Human-to-Human Design
Issue № 240

Human-to-Human Design

It’s not new to say that we now live in an age in which survival in business depends on your ability to communicate effectively through the internet.

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What is new is the realization that just having any old website isn’t enough. The quality of your site and the nature of its content are paramount and your ability to communicate with your audience is the key.

A good website is built on two basic truths—that the internet is an interactive medium and that the end user is in fact human. In other words, it is meant to be an experience. As with any adventure, a little strategic thought is needed to ensure that the experience is enjoyable.

Respect me#section2

Remember that the person on the other side of the computer screen is a human being. They want to know that your business understands them.

Take the time to find out who they are and what they like. Then tailor your message and design to suit them. A real-life analogy is the approach you would take to initiate a conversation with a stranger at a party (a person with whom you hope to become better acquainted). You would do well to listen intently to what interests them and then craft your conversation to suit. You wouldn’t bore them with a lengthy extolment of CSS or Ajax on a Saturday night, would you?

Try to think beyond the demographic and envisage the individual.  Many web briefs contain a far-reaching description of the audience. During the briefing session, try to narrow the focus. A brief may begin at:

Intranet Audience: 20–50 year old real estate agents

This can be divided into a primary and secondary audience, as follows:

Intranet Primary Audience: 20–35 (sales agents)

Intranet Secondary Audience: 35–50 (middle and senior managers)

From that point, it helps to imagine yourself as the agent, logging onto the intranet with a cup of coffee in hand half an hour before tackling early open houses. Do you see your desire for flash animation disappear in a puff of smoke? Do you see how “get to the point fast and be obvious” becomes a distinct directive? How about the need for personalization, so the agent can see what they require immediately, for example, appointments for the day, contacts, and their sales pipeline?

Closing the gap between yourself and your audience will help you to make the right decisions and tailor the design to their needs.

Tell me a story#section3

Harness one of the oldest and most effective ways of communicating knowledge on your site.

Storytelling is a rich and compelling way to involve the user in a design, evoke an emotional response, or enhance a user’s learning experience. The question to ask is:

Is there a more creative way to present the required information to increase the user’s involvement?

News websites are increasingly rising to the challenge. In the past a breaking story would have been a single page of written text. Now it may be enhanced with multimedia to offer alternate ways to view the story including interactive timelines, streaming web-cam, animation, sound, and video. These elements can give the audience a broader and deeper understanding of the topic and the issues, which surround it.

The most wonderful thing about using the internet to tell a story is that it can be non-linear—the user can click to view fragments of information that interest them, rather than viewing the entire story from beginning to end. By telling a story through user interaction, you enable users to choose their own path according to their preferences or needs.

Engage me#section4

As broadband becomes prevalent, web designers have increasingly begun to combine visual design with interaction and motion. Their role has become less that of a designer and more that of a director of experiences. To illustrate the difference between those roles, let’s look at the way the creative direction of a design might be described:

To promote your strength, which is the local content of the entertainment news, we will include the cityscape of each state within your brand.

The direction of an experience, on the other hand, would require more documentation in the conceptualization stage. An experience director must pull together content, formulate an interactive approach and style, and orchestrate the creative elements in which to propel the story. The web designers of the future may even be required to write a treatment, melding the design process with that of film direction.

By attending to the entire user experience, designers can create a rich, sensory experience, which helps to immerse users and encourage them to become fully involved in the site and its message. When a site is intended to educate, immersion is particularly important, as it can increase learning speed and overall understanding—especially when a site’s main users are children.

Through immersion, the user experiences joy and satisfaction: positive qualities that will be transferred to your brand.

Inspire me#section5

Some people believe that web design starts and stops with branding. Their view is the visual identity of the brand is easily applicable to the web through the transference of common elements such as logo, colors and typography.

Indeed a lot of the traffic that will come to your website will be people who know or chose your brand in the real world. So when they arrive at your virtual world it is an ideal opportunity to reinforce it.

However, your site can do much more than mimic your identity. It can encapsulate the brand personality, whether that is inspirational, trustworthy, or authoritative. These traits were part of the reason why they chose your brand in the first place.

