How human do you feel online today?

An in-depth look at how good UX can humanize your product.


Kelsey O'Connor

2 years ago | 6 min read

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

“It is the duty of machines and those who design them to understand people. It is not our duty to understand the arbitrary, meaningless dictates of machines.” — Don Norman

The irony of UX design is that too often our digital interface, designed by humans for humans, still feels digital. We communicate with one another through machinery with a paralleled robotic, rigid tone. A simple “hello, how are you?” pop-up on a brand’s landing page can shift a user’s experience completely. After all, engagement on a web or mobile platform is a two-way street — users can benefit from the brand and brands can benefit from users. So why not make the conversation more conversational?

Ultimately, we don’t all speak the same language or have the same sense of humor. But we all share the same characteristics of basic humanity as it relates to online behavior. We like to learn new things quickly. We like to be productive. We like to feel accomplished when we finish a task.

Model UX design by Mailchimp
Model UX design by Mailchimp

“Social media is harmful to your mental health.” We’ve heard it time and time again. Tech moguls like Mark Zuckerburg at the forefront of its creation have even gone as far as to ban their children from it altogether.

So, what if we switched the discourse? Instead of writing off technology completely, in a time when its usage is virtually impossible to avoid, let’s ask — what level of control do we have?

In the world of UX, the answer is: a lot.

We have control over the user’s emotions, the ability to predict and prevent their moments of frustration and even improve their mood when we see fit.

In recent news, Slack has been celebrated for its understanding of this control. In lieu of a software update, the messaging platform recently utilized their space in the App Store for a wellness check.

Readers may find this section a bit unusual but by stripping dialogue of traditional formalities, Slack is exercising its authenticity. In developing an authentic brand voice, it’s important to consider:

What separates us from the machines we govern?

Technology ages just like us, through a process of trial and error, learning and adapting from its failures and successes. In this sense, we are much more similar to technological products than we’d like to admit. However, the distinguishing factor is the emotions we feel that are tied to our daily ups and downs. Emotions are the very thing that makes us human, therefore implementing emotional design is the best way to connect with users. It’s also why a strong EQ (emotional intelligence) is one of the most highly valued skills in user experience writers.

For companies and designers looking to improve their brand’s reputation and appeal, understanding the power of empathy is critical. Not to be confused with sympathy or pity, empathy is the direct result of imagining yourself in another’s position to relate to their current state of mind. Think usability testing. If we anticipate our behavior within a product to be similar or the same as how our users will behave, we are designing with bias. If we conduct usability testing, actually walk through the process with our users, and observe and imagine how they experience our application, we are designing with empathy.

One of the biggest misconceptions about empathy is that you must have an aptitude for it. While empathizing could come easier to some than others, it is certainly an ability that can be taught and improved upon.

There is a growing need for those with a background in the humanities to enter the tech industry. Why? Because companies are beginning to realize that investing in human-centered design is not only ethical, but quite lucrative as well. In America alone, 20% of internet users report some kind of disability. We have a short window to empathize with these users. If they find our site to have poor usability, they’ll move on in a matter of seconds and we’ll lose that entire market — around 58 million people. Something as simple as improving color contrast for those with low visibility, or adding a voice feature for users with poor motor skills could be the key to assuring user satisfaction.

Disabled Americans are continuously forgotten in the tech agenda
Disabled Americans are continuously forgotten in the tech agenda

It may seem odd to fill a bunch of tech positions with English and History majors — but these employees are much more equipped for product development than you may think. Decades of research have proven reading is linked to increased empathy and emotional intelligence. Soft skills like communication and listening are in high demand as advancements in AI and other features are rolling out faster than ever, posing major ethical risks.

A few years back, I attended a convention in which one of the speakers had prior experience as a Content Strategist at Facebook. His speech, a nod to the importance of pursuing degrees in the humanities, noted a critical mistake of Facebook in the years he had worked there.

In an effort to energize user experience, Facebook brainstormed a new feature to showcase at the end of the year. Algorithms were tasked with determining the post on a user’s profile with the most engagement (likes, comments, etc.), and redistributing it, only this time it would be packaged with confetti. The idea behind the feature was to celebrate major milestones users had during the years, such as graduations, weddings, and other life events. However, somewhere along the line in production, the vision at conception diverted extremely from the end result. Though programmers had been warned by content strategists to reevaluate the idea, their advocation was continuously ignored. The consequence? Users who had posted about the loss of a family member received a reminder of their post inappropriately decorated in a celebratory manner, as these kinds of posts tended to have most interactions.

2016 update to Facebook reactions. The reason: “Not everything is likable”.
2016 update to Facebook reactions. The reason: “Not everything is likable”.

After the event, the advice of content strategists was taken a lot more seriously. Ultimately this was a very preventable ethical error, one that those with a humanities mindset were able to foresee by simply empathizing with users.

That employees at Facebook were considered to be the brightest minds in tech at the time of the event is among the most unsettling factors. With as much reach as Facebook and similar platforms have, it is necessary their teams are composed of employees from diverse educational backgrounds. The experience serves as a helpful case study for Facebook and other brands to always remember that the consequences of underestimating UX and Content Strategy teams can often be catastrophic.

Simple tips to humanize tech

Here are a few tips to improve your brand’s UX even the slightest bit:

Positive reinforcement — People like to feel rewarded when they’ve done something the correct way. Positively reinforcing users can be as simple as a “Congrats!” message following a successful in-app payment.

Use names — It’s commonly researched that using someone’s name in conversation is a psychology trick to increase how much they like you. If we consider our product a human, the same principle applies. By repeating a user’s name, they are subconsciously more drawn to our product. They automatically feel validated as the platform is customizing their experience.

Write in everyday language — Stop trying to sound smart. Using plain language is a great way to grab a user’s attention as they can digest information quickly. Avoid any technical terms your audience may not know. “We” and “I” are also helpful in communicating that content is written intentionally by an actual team and not just churned out mechanically.

Provide a face to the brand — Again, users like knowing that real people are behind the brand. Adding an “About” section with pictures or testimonials from employees is an excellent way to establish ethos and a personal connection with users.


There are many ways to humanize tech. The most important thing is to keep trying, iterating different versions and seeing what works or doesn’t work with users. Looking at case studies of bad UX can be just as helpful as good ones, as they can demonstrate how to prevent users from developing a negative impression of a brand.

Moral of the story: Read a book — it’ll make you a better person.


Created by

Kelsey O'Connor

Former hokie interested in writing, design, and technology.







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