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There is a lot of chatter going on about designing the customer experience.

Usable designs – interfaces where the user can do the task – are no longer enough. Today's focus is broader. An individual interface is less important than understanding how the interface fits in the larger system of interactions. We don't create customers, we create relationships with customers.

Establishing a relationship via technology-2-human "conversation" is tricky. Without actually being there, you need to hold up your end of the conversation. This means predicting both where the conversation could go, and knowing how to repair it when it doesn't.

How "oddvertising" works...

It's well known that humor is an important part of human-2-human interaction. Appropriately invoked, humor can help to establish and deepen relationships. Can humor also help to establish and deepen relationships in a technology-2-human interaction?

Emerging research shows that it can. For instance, humor within email campaigns has a positive effect on sales (McKeown, 2002). Some researchers believe this happens because humor increases engagement, leaving the humored more alert and more actively interpreting the information that follows. As a result, subsequent messaging is processed more deeply and, by extension, is more likely to be acted on (Courturier, Mansfield & Gallagher, 1981)

Here is an example of brand nurturing through humor. Note label of the email field. Whereas in the past it would be labeled "required," this field is labeled as "optimistically requested". This choice of label demonstrates that this designer understands that "customer experience" sometimes trumps "usability" – in this case, even potentially at the expense of getting an email address to add to their spam list.

Taking this route – a cute instruction on a NOT required field – leaves site visitors chuckling (at least it did me.) Nope, I did not give them my email address. But I explicitly took notice of that bit of humor, and it had an impact on my remembering that site and that company. And, in the spirit of the social networking world, I've now pointed out this example to thousands of additional people.

Toyota Prius

A penguin walks into a bar...

In the human-2-human environment, humor can distract or diffuse a tense moment. A clever turn of phrase or self-deprecating quip can change the mood, generating space for creating or repairing trust within exchanges. Can humor also help to mitigate or repair difficult interactions within human-2-technology interactions?

van Dolen, de Ruyter and Streukens (2008) suggest that it can. To explore when and how humor matters, they contrasted participant attitude/experience/behavioral intentions ratings after booking a ski trip on a travel website that was varied in several ways:

  • Usability: Participants were exposed to a website that either conformed to best practices of usability or elicited frustration. The frustrating site included "random" 10-second delays, broken links, tiny pictures and illegible text, difficult navigation, and forms that lost personal information from one page to the next.
  • Humor: Participants either encountered humorous pictures, animations, and jokes related to skiing, or unrelated, neutral images, animations, and symbols.
  • Outcome: Participants received feedback indicating that either their ski vacation could be booked or that it ultimately could not be booked.

Not surprisingly, relevant humor embedded within a usable experience leading to a positive outcome is the best approach. Also not surprisingly, humor doesn't help when the situation is broadly frustrating. Humor embedded within a bad website yielding a disappointing outcome makes things worse.

The middle cases are actually more interesting, though. The experience ratings of participants booking travel on a non-humorous site depended more directly on the outcome of the interaction. If the site was usable and the outcome was good, participants were satisfied. If the site was usable and the outcome was disappointing, the participants were disappointed, overall.

When humor was present, it helped to mitigate disappointing outcomes. Booking on humorous, usable websites led to more positive ratings, even when the outcome was ultimately disappointing. Somehow the use of humor within a usable site seemed to change – perhaps humanize? – the dynamic, such that participants felt better about the interaction, even if the outcome wasn't great.

Though they don't explain quite how or why, the researchers conclude that invoking emotion, particularly via humor, can provide a shield against subsequent unfavorable outcomes. Perhaps humor makes the "conversation" feel more real?


Courturier, L., Mansfield, R., & Gallagher, J. (1981). Relationships between humor, formal operational ability, and creativity in eighth graders. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 39, 221-226.

McKeown, M. (2002). Why they don't buy; make your online customer experience work. London: Prentice-Hall.

van Dolen, W., de Ruyter, K., & Streukens, S. (2008). The effect of humor in electronic service encounters, Journal of Economic Psychology 29 (2008) 160-179.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

Jean Stuart

I like the idea of humor. I like the subtlety of the (optimistically requested). I would think for UIs I rarely vist, humor would be very acceptable and even entertaining; but for UIs I visit regularly, it would have to be very subtle, so as to not become annoying. I kill the Microsoft Office Assistant just as soon as it pops up and make sure it stays dead. That particular novelty wore off fast.

Gerard van Os

Good article on humor in interaction design. Eric is right in his grief of having to develop yet another set of metrics. The one thing that hits me the most is the non-global character of humor. Cultures throughout the world have their own sets of humor. It makes it even more difficult to "design for all".

That being said, I do believe that humor can help!

Mario Cavallini
Rosetta Marketing

Years ago, I read that humor is a way of establishing comfort with a situation; we laugh at a prat fall when we are comfortable that the person didn't really get hurt. In that light, think of humor as an affordance for lack of harm. We pick up the light tone, and we shift mindset; oh, the form didn't work, oh well, no big deal.

Incidentally, Eric, being edgy is not the core of humor. If anything, the defining characteristic is the switch: humor comes when our understanding of the situation suddenly changes. This points out another pitfall in using humor in a canned, not-really-two-way conversation: since a joke carries two meanings, you want to make sure that the audience/site-user gets the "real" meaning you want him/her to get. Technology, unfortunately, can't explain the joke if the visitor doesn't get it quickly.


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