During the filming of Withnail and I, the director told lead actor Richard E. Grant to “stamp the celluloid,” meaning to go full pelt, not half-measure.  It’s timely advice for when you want to inspire your audience and make them take action—don’t be polite, grab them by the throat—and bring your brand to life!

Enchant me#section6

A beautiful design will give the user the impression that the site is easy to use, whether it is or not. Also, it is more probable that the design will be used because the human psyche is inexorably drawn towards beauty.

Transactional sites often fail miserably in the aesthetic stakes. The reigning thought is that it is the domain of the usability consultant—that design is secondary and often confined to the “coloring in” of table cells.

Yet highly complicated processes and pages can look deceptively simple with the right styling. Spacing becomes increasingly important as it allows the user’s eyes to rest before taking on the next batch of information. Design can create order and instill a feeling of peace and serenity—positive attributes when you are asking your user to complete a lengthy and profit-creating form. Professional design can also increase user trust levels, the single most important trait to attain for any transactional site.

If you’re not a professional visual designer, you can engender trust and loyalty and foster attraction by consulting a high-level designer for business-critical or transactional sites.

The principles of good human-to-computer interface design are simplicity, support, clarity, encouragement, satisfaction, accessibility, versatility, and personalization. While it’s essential to heed these, it’s also important to empathize with and inspire your audience so they feel you’re treating them less like a faceless user and more like a human being. In doing so, you will extend their affinity with the design and foster positive attitudes towards your brand, company, or product.

About the Author

Sharon Lee

Sharon Lee is the director of Richapplefool, the only Sydney-based design consultancy populated by chicken, cows and sheep. Richapplefool connects clients to their audiences through captivating brands, illustrations and online experiences.

43 Reader Comments

  1. You’ve made me feel like our current redesign is a waste of time! Do you have any examples of sites which have managed to pull this all off?

  2. Altough I do agree on the idea of human to human design, this article fails to deliver concrete examples on how this might function on the web. The buzz around the idea that interactions are becoming experiences is heard everywhere, but while the idea seems attractive it is also very vague and in reality offers no real answers. How does telling a story on the web actually work and how can one use the interactivity of the internet to tell this story in another way than say a book or a magazine. How to escape one-way traffic and actually engage the user in the story-line, and, even more difficult, how can the user actually help construct the story, making it truly interactive. I think it would be more interesting to look for concrete ways to expand the functionality of the internet into an instrument for the construction, reconstruction and deconstruction of an ever increasing world of stories. this way it might become a real human-to-human design.

  3. Brilliant idea Sharon. Thanks for very interesting article. I really enjoyed reading your article. It’s interesting to read ideas, and observations from someone else’s point of view”¦ makes you think more. You inspire me … Greetings

  4. I reckon this article didn’t offer concrete examples on purpose. It seems to me Sharon’s aim is to put back human beings in the middle of the place, which is more kind of a ‘philosophy’ matter than a practical piece of advice. I agree: I think technology is now mature enough to step back and leave more space for user experience.

  5. This article is a great reminder to take the time to think about, or become, the user when we are designing sites. In a mad rush to get a comp out that specific chunk of time is sometimes forgotten about. Setting aside the time to think about how best to present an experience is important.
    I do find, however, that its also budget driven. High quality video is expensive, for example, and not all clients are appreciative of the design process. Finding cost effective solutions in these situations becomes the challenge.

  6. Raphaele took the words right out of my mouth. Very good article. Reading this article also reminded me of Nathan Shedroff’s “books”: about user experience – especially when speaking of using story telling as a medium between people.

  7. Even though I spent quite a few years in design school, I find that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the many other considerations of web design (standards, technologies, site structure), and to give just a cursory glance at aesthetics and the “real person” at the other end of my design. You’ve reminded me to step back and evaluate the presentation a little more often.

    I also want to thank you for championing the trust-building power (read:value) of professional visual design.

  8. Isn’t this article a little bit unfocused? I mean it touches a number of very nice ideas, they could be explored a little bit more. Of course, now *we* can go out and explore these ideas. Thank you.

