The New Voice of YOU: Communicating Through the Digital Interface

Digital interfaces we own, design, or develop are an extension of our face, our voice, our body, and our words. So every time someone interacts with a device or app it is also an interaction between that person and us—the creators of that interface. When we think about it that way, we can understand the growing call among the UX community for a shift in perspective from “User-Centered Design” to “People-Centered Design.”

Direct human communication is not easy. Whether with parents, children, spouses, colleagues, or even the cashier at the supermarket, opportunities for misunderstandings and miscommunication are the norm. So how do we manage even a reasonable communication by proxy? Can we design interfaces that are better at understanding and communicating with people for a more effective and satisfying interaction?

I believe we can.

There are plenty of how to guides on improving communication between people. I would like to use Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, perhaps the best known how-to guide of all, to illustrate how principles for better human communication can improve digital interactions.

A boy draws a smiley face in the fog on a window.

Figure 1. Smile!

Principle 1: Smile

Making a good first impression with users is crucial. It can tilt the scale towards downloading our app, subscribing to our blog, or purchasing on our website.

In discussing ways to make a good first impression, Carnegie demonstrates how brightening up our own demeanor radiates to those around us, making our interactions not only pleasant, but actually profitable. In his words: “..a smile says, ‘I like you. You make me happy. I’m happy to see you.’” Of course, as Carnegie emphasizes, it’s the genuine smile that does the magic. An insincere grin is immediately recognized and rejected.

But how can you make a digital interface smile and make it feel genuine?

As Carnegie shows, a smile can be more than the visible combination of eyes and teeth. It is also the tone of your voice, the shake of your hand, and the air or vibe you exude, even if your interaction is over the phone. The idea is to present a happy state of being, one that invites people to enjoy and share in this happiness.

Translating this to the design of a digital interface means a number of things:

  • Understanding what makes particular users and customers happy as people within this user group. What will put a smile on their faces?
  • Present to users that which, for their user group, is an unmistakable sign of joy or fun. It can be a witticism, a game, or visuals of sunny beaches, but it must be understood without explanation.

Here are examples of a digital smile in action:

Google doodles are fun and easy interactions, which often replace the standard Google logo and invite visitors to join the fun. (It’s clear that the people making them had fun).

Father, son and daughter riding in a home-made winged go-cart

Figure 2: Family fun in Google’s doodle for Father’s Day in Brazil, 2014

The Hipmunk logo is a sweet creature that is clearly having a lot of fun flying. The mobile application logo is one big fun smile, used both as the application icon and within the application.

A chipmunk spreading its arms in mock flight

Figure 3. The Hipmunk logo dances while is searches for flights

Of course, just as in human interactions, a smile is not always what you want to project; maybe your users expect an “I mean business” service or “This is serious stuff” atmosphere. It’s up to you to determine when to smile at your users and when it’s time for a serious talk. You should also avoid asking users to affirm this happiness; this may send a conflicting message, putting them on their guard.

Principle 2: Make the Other Person Feel Important—and Do it Sincerely

Carnegie concludes that perhaps the most important element of any interaction is making the person feel important and appreciated. Achieve this, and you have reached the person’s heart.

And yes, be sincere about it.

How do we make others feel important? What are the things that make us feel important and appreciated?

Respect who they are.

I recently flew with United Airlines. I am not an American resident and I was looking for the address of the United Airlines office in my country. The website automatically identified my location and even had the flag of my country displayed to let me know they know where I am.

But while the information for the U.S. and Canada is provided within one click,  to find the local office address, I was required to browse deeper instead of it being the default information.

Respect what they want.

As the song says, “You can’t always get what you want…,” but even when a request cannot be answered—or must be outright denied—you still can get what you need: a little respect.

Learn what your customers and visitors want when they interact with you and let them know that you respect their desires, whether you can accommodate them or not.

Amazon’s “Alert me when an out-of-stock item is available” option is a good example of respecting a customer’s unfulfilled wishes. Alternately, interactive voice response (IVR) systems are a frequent example of companies’ blatant disrespect for their customers’ wishes.

Pay attention to what they are feeling.

This is perhaps the most important way to make people feel important and appreciated…and the hardest to accomplish. Especially when feelings are on the low end of the spectrum.

How can you tell what a person is feeling on the other end of an interface?

Even without artificial intelligence behind your interfaces, you can often make a good guess. For example, a person entering the “Help” section is likely to be somewhat confused, maybe even getting frustrated and angry. This is when they are the least patient and need the greatest assistance and patience from you. As in the Amazon example above, a customer whose request cannot be fulfilled is probably disappointed to some degree.

Acknowledge these emotions and, if you can, act on them (like the example of Amazon alerting users when a product is available).

Tell others.

Social sites are applying this principle so well that unless we are new or infrequent users, we don’t even notice anymore when our content is pushed to our contacts’ walls.

LinkedIn has taken this one step further by designating certain high-profile accounts as “Influencers” and promoting them to LinkedIn subscribers. The list is updated constantly with the implicit promise that you too may one day make the list. How important is that?

The basic requirement to applying this principle is to know your users. The better you know them the more opportunities you have for expressing your appreciation of them. Your users, just as your spouse, child, boss, employee, or return customer, will expect it of you.

Principle 3: Don’t Criticize, Condemn, or Complain

Criticizing others is typically human. We may criticize people for various reasons: they made an error, they didn’t understand us, or they are misunderstood by us. Even if they simply acted in a different manner from what we expected, we should not criticize them.

