Designing for Emotion Interview with Aarron Walter, Lead UX Designer MailChimp

In this 10 minute interview with Aarron Walter, Web Designer and author of a variety of books, Aarron shares insights about his experience as a Web designer, user experience professional and concepts of “emotional design” and how to engage users through the website and his new book that covers how to create websites, solutions and applications that are not only useful but also fun and engaging. Aarron also shares his thoughts about the skills required and his enthusiasm for job opportunities for Web professionals.



Bill: I’m on the phone with Aarron Walter, UX lead at MailChimp and author of Designing with Emotion. Aarron, good afternoon your time and thanks for agreeing to the interview.

Aarron Walter: Hey, Bill, how are you?

Bill: I’m well, thanks. Thanks for taking the call. Listen, Aarron you’re a web professional, a consonant web professional. You’ve been around for a number of years and you’ve written several books. The one that I would like to own in on today is your Designing with Emotion book, in fact you have a session coming up you know emotional interface design session. Can we talk about that session and then can we talk about the book?

Aarron Walter: Sure.

Bill: What’s the session all about?

Aarron Walter: So, yeah, I mean I have been given this talk that’s essentially summing up some of the research I’ve been doing at MailChimp with my colleagues and the idea is that I kind of feel like if we’re at this point with communication on the web where it’s just you know this modification technology and so easy for people to build new applications and build new services and so the only thing that really separates our service from another service can be this personality or you know this human experience and because we’re so accustomed to communicating with one another with a really honest human voice through Twitter and Facebook, we have a shifted view or you know perception of the expectations that we have from brands out there. So my new book Designing for Emotion and its talk are all about what it means to think about the psychology of emotion and how that relates to design and how we can connect with our audience in a very human way.

Bill: That’s definitely important. What are some of the walkaways? What are some of the walkaways for web professionals? What can they start doing today to address some of these issues?

Aarron Walter: Well, kind of central to this whole idea of designing promotion is you know letting yourself show in your work and you know that’s through webbing what you do and the craft that we have of web design, but you know showing ourselves and showing our personality in our work is really important and so I’ve been thinking about how to shape personality in design and I created something called design personas and I think that there are few other designers that have been thinking about this stuff too, but a design persona basically just shapes the voice, it identifies the kind of structure of a brand and a voice of a brand, it creates key trades of what this brand persona is and what’s it’s not. So for example, I created a design persona for MailChimp where I work and one of the trades is you know it’s fun, but not goofy, so that MailChimp the brand can be fun and crack jokes, but it’s not goofy or cheesy. So and I feel like saying who we are as a brand is important, but sometimes it’s just as important to say who we aren’t and so when you start new projects, when you work on a new design thinking about this brand persona from the very get-go is a pretty important thing that’s something I talk about in the book.

Bill: Yeah, fascinating. Do you think that’s a function of a designer or if somebody from Marcomm?

Aarron Walter: I think that it is something, it kind of depends on you know who your team is made up of, but I do think that like a user experience designer needs to be thinking about this stuff because UX people they think about the big picture, they have kind of a T-knowledge that the X axis of the T at top bar is this broad understanding of a lot of different silos of disciplines of the web craft, but then they have you know deep understanding in specific areas about things like usability and design so forth.

Bill: Yeah…

Aarron Walter: So someone that is a strategic thinker, someone who is involved in product design or web design from the very get-go is the person that should be doing these design personas and that might be a creative director, that might be a UX lead, it just kind of depends on the organization.

Bill: Yeah, I appreciate that. What creative pathway would one take to get into you know that particular specialty I mean obviously you’re talking about a specialty and you know what would you recommend somebody do to study for such a position?

Aarron Walter: That’s a good question, it’s really hard these days.

Bill: Let me frame it another way. How deep do you think an ordinary, well, not ordinary because web designers are extraordinary, but how deep should a web designer working for you know whether in an enterprise or small organization, how deep do you think they should drill into the user interface specialty?

Aarron Walter: I guess it kind of depends on the type of work you are doing, but I definitely think that web designers in general should have at least a cursory understanding of interaction design. So you know you need to understand things like Fitts’ law, which is a principle with the fancy name that just basically is same that it’s easier to click on a button if it’s bigger and it’s closer to the center of action. You need to understand basic usability principles because you can’t really you know you can’t design of that, you have to keep your audience in mind and you use your goals in mind, your business goals in mind, so I think that I mean I’m biased because I’m doing UX day in and day out working on the really cool team of people, but I feel like UX is kind of a glue of what we’re doing right now. What can make a difference between like an okay thing we put out there may be it get accustomed, may be it doesn’t and something that just people latch onto and love and want to tell everyone about on Twitter and Facebook and so forth. So I feel like you know if you are new just getting started in web design and may be you are in a program or may be you are an independent learner either way I think you really have to spend sometime reading some books and reading some blogs about user experience, about usability testing and just kind of understand, not forget and always know that you are designing for people, we’re trying to communicate with people and so we have to understand people.