  9. This is a good article, thanks, Sharon. I do think it is only a piece of the puzzle, though, when it comes to addressing the user-experience.
    What about the user’s previous history and knowledge with your site/product? Shouldn’t that come into play at least as importantly as their demographic and keeping a friendly, playful tone?
    I have recently started a discussion on applying the transtheoretical-model of behavior change by Prochaska and DiClemente to user experience design. My contribution can be found at: – “A sport psychologist’s contribution to user experience design.”
    I think that through the techniques outlined by Sharon, and taking into account the individual’s history, we can create a more complete and fulfilling experience.

  10. I complain with Jeffrey that that the article is just a start of a very complex field. While i was reading the article I thought about online shops and how they could use the advices. Customers for online shops often heaving different claims to a website. Usability and trust are more important than inspiration and enchantment.

  11. I am not saying that the ideas in the article could not be applied or might be interesting food for thought. I am just saying that I’m really looking for concrete examples of these principles being applied to the web. I have a feeling that we are just starting this development. I’ve read and heard about the internet enabling non-linear narrative and real interaction, but so far these developments are still relatively marginal. I agree with you that usability and trust are often more important. But in that sense I also feel that it might be a good idea to see the internet a bit like a city, with multiple functions, and therefore different kinds of behaviour. After all, a library is very different from a postoffice and a bar. You don’t want to mix these things up…

  12. The article outlined some of my thoughts on web design and approach to projects – in a nutshell, empathising with the person experiencing the site.

    It wasn’t written to be a prescription for creating your next site – some points may or may not be applicable to a certain job or client at hand. I certainly don’t have a url at hand for a site that takes _all_ these points into account.

    bq. How does telling a story on the web actually work and how can one use the interactivity of the internet to tell this story in another way than say a book or a magazine. How to escape one-way traffic and actually engage the user in the story-line, and, even more difficult, how can the user actually help construct the story, making it truly interactive.

    Jeffrey, these are good questions. At its most primitive state, a non-linear narrative could be the chunking up data and have the user interact with it to reveal the full “story”. When I write _narrative_ I don’t necessarily mean _fiction_. Where you will find more complex narratives is probably in the online documentary realm or university think tanks.

  13. A pleasant, enjoyable work of words, your article was. One should ask, whether you are such a good designer as you are a writer. 🙂 The think is, you surely have a way with words and this proves that anyone who wishes to convey his message successfully within the visual medium must be a good storyteller. I just thought your article lucks the insight, but again, I might be wrong. I don’t know… Are good storytellers perceptive? Or do they provoke their listeners to think a little further?

  14. … so much for this wonderful article. I never could have said it that way, but it’s exactly how I feel about what I do.

  15. Great article Sharon! You really got a lot of heavy points on the tricky field user experience across in a very accessible way, I’m thoroughly impressed.

    I commented and expanded on your article on “my blog”: where I tried to also give some pointers on how to implement these ideas and some examples on how they have already been implemented. It’s obviously not as refined as this article but hopefully it will be a good read to someone anyway since examples where requested.

  16. This article is certainly a timely piece. As a user experience designer to some interesting and large projects, I’ve had to advocate the persons on “the other side of the screen” numerous times. Much of the time to the humbling response of something along the lines of “well, because of the business goals…” [insert objection here].
    It seems we — as the craftspeople in this industry — are in the position to take this type of stand for the _humans_ who must use our clients’ [insert service here.]
    In fact, this weekend, I’ve started a process in myself to stoke some emotionality for the “user” and move away from two heavily used terms that I think are actually hindering us from totally empathizing with our audience and creating the best experiences imaginable.
    First, the word, “user.” This has discussed around on various platforms and not really new, but I want to make a push to re-ignite this notion. From the cold, steely, technical aspect, they are “users,” but at the end of the day, they’re people, other humans, just like you and just like me.
    The second word we should move away from – and this will probably bother some because it is so the vogue thing – is “design.” This includes all derivatives. Primarily for the same reason as the above. If you do a search at for the word “design” you’ll find cold terminology like, “model” “map” “configuration,” etc.
    Do a search for the term, “craft.” In contrast, you’ll find warmer words like, “skillful” “art” “ingenuity” “workmanship.”

