Identity-First Design

Towards a personality model for digital products.

“It’s not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable, we also need to build products that bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun, and yes, beauty to people’s lives.” 

Donald A. Norman.

In the very first minutes of the movie Her, Samantha (the operative system) explains Theodore (the user) its functioning, “Basically, I have intuition, the DNA of ‘who I am’ is based on millions of personalities from all the programmers who created me, but what makes me unique is my capacity to evolve through my experiences.”

Samantha is not just smart, it also has a captivating personality and it is fun and human. It is so human that the main character falls in love with artificial intelligence or artificial personality.

Emotional relationships with machines are still part of science fiction, but wait, are they? I heard this anecdote from Greg Petroff (Google Cloud director), “At my house, I have two voice assistants: Alexa from Amazon and Google Home. A few months ago, my wife asked Alexa something and she replied ‘I don’t know’. Instantly, Google Home added ‘Me neither.’”

I thought this was awesome. I wonder who decided to add these human lines to the Google code, foreseeing the interaction between two platforms. Even though this is not enough to fall in love with Google’s assistant, it is good enough to create little emotional connections with the product and the brand, which are certainly the same thing.

OS1 or Samantha

What is personality?

Personality is the framework through which we make jokes, pick our friends, or find a partner. It is the heart and soul of every interaction and it is what defines each person’s individuality differentiating that person from the rest and making each human relationship unique and incomparable.

Personality is every human being’s natural interface. We learn how to interact with other people following the cues they give us, their tone of voice, language choices, looks, and body posture. We process all that information unconsciously and we act consequently.

Those cues that we recognize in other people, can also be found in a product such as an application or a website and we also process them unconsciously. Some of the signs where we detect this digital personality are color, typography, images, writing structure, interaction, sounds, etc. For example, Innocent Drinks reveals part of its personality on the navigation menu where they even tempt users to misuse the website. Apart from the very easy tone, use of low case, and informal typography, they add a disconcerting term: Bored?

Innocent Drinks’ navigation menu gives the first clue about its personality.
Slack communicates its personality on-screen messages when content is being refreshed.
Oatly tries to communicate its personality through the organization’s foundational values.

In order to create digital products users can bond with, we have to think about products as if they were humans with unique and strategically defined characteristics which overall form an identity that goes beyond functionalities. Google and Hotmail emails have the same functionalities, don’t they? Uber and Lyft offer the same service, don’t they? So, how are they different? They have different identities.

Two companies from the same sector with highly different personalities.

Reader: Wait a second; this is what is known as “Brand Identity”, right?

Yes and no. Brand identity is our audience’s collective interpretation of our business. It also aims to identify the brand with certain human characteristics (Adidas represents a young athletic and energetic person). Traditionally, it involves the creation of a logo that goes with visual references and verbal messages. Nowadays, the brand is the product itself (think about Uber, Instagram, Facebook, Airbnb, our home banking or the design software we use). The traditional approach no longer works because it was created for one-way communications where interaction was very low. 

Reader: All right, this is what in advertising is known as “Voice tone”, right?

Thanks again for your question. This is not only used in advertising. For example, when it comes to designing a content strategy different things are taken into account, such as tone, voice, and expressions. Personality is broader because it involves experience at every level. It involves communicating identity through interaction patterns, animations, error messages, behavior guidelines, distribution of elements in space, typologies, content strategy, etc. All of these elements are highlighted when we incorporate our conversational interfaces such as chatbots or virtual assistants as Alexa, Siri, or Cortana. 

Reader: All right, I’m in. Where should I start to define a product’s personality?

I think we should start with a question. We usually start a new project by researching users. We conduct surveys, create hypotheses, observe analytics, measure and retry. All of these processes give us answers to very important questions regarding who our readers are and what they expect from us. However