Bill: Yeah, that’s a good point. So would it be fair to say that the emotional interface design environment really is something more apropos for the enterprise or is it something you know that all web designers should try to accomplish further customers?

Aarron Walter: It’s for everybody. I mean, so that’s one of the things I wanted to point out in my book was you know I think that there are a lot of people especially in enterprise phase that we kind of skeptical about having some kind of collective personality in a very human voice and admitting that you’re wrong and kind of talking like you might talk to someone if you met them in person instead of we all know what enterprise speak sounds like and it’s really annoying kind of. So that has been the whole like super buttoned-up professional approach, I think is scary for a lot of people and so in the book…

Bill: I appreciate that…

Aarron Walter: …research for a longtime, but I wanted to find numbers, I want to just make it empirical and say emotional design doesn’t matter what you doing, but you know it boils down to return on investment and conversion rate and you know you make more money. You don’t need marketing budget because you’re just doing something that is so attractive to so many people. So yeah, I think that emotional design should be on everyone’s radar and I know that we’re all thinking about design right now because we just lost Steve Jobs and we’re investigating his life and we’re sort of seeing, looking at the mark that he made on our industry and just on our daily lives. And if there is one thing that we see that is kind of common threat is like this care about craft is really deep love and passion about craft that Steve Jobs had and Apple has always been really good about thinking about human emotion and its presence in the things that they make you know they have got little light on the front of most Mac’s, not on MacBook Air, but on MacBook Pros and Mac Pros, there is a little light that when your computers are sleeping that just gentle pulses and the rate at which that pulses is the same as our breathing rate at rest and that is to communicate in a human language to say, I’m a machine and I’m at rest, but it’s doing it in a very human way that we don’t necessarily have to recognize it looks like it’s breathing like it’s at rest, but you know it’s a subconscious that feels that and to have a calming effect on us too and that type of attention to detail and thinking about end users that I think it’s so fascinating in what Apple has done and I think so many other products and services out there that are thinking about emotion and design and it’s such a differentiator in a marketplace.

Bill: What’s the job market look like in your point of view for those that’s specialized in user interface design?

Aarron Walter: Well, I can tell you that the UX field is there are so many jobs out there and there is just not enough people, same with like mobile design, it’s just huge. There is so many jobs for designers, for developers, really good engineers and I feel like there is a lot of stuff that you know if you’re going to college one of the best thing you can do is get a liberal arts education and some kind of a creative arts education and think about you know just basically learning how to think critically about problems and think laterally to find connections in very strange places you know that may be reading a book about anthropology and then you can find connections to design there you know I’m really out of connections between topics like that or you know math and some kind of data visualization stuff. But there is so many really good jobs out there and I feel like a lot of people if you’re good at being an independent learner you can pick up books, you can read the stuff online, you can start experimenting on your own and really kind of teach yourself and get yourself started. But man right now like my son is 17 months old, so he is far to young for me to direct into this industry, but if I were 18 or 19 I would be so excited to be going into the web industry because there is just, there is fun stuff happening, people are building things that are having a real impact, a real influence on human history. And there are good jobs that are fun, that are challenging, that make a lot of money and that’s a heck of a combination.

Usually you know you find a job, but you hate, maybe it makes money or you find a job you love but it just doesn’t pay anything, you know web is the best of both worlds that it’s such a cool time for people to be getting into our industry.

10 thoughts on “Designing for Emotion Interview with Aarron Walter, Lead UX Designer MailChimp

  1. Fellene Gaylord

    Not sure his idea of a design persona is the same as Alan Cooper’s but…. it fits. Great interview and a wonderful insight into how Mail Chimp got to be such a fun tool to use. I love the smart alecky chimp. He makes my day!

    1. Bill Cullifer

      Thanks Fellene. If memory serves me, Aaarron mentions in the interview that a number of Web Designers Design for Emotion and it’s creating a fair amount of buzz. I like the idea of design persona and how it impacts its user base. MailChimp is a great example of this for sure.


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  3. Kim Cohen

    Thank you for conducting and posting the interview. I just read Aarron’s book and am looking forward to applying some of the principles he discusses in his book when designing web sites for future clients.

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