    Sure, it’s semantic hair-split, but I think there is value in this reorientation of our perception. If you’re interested, I’ve started a new group at as a starting point to gather some of these thoughts together. I’d love to hear from folks on their opinions on this matter:

  17. First, thanks to Sharon for responding to my commentary: i think these kinds of discussions can really help one to find new directions!! keep it up! After reading the comment on Mattias blog, I had to think of a site we have recently completed at my agency. It is in Dutch, but you might get the idea anyway. It is about life questions, and functions in an associative way, to lead you from one notion or question to the next. You can also search for a more specified theme, respond and read responses by others. It is rather experimental, and this indeed might put some people of, but it’s worth pushing some boundaries once in a while. Please do check it out on: – If you have any comments please let me know!

  18. bq. The second word we should move away from — and this will probably bother some because it is so the vogue thing — is “design.”? This includes all derivatives. Primarily for the same reason as the above. If you do a search at for the word “design”? you’ll find cold terminology like, “model”? “map”? “configuration,”? etc. Do a search for the term, “craft.”? In contrast, you’ll find warmer words like, “skillful”? “art”? “ingenuity”? “workmanship.”?

    Oh dear Lord in heaven, where do I begin?

    First of all, calling ourselves “designers” and what we do “design” isn’t about being in vogue. It’s because design is the cornerstone of what we do. What you’re describing as warm tones–art, skill, ingenuity–are important aspects of the total package, but it’s not what my job is built upon. The foundation of what we do is make things that are intuitive and lovely to _use_. Design intentionally fills a recognized need. It does something. It doesn’t just sit there looking good.

    Brilliant design is absolutely integral to the brilliant user experience. Don’t be deceived by the language on–you don’t go to the general populace’s tool to find technical definitions of industry terms (for example, the entry for “Chaos” on is quite different from the way my husband, a physical scientist, uses the term). There isn’t anything cold or standoffish about real design. In fact, just the opposite. Design brings people and their needs together. Design fills a void in human experience. Design elicits emotions, creates opportunities, forms relationships.

    Design is a craft, but it is so much more than that. Design is about making people love something. How you do that in various circumstances depends on the product, the designer, the user, and the environment. But that’s what we do. People don’t love things that are hard to use. They don’t love tools that don’t make sense, aren’t intuitive, and don’t work well. They love their iPods, Dyson vacuum cleaners, and KitchenAid mixers because they’re lovely, elegant, and well-made, and because they work well. They fit seamlessly into the rest of our lives. We actually look forward to using them.

    The problem isn’t the notion of design. The problem may be that we sometimes forget what design really is.

  19. Thanks Mattias for reflecting upon your own practice and sharing your interpretation of the article.

    The “Zopa(Zopa website)”: example you cite has a flash widget (beneath the fold) that also demonstrates _tell me a story_. It allows you to explore the _people_ who are willing to lend and borrow – they are not simply presented as a line of data from a search result. It also helps reinforce the marketing message that Zopa is human and is an engaging overview for the first-time browser. I suspect somewhere within the site there is a more traditional way of searching for the serious applicant (that can accommodate for many more search results in the screen).

    Chris, I find 99% of the time arguing the user’s case means the stakeholders recognise the logic behind the design decisions. But yes, the other 1% is more often than not the response “well because of business goals…”

    bq. It is about life questions, and functions in an associative way, to lead you from one notion or question to the next. You can also search for a more specified theme, respond and read responses by others.

    Hi Jeffrey, a site talking about human experiences does seem to beg for a non-formulaic approach. I might have more to say if I could read Dutch! Regardless it was obvious to explore within the “5 thema’s section”.

    And Amber I was recently faced with your example of what design does. It was a pair of Marc Jacob boots. One side of my brain had Alain de Botton sprouting wisdom from “Status Anxiety (Status Anxiety Book)”: . The other side was already visually caressing the cute round toe, the buttons, the curve where the suede joins the leather. The boots created _desire_. It’s very hard to be logical when faced with such beauty – and you can guess which side of me won.

