Emotionally-centered design

Web 2.0 is coming. Rich Internet applications (RIA) are here. Hurrah! The internet has caught up with the desktop, at long last. As a result, they provide some natural experiments in emotionally-attractive websites, allowing us to contrast the more traditional, static html page website with these more interactive, dynamic ones, where there are natural controls for information content, utility, and usability. So let’s see what we can learn from them. In this exploration, I concentrate on map websites because they provide the ingredients for appropriate comparisons.

We know how to make products that are easy to use and understand. But what about emotions? What about designs that delight? What do we know about how to produce an emotional impact?

Why are Goggle earth, Google maps (maps.google.com), the Beta version of Yahoo! maps (maps.yahoo.com/beta) and Microsoft’s Windows Live (local.live.com) so compelling, addictive, delightful? They provide the same information as the older, static maps from Yahoo!, MapQuest, MSN, and others, and the very same driving directions. They aren’t any more usable or easy to understand than the older, more static sites – some people have even found them more difficult, especially in their beta deployments. But they are more fun and engaging. What lessons can be learned from this?

To see what I am referring to, enter a geographical location into your favorite, old-style mapping program. Then go to all three of the RIA sites: maps.google.com, maps.yahoo.com/beta, and local.live.com and look at the same location. The maps on the RIA sites look the same as the more traditional one, that is until you try to move a map so you can see more area to the sides, and zoom in and out, or superimpose satellite images (only available on Google and Windows Live).

The main ingredients of RIA are pre-caching of content coupled with more processing on the client side. The result is instant response, the ability to drag and drop internet content, and fluid, responsive graphics. Macromedia’s Flash was a precursor to this style of interaction, and Macromedia’s Flex tools improve upon the experience. Lately, developers have exploited AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript And XML) for these purposes. Laszlo Systems provides developer tools: You can find interesting sites at Laszlo Systems. (Also visit wikipedia for their articles on Ajax and Rich Internet Applications). Google mail and maps were perhaps the first mainstream applications of AJAX tools, although they were not the first deployment. Where Google goes, the competition follows, including the mapping websites listed above. The main result of this competition is that everyone has benefited. Expect to see this style of interaction proliferate.

But most of you already know all this. The question I want to ask is, why are these so compelling? Is it the joy of immediacy after so many years of slow, clunky websites? Or perhaps it is the pleasure of the fluid movement, with information overlaying the maps. Many Flex and Laszlo applications grow and shrink, making the traditional birds-eye display of information exciting and useful. Or look at Google Earth (download required). Although it is indeed useful and fun to examine the entire world in exquisite photographic detail, a good deal of the pleasure comes from the smooth movement as one flies around the world, soaring up in the air to travel large distances, then swooping down at the destination points. Emotionally engaging.

The immediacy of response is both fun and useful. The fluidity of the graphics is engaging. These are visceral experiences: viscerally exciting websites. The traditional map sites, with sensible, reasonable interaction and instructions are behaviorally appropriate, but they lack excitement. I believe that a good deal of the visceral excitement comes from the graceful movements.

Interestingly, I believe the best display of route instructions comes from a more traditional, static website: LineDrive. LineDrive comes from Maneesh Agrawala’s PhD thesis at Stanford. Agrawala developed a method for displaying routes that are structured the way people think: so the route only contains major landmarks and turning points and the drawing is simplified to eliminate extraneous detail. The route drawing is not to scale: it is expanded in complex areas, shrunk in simple ones. His technique was first made commercially available by MapBlast, which was purchased by Microsoft, where it now resides. To see it, go either to www.mapblast.com or maps.msn.com, give a starting and ending location, and then click the radio box labeled “LineDrive” before clicking on “Get Directions.” I find the result both behaviorally useful and viscerally compelling, although not in the same way as Google, Yahoo!, or Windows Live maps.

So what are we to make of this? These rich sites provide graceful movement, flowing screens, semi-transparent overlays, subtle colors: these are all components of the engaging interfaces. Are these the components that make them so compelling? Or is there something else?

Finally, we are moving from static pages to dynamic displays, where the movement is a major part of the charm.

I’d like to see this studied through controlled experiments with valid behavioral and subjective measures. Meanwhile, while waiting for the science to reveal the secrets, there is a mad rush of developers, all anxious to explore Rich Internet technologies, all anxious to add movement and overlays to their pages. We’ve seen this type of over enthusiasm before, so be prepared to go through a phase where everything shimmers, where panels shrink and expand, where you will never know whether to left click, right click, or center click (even for those with a one-button mouse). Some objects will have to be dragged and dropped, others waved over, saying a mystical chant. But the end result of this experimentation should be a richer, far more engaging internet.

We are moving from static pages with their clunky, slow repainting of the page to fluid, dynamic displays, where the movement is a major part of the charm. We are moving from behaviorally effective designs to ones that add emotional engagement.


Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Professor at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being Emotional Design. He lives at www.jnd.org.

Disclaimer for this article: Microsoft, Macromedia, and Google are or have been clients of the Nielsen Norman group. Yahoo! once bought me dinner.

Column written for Interactions. © CACM, 2006. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included. The definitive version will be published in Interactions, .