing, films, and even reality shows.


Finding the product’s magic moments


You can’t (and don’t want to) create an emotional experience throughout your entire app. The art in building a strong emotional connection to the product is identifying the right points and creating the spark there. The best products are mostly simple and almost standard, other than when the user encounters new, significant or challenging things.


The key question the product team must ask itself is, “What is our product"s magic moment?”


In today’s reality, when most products are free and users have an extremely short attention span, the product’s value must be evident quickly, and it should evoke a strong emotional response. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you must put on a show or use illustrated characters, but simply that you should highlight this moment and make it shine.


Give your users something real to relate to, a product is not enough


A little clarification is due: all the examples in this post are of "boring" products. No Apple, Facebook, Pinterest or other "cool" products. I want to show it’s possible to bring emotions into any product, even the "boring" ones.


Humans are social beings. We relate to people, animals, and characters rather than companies and organizations. Take a moment to think about the brands you’re attached to; almost all of them revolve around a character, real or fictional, a human being or a creature. Take cornflakes. for example. No, people are not capable of emotionally connecting with small flakes of sugar-frosted corn. Kellogg’s have their iconic tiger, another brand is using famous basketball players, and Fitness builds this connection using fitness trainers.


These very same methods also work for technical products. People find it extremely difficult to relate to a collection of features.


The following are examples of software products that have developed fascinating emotional branding:




I mention MailChimp as my first example because it is considered to be one of the only products to have won a specific market by designing a great UI and making users relate to the product. MailChimp entered the highly competitive market of email automation, which already included many dominant players. The company founder and entrepreneur is an industrial engineer, who had built the product focusing on the emotional side of sending emails. The product’s trademark is a chimpanzee mailman called Freddie. The product uses numerous variations of this character—a flat image, a huge doll, a plastic doll and more. One of their most successful campaigns included a giveaway of chimpanzee hats for cats. Another campaign included children’s coloring pages of the famous chimp in different situations.




GitHub uses different humorous variations of the company’s logo, the Octocat, a cat/octopus. GitHub"s website includes a section devoted to different versions of the Octocat. The Octocat is remarkable for the various "costumes" it wears, which enable it to accommodate any occasion: elections, holidays, feature launches and more.




Takipi (today OverOps) definitely belongs in the "boring" product list: debugging, developers and servers. Don"t get me wrong, I’m not against "boring" companies, they are much more likely to become successful. But, their marketing and product challenges are bigger. How do you make potential users relate to a "boring" product and remember the company?


Even on Takipi"s first days, it was clear that we needed to create a fun, memorable side to the product. Many ideas were rejected: from moles burrowing through the code to books relating the story of a code excerpt.


One of the ways which help me stay focused during long technical discussions is doodling sketches in my notebook. During one discussion on support for multi-threaded debugging I came up with this creature:


The team quickly grew to like Multi Fred, leading to the creation of a "monster" collection, each representing a different bug type. It’s important to clarify—it is difficult to find one theme which every potential user will relate to. So, some users might not think it’s particularly funny and others may consider it a bit childish. However, all of them will remember the company and will be touched in one way or another.


It was amazing to see how only a few weeks after building the brand, Takipi came to be recognized as "the company with the monsters."


Overcoming the product’s challenging moments using emotions and humor


I believe that good product managers should invest most of their resources in the funnel stages when most user leaks occur—whether it’s the registration process, the need to install a certain component, making a user return to the product for the second time or convincing a free user to pay. It is at this stage, that making a user feel something or smile, significantly improves the odds of him going through this challenging moment. The best example is 404 pages—the place where you have "lost" the user and he or she is most likely to close your site’s tab. Note that even the most serious, high-brow companies still use a lot of humor in their 404 pages. To some extent, since companies know that the user is "lost" at this stage, they allow themselves to be more at ease and leave the user with a good feeling. I am sure that the 404 pages that have made you smile (and certainly those that raised a big smile), also made you stay on the site and search for your destination again.


A charming example from MailChimp that makes me smile even after seeing it a hundred times: MailChimp did a great job capturing the moment before a newsletter is sent to hundreds or thousands of people, where people get to the "no-return" stage before sending out a newsletter to thousands of people. MailChimp uses an animation of their iconic chimp who, with a sweat-soaked hand, prepares to push the button; in this way, they generate a funny sense of identification that makes overcoming this unpleasant step a friendlier experience.


And one last example from Takipi—the most challenging step in the funnel was the stage in which users had to install an agent on their server. Although the installation itself takes less than a minute, this step is much more demanding than other parts of the installation. We chose a mildly "guilt-tripping" approach and used the monster character. Instead of sending nagging emails requesting the user to complete the installation, we chose to tell a story about Fred the monster who is stuck in the middle of nowhere, alone and in the dark—because you started but did not complete the installation process. These emails were filled with humor and told a story, helping us increase the number of users completing the installation by a few percentage points.


A version of this column article was originally published on Ms. Shoor's blog .


Iris Shoor is a serial entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Tel Aviv-based analytics startup Oribi Systems Ltd.

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