  20. Perhaps I wasn’t being clear. This notion stems from a process through which I’m undergoing personally. I’m just beginning to articulate what has come to me and it is undoubtedly fuzzy at this point, but it only becomes more clear with each step of exploration.

    Over a decade ago, I sought to understand what my place was going to be in this world and I identified myself as “designer.” I studied design. I labeled myself as designer and revered myself as such.

    Over the years, I’ve realized the term is misused, overused, and abused. A hobbyist can pick up a book, learn a little something and go forth, create, build, and declare their design. And no one can argue that it isn’t design.

    Ah, but _craft_. “Craft” as it relates to “design” is the beauty side of the same coin. As indicated, design has intention and this may very well be true, but it is the word “craft” that can denote so much more. And so, I would suggest that where design has intention, craft has intuition; designers are industrious, craftsmen (and women) flow.

    In my college design courses, the literature taught us that there was function and there was aesthetic. I have found that most people polarize and tend to focus on one or the other in their post-academia careers.

    Throughout my career, my position has at countless times been to mitigate in the chasm between the technically proficient and the artistically profound. Perhaps it is design that is the middle where the two meet. Moderately simple mathematics will show us that starting with zero then going in two opposing directions, there is infinity in both directions. Artistry and Industry, running infinitely deep in their respective directions.

    So, for me, I need some distinction for this discipline of “creating an experience.” Usability, in its purist sense, is virtually devoid of all aesthetics. Just as pure artistic expression of emotion is is of no mainstream use.

    I am by no means suggesting that design should go away. Perhaps I’m suggesting that as human factors, usability, ergonomics, etc. have become such cornerstones to our practice of design, we need see the other side of the coin. And that is where we find _craft_.

  21. Sorry, Chris, I think you’re making stuff up. I think you’re finding divides where none exist.

    If you prefer to call yourself a craftsman because the romanticism of the word appeals to you, go for it. But leave the rest of us designers out of it.

  22. As I said, this is just partly a personal process. The notion is still nebulous. I will still consider myself a designer when the time comes to design. Just as I’ll have to put a purely analytical left-brained hat from time-to-time.

    I am _not_ creating divisions or factions. Quite the contrary, actually. I was just looking to explore some areas in the _spectrum_ and seeing if anyone else was interested in the notion.The intent was not to ruffle your feathers — or anyone else’s for that matter — Amber. If your position is to take a stand and speak for “the rest of the designers,” perhaps there’s the cold division.

    There is no reason to get defensive. I didn’t come hear to argue or impose ideology. I happened to really enjoy Sharon’s article and it was very timely as I was pondering these notions.

  23. really enjoyed the article and the many comments. perhaps craft is something that is at once subjective and objective. I’m not a designer but I am an artist to a certain degree. I know what I like but other people make different choices. Craft not always what catches the eye. Sometimes it is in what you don’t see. you can look at a house and admire the structure without ever understanding the craft in building and designing the structure. You can admire a beautiful textile without understanding the mathmatical craft it took. The structure of words is as important to the message as the message itself. So is the tone or other elements in the message. It’s the “objective” to influence the “subjective”

  24. “The principles of good human-to-computer interface design are simplicity, support, clarity, encouragement, satisfaction, accessibility, versatility, and personalization.”

    Sharon you weave a beautiful statement of your principles. I have been studying design from the perspective of a wonderful old IBMer, John Zachman. I always thought his ideas were dull and mechanical until I read the work of Alan Cooper and a light came on.

    According to John there are six focuses in a system:

    1. Goal
    2. Formal
    3. Functional
    4. Spatial
    5. Temporal
    6. Personal

    John Zachman is a form centric designer and it fits with his IBM background. The structure of the database guides the entire design. Alan Cooper is a self-professed goal centric designer always thinking about the objective of the users of the system. I would say you are a persona centric designer. You want the user of your sites to come away with a positive personal experience.

    There is nothing wrong with these emphases. However, I want to recognize the centrism of other design philosophies and see how they cater to different audiences. A fully balanced design would be boring and serve no one well. I wish you much success in your design pursuits.

  25. Hi, I find your article closely relates to a recent research on consumer behaviour online I did for uni last month. Looking forward to read your next article. Thank you!

