August 12, 2010

The Emotional Design of Firefox

Earlier this year I read Don Norman’s Emotional Design, and I’ve been reflecting on some of the reasons I decided to start using Firefox back in 2004.

When I hear most people talk about why they used Firefox, they sound pretty rational. They liked Firefox because it stopped pop-ups; it had tabs; or because it was faster than Internet Explorer.

My recollections of my first impressions of Firefox involved some of those things, but I mostly remember having a positive emotional reaction to the product. I’d always supported the mission of open-source software, for instance, but I’d never actually used any open-source software that acted like it wanted to help people who weren’t computer experts. There were a number of cues that indicated this, from the adorable yet professional logo of a firey-tailed fox hugging the world to a clean, simple, and unintimidating user interface.

Don Norman might call this a combination of visceral and reflective responses to the product I was using: “shallow” qualities that are usually associated with marketing rather than usability. Yet they changed the way I used the software, by making me actively want to use it, and not in the same way I used Internet Explorer. I feverishly explored all its dialogs and add-ons and learned everything I could about this new gem I’d stumbled upon. I’d just been a user of Internet Explorer—but with Firefox, I was a fan.

Early in his book, Norman states:

We have long known that when people are anxious they tend to narrow their thought processes, concentrating upon aspects directly relevant to a problem. This is a useful strategy in escaping from danger, but not in thinking of imaginative new approaches to a problem. Isen's results show that when people are relaxed and happy, their thought processes expand, becoming more creative, more imaginative.

These and related findings suggest the role of aesthetics in product design: attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively. How does that make something easier to use? Simple, by making it easier for people to find solutions to the problems they encounter.

In short, the social, cultural, and artistic context surrounding a product has a lot to do with its usability. If a product’s context is constructed such that users are positively engaged when they start using it, then it actually becomes more usable.

Today, one of my favorite examples of empathic design in Firefox is actually the title of an error page:

A comment in Firefox’s source code provides the rationale for this:

The title is intended to be apologetic and disarming, expressing dismay and regret that we are unable to restore the session for the user.

The very notion of trying to express dismay and regret is extremely rare in computer software. I love it, as the few times I’ve seen it, the disarming has worked—it’s made me chuckle out loud, and the humor conveyed immediately reminds me that I’m using software created by fallible human beings who care about my data. This sort of affective design needs to be done extremely carefully, since it could easily backfire and come off as ingenuine or patronizing—but in my opinion, it’s worth the effort.

© Atul Varma 2020