Carnegie warns us against criticizing people: it simply doesn’t work. Plus it has the converse effect of creating antagonism against the critic.

As if taken right out of “The UX Professional’s Manual” Carnegie says, “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do.” (Did I mention this book was written in 1937?)

Alan Cooper, in his seminal book About Face, warns against negative feedback, which makes users feel stupid and angry. Error prevention and good error messages are also part of Nielsen’s 10 heuristics for usability in interface design.

The fundamental premise is, in my view, to address user errors and misunderstandings as a glitch in communication. And it is our responsibility to identify it and to fix it. Indeed, this is true in every case where the user has acted in a manner which is outside the optimal task flow.

Why is this crucial?

Well, for starters, because it’s true.

Within my interface, the interaction is controlled by the rules I set. Misunderstandings are the results of these rules. Additionally, the interaction itself was initiated by me—in creating the interface—to promote my purpose or goals. It is in my interest to push the interaction forward toward whatever goal it serves, and this means that I am responsible for anticipating that the person interacting with my interface may act differently than I had expected and provide for this.

There is an added benefit avoiding criticism. As Carnegie puts it “…it breeds sympathy, tolerance, and kindness,” and this, in turn, will make people more tolerant of my mistakes.

It may be easier than you’d think:

  • Avoiding “it’s your fault” messages is obvious. But it’s less obvious to also avoid “it’s my fault” messages. Talking about anybody’s fault can put people on guard (“Will it be my fault next?”) and is not the way to go.
  • Acknowledge that a legitimate misunderstanding or mishap has occurred. Note that you don’t have to actually “say” anything, but you do have to be prepared for this event with a reaction that can ensure that the interaction does not stop then and there.
  • If you can’t pursue the interaction without interrupting the user, provide clear suggestions on how the interaction can return to its intended track.
  • Offer explanations and clarifications as to your intentions and expectations (like using assisting text within input fields and providing help links and online chat).

A great example are the responses of Google and Bing to a search for an unclear string—displaying results for an assumed, similar search—with the option to search instead for the original string.

Message: Showing results for Abraham Lincoln. Search instead for  abrm linciln

Figure 4: Google provides a suggested (corrected) string, but keeps my original request readily available.

Principle 4: Be a Good Listener

An interaction is a dialog, and as Carnegie points out, a good dialog requires that you truly listen to your partner.

Carnegie notes additional benefits of being a good listener: it pays your partner a compliment, providing them with a feeling of importance, and often generates good will.

People, says Carnegie, are much more interested in themselves than they are in you, so in order to generate a good dialog, encourage them to talk about themselves and, as he puts it, “ask questions they will enjoy answering.”

For me, the most valuable element in Carnegie’s insight is to listen “with genuine interest,” to seek to understand the wishes of the other person with the intent of making them happier and more satisfied.

In his book Improv for Storytellers Keith Johnstone adds that to listen is to “be altered by what’s said.” This means you are gathering information, not for your purposes, but rather for the other person’s benefit. And you must listen for—and sometimes ask—what this benefit is.

As UX professionals we are reminded to observe behavior and even ignore what users are saying. In many cases, this applies to digital applications as well. Since digital communication is mostly action and often involves no written or spoken words at all, we must gain insight to our users’ wishes through their actions.

One example of how this is not achieved can be seen when Google asks a direct question: do I want to allow or deny to use my device’s location? If I choose to tap the “X” rather than the “Deny” option, Google will display this question every time I search, completely ignoring the fact that I have tapped “X” on each occasion, thus indicating that “Allow” is not an option.

The message reads “ wants to use your device location” with buttons to close (X), deny, or allow.

Figure 5: Google search on mobile. How many “Xs” equals “Deny”?

Principle 5: Throw Down a Challenge

Speaking about motivation and productivity, Carnegie observes that the desire to excel and to perform better is rewarded in doing the work itself as an opportunity to prove one’s own worth.

In daily human interaction, this can be compared to complementing children on their efforts not their successes and, as the research of happiness is showing, in rewarding employees with recognition, autonomy, and greater challenges rather than more money.

The main theme here is to achieve interaction and user involvement through encouragement, by talking about a person’s current position compared to where they began and how this brings them closer to their next milestone.

A bar showing progress relative to a goal with a trophy at the end.

Figure 6: With hardly a word said, NikeFuel shows that you are progressing to your next milestone and prize.

But take care to phrase your encouragements carefully. also encourages users to progress on their online courses, but “You completed X out of Y..” can just as easily be read as a complaint; tone of voice does not come through in the written text.

The message says “You completed 73 out of 83 lectures”.

Figure 7: Is Udemy encouraging or admonishing me?

Make the Most of the Opportunity

Human communication can be difficult when done directly, and these difficulties multiply when communication is indirect.

But when we succeed, we achieve a more satisfying and effective interaction that benefits both the people interacting with digital interfaces and those who created them. UX designers are best positioned to lead this approach by incorporating the principles of human communication in our design processes:

  • During user and business requirements research
  • Designing interactions
  • Designing the GUIs
  • Testing
  • Iterating

Digital interfaces are our extension. We are the people who create and manage them and through them we interact with other people. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.

Thank you.


Zmora, O. (2015). The New Voice of YOU: Communicating Through the Digital Interface. User Experience Magazine, 15(1).
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