  26. May be it´s time to think about the Scolari´s notion of transparency. Everyone is thinking about human and machine, but not too much about human to human. Can I use it as a start of one of my blog posts?. Thanx

  27. An excellent article that makes one think of how they build their web site. I would just like an example of how one can better the human-to-human interaction.

  28. I believe in increasing the user experience but it is important to talk to your users when possible and do testing as you design the site. Scenarios and use cases are useful, but if you create a rich, engaging experience that no one knows how to use or find you’ve wasted a great deal of time. Substituting one’s own imagination to predict how users will respond is something I’ve done myself and seen a great deal.

    I would have really like to have seen something about testing designs and changes made before the site is completely programmed. Interviewing, getting feedback, and actually seeing how people act on your site as it’s being built is probably treating them the most like a human being because you’re involving them in the process with you.

  29. In the section about telling a story, I think you made a good point by saying that one of the advantages of the web is that it is non-linear. However, I think the most engaging sites are those that allow the user to contribute to the story, by providing them with the tools to be heard. Features such as the one I’m using right now–ability to comment–are key to a web site’s success.

  30. It was certainly an interesting article. My own principles of good human-to-computer interface design stops at simplicity and clean design. All the other factors you mentioned should come into play without having to think about it.

  31. This topic has been one of debate for years now, and in the end, we would all agree, that a good design will engage the visitor. The stupid gimmicks and widgets that some of my clients initially ask for in the design is the only way they know how to do this.

    That is why they hire us – we are creatives. What we bring to the table, besides making a project look nice, is to create something unique.

    There is no magic wand that makes this happen – we are the magic wand.

  32. Perhaps its just me, but I’m noticing that there is a plethora of websites that are just there to dazzle and overstimulate. It’s been hard to find an affordable designer that has an interest in creating a site that is simple and clean — which lends itself to being more attractive and inviting — and thus, more interactive. I’ve been trying to find one so I can market my business more effectively and my efforts have been to no avail.
    If you are interested (or know someone who may be), drop me a line:

  33. (I just read this article (July 27th) although it was published a little while ago.)

    Thanks for the interesting article. I agree with your perspective and have enjoyed reading the other reader’s responses as well: Both pro and conn.

    As always, A List Apart has inspired me.


  34. Your audience!
    That’s probably the message which I understand.

    So, We often develop to develop the idea of the century on beginning, that may bring up your brand… On forgetting the end users who may build your image, your personality.

    Indeed, it’s sometimes good to remember us that the human-machine interface mustn’t be the easiest to design but the easiest to use.

    Interesting article.

  35. Good article. The problem with websites generally is that it’s tricky to provide different sites for your different target groups. Let’s face it. All sites try to target about 3 or 4 sub-groups. The problem is that the web ‘experience’ can really only be tailored for ONE of those sub-groups. I mean, you could have differetn links like ‘click here if you want the flashy version’ or ‘click here for a guided tour’… but that doesn’t really work, because the experience for the user has to be seamless and integrated naturally into the site, and those examples don’t do that.

    The design has to strike a balance between all your sub-groups. Not being to verbose for one group, while not being too simplistic for another. That’s a really tricky balance to get. Very few sites get that right. Not even the large companies with big budgets. The ‘experiences’ they provide are not seamless and intuitive for EVERYONE.

    There isn’t a definite answer for it, but it’s a tricky subject all good designers face at some point.

  36. Our interfaces may be digital, but our audience is always human. Failure to consider the User—what she thinks, what she wants, what she wishes she could do—is both arrogant and nearsighted. When both the design and development are tailored to actual people, the closer we get to “human-to-human” design.

    Once upon a time, the world of Direct Marketing taught me something valuable: never underestimate the power of data. I was always surprised by the valuable information it provided. “Do people really think that way?” Yes they do. And either set about to understand them or get out of the business.

    The same applies to interfaces. Put the User first. Then learn how they really think. Great Websites will radiate from there.

  37. I think that reading articles like that while trying to implement in practice is a very good education. Thanks Sharon! This article will help me begin a new project with an unexpected interesting direction.

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