How Humanising Your Product can Make all the Difference

BY Megan Sayers ON MARCH 14, 2019

An illustration of an adult giving candy to a smiling child
For a bootstrapped product start-up, investing in visual design and illustration to humanise your product can seem like a low priority. You’ve bugs to fix, marketing to fund, and a user feedback log as long as your arm.

Delightful touches, like illustration, are a luxury for those with six-figure investment, surely?

A nice to have – the icing on the cake?

Maybe not.

They could be the magic ingredient that binds your product together, and keeps your users loyal. Here’s why:

1. Illustrations can Reduce User Frustration by Humanising Your Product

When a product is in its infancy, errors happen and frustrations can rise quickly when there is no friendly human present. Illustrations can be used to deliver a dose of human emotion just as you’re stretching your user’s patience – making it more likely that you’ll keep them on side during those inevitable teething problems.

Imagine this real-life scenario. You’re withdrawing some cash at an ATM. You go through the steps of entering your PIN and select the amount you want to withdraw. You wait for the machine to dispense the cash, but something has gone wrong. You’re left staring at a blank screen.

Eventually the machine displays an error message, spits out your card, and you have to start the entire process again.

On your second attempt the same thing happens, and frustrated, you kick the machine. (A slight overreaction, but we all have bad days. I won’t judge you.)

Now imagine the same scenario but this time, rather than a machine, you’re inside the bank speaking to a human cashier.

The cashier smiles and has a friendly tone, but again an error occurs during the transaction and you’re unable to withdraw the cash. The human smiles apologetically and you feel irritated – but you don’t kick them. (At least I hope not, or I would judge you.)

Introducing humanising touches to your product can diffuse user frustration in a similar way. AirBNB does this perfectly with its 404 page:

AirBNB's error page with a delightful illustration

2. Illustrations can Increase Customer Satisfaction

The Kano Model, developed by Noriak Kano in the 1980s, uses a simple grid that compares investment with customer satisfaction, helping us prioritise product development. (You can read more about this here if you’re not familiar with the Kano Model.)

The Kano Model (with thanks to Martin Eriksson)

In the Kano model, the surprise touches that users enjoy are called “delighters”. For example, imagine a staff member handing a free lollipop to your child to keep them happy while you queue at the bank.

In the digital world, a delighter could be a humorous illustration that pops up whilst you’re waiting for a form to submit, or the cute little mascot that appears on help dialogues. It’s something that makes the customer feel good, that they’re likely to remember.

Delighters generally have a greater satisfaction to investment ratio than other features; think of the cost of lollipops relative to a complete refit of the bank’s interior. A lollipop is also likely to make more of an impression on the customer’s memory than a refit.

The same can be applied to digital products. Illustration can be considerably less expensive than redesigning and rebuilding sections of your product – yet can have a greater user satisfaction score.

3. Illustrations can Help you Retain Users by Improving Onboarding

User onboarding is one of the most important parts of the user journey. Without a good onboarding process you’re likely to see a steep retention drop right after sign up. Improving the onboarding process can be one of the most effective ways to improve retention.

A good onboarding process should give the user an “aha!” moment. This is the moment they fully understand the value your product will give them – and illustration is one of the quickest and most effective ways to do this.

Whether it’s to convey an emotion or explain a process, illustration can achieve in a glance what words alone can fail to do.

Keeping users engaged during onboarding can also be a challenge. If they have to jump through several verification hoops to set up their account, keeping them entertained during this process can be make or break. Much like the lollipop for your child in the queue at the bank.

An animated illustration of a Monzo debit card smiling and running
Partway through the Monzo onboarding process there must be a lull of a couple of days while the user is sent their new bank card. To avoid users losing interest, Monzo takes that opportunity to build excitement with an emotion-filled animated mascot.

4. Illustrations Could Give you a Free PR and Marketing Boost

Including illustrations within the user experience can give users unexpected moments of delight. Done well, surprise touches like this can attract a small crowd of people who want to see what made their colleague snort their coffee out their nose.

If you’re really lucky, they’ll share it on social media. At the very least your user will smile to themselves, and log a positive memory of your product – making them more likely to remember and recommend it over your competitors.

You can even bag yourself some extra publicity by choosing an illustrator who has a large social media following – as they’re likely to share the work they do for you on their social media accounts.

Finally, if you plan your illustrations well they can double up to be used both within the user interface and as part of your marketing campaigns.

TunnelBear has made a potentially boring product memorable with its comedy bear

5. Illustrations can Build Strong Brand Recognition – Fast

Illustration can play a huge part in building a brand identity and if you’re tight on budget you can sometimes get away with keeping the brand itself simple (simple logo, typeface, and colours) and invest more in a quality illustration style or mascot that your users will love and remember you for.

A timeline of the Mailchimp mascot visual evolution
You don’t need to get it perfect first time; Mailchimp’s monkey mascot has evolved over time without losing its identity

A few Tips to Summarise

  1. Identify your user’s pain points and if you can’t immediately fix them, soften them with illustrations that remind them that you’re human and you care.
  2. Use the Kano model to prioritise your features, including delighters like illustration that can give you quick win customer satisfaction points.
  3. Use illustration to improve your onboarding process to win users’ hearts early on and avoid early retention drop-off.
  4. Consider carving budget for illustrations from your PR and marketing budgets, because fun illustrations often get shared online, making great user generated content.
  5. Consider economising on branding, within reason, to free budget for illustration – it can be more powerful for brand recognition than a fancy logo. (What do you remember about TunnelBear? The logo or the bear?)
  6. If you do decide to introduce illustration to delight your users, make sure you choose a consistent style that fits your brand and market – remember that you want to surprise and delight them, but not confuse them.
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Megan Sayers

About

Megan Sayers

Megan is a freelance designer who specialises in design for digital products. Alongside her regular work as Mind the Product’s designer, Megan works with businesses to improve their product branding, visual design, and user experience. Also a keen illustrator, she helps her clients to create brand illustration systems that can be used as part of their wider design systems.