How to design content for emotionally distressed users
Zone’s senior product designer Isabel Taylor reports on a SofaConf talk that is particularly pertinent for these testing times…
As UX designers, we are (or should be) very familiar with establishing how we want people to feel as a consequence of our designs. Amy Hupe is a content designer and design systems expert who led the content strategy for the GOV.UK Design System. She also lives with Ramsay Hunt syndrome and, at SofaConf 2020, was able to talk us through exactly how to design content for emotionally distressed users, from the perspective of both the user and the designer.
How often do we take the time to understand the state of mind our users are in before using the product/service we’re designing? And I don’t just mean their goals when using whatever it is, I mean how are they actually feeling? What is going on for them at the moment? This year all of us have undergone some kind of stress, and we all know what it’s like to sit at your computer feeling a little frazzled, and with your mind not quite focused on what you’re meant to be doing.
As Amy told us, there is an endless list of reasons why users may be emotionally distressed, be it the loss of a loved one, a change in environment, poor health or financial worries. And this has an impact on everything we do. Our stress doesn’t need to be related to the product we are using for it to affect the way we use it.
To design an emotionally intelligent service, we need to realise that it should be capable of understanding the initial emotional state of its users and shifting them to the desired state. Here are some of the main points Amy covered in order to help us do that:
1. Reduce noise that could cause a user unnecessary stress by:
- Creating a content hierarchy
- Asking ‘Do we really need to publish this content?’
- Not cluttering search results; if someone else is doing it better — point to them
- Only publishing content that adds value
- Removing unnecessary information
- Keeping calls to actions to a minimum and making them concise
2. Avoid danger signals that could increase stress levels by:
- Asking can we still meet the users’ needs without adding more trauma?
- Reducing information that could suggest stress or danger
- Asking ‘Will this help a user make an important action or choice decision?’ If not, best to leave it out
- Choosing the option with the least chance to cause harm
- Asking ‘Do the users really need this information right now?’ If not, perhaps there’s a better time to present them with it
This quote in an information leaflet on Ramsay Hunt syndrome has the potential to distress users further — Amy Hupe, SofaConf 2020
3. Be clear by:
- Being unambiguous
- Being so clear you leave no room for doubt!
Have you ever made a mistake when you’re stressed? Something that with hindsight seems so easily avoidable. Stress impairs our ability to take in and process info, so it’s vital we do everything we can to clear users’ paths and lessen the load on them.
An example of the confusion and uncertainty around the phrase ‘Practise social distancing’ — Amy Hupe, SofaConf 2020
4. Don’t state assumptions about your users such as:
- ‘You’re probably feeling..’
- ‘You might be feeling…’
- ‘We know this is a difficult time..’
Assumptions are risky, because when we assume wrong, we exclude many of our users.
5. Put the user in control
Give the user the choice. However: giving users control doesn’t mean giving them every single choice and every piece of information we have. It’s about finding the right balance.
6. Be prepared to throw out the rule book
Stress affects the way our brains work. In times like these we need to pay extra attention to user needs and preferences. Every situation is different, therefore we have to be prepared to bend the rules we usually have in place. For example, it may be that it’s not relevant to include certain fields or follow certain patterns when it comes to designing for a user filling in a form with sensitive information. We must use our empathy to support them.
I believe we would all do well to be a little bit kinder to our users. Pay more attention to these points all the time when designing, not just when we know our audience are highly distressed. From not making assumptions to making sure we are clear enough, these are principles we should always bear in mind as designers, no matter what user or situation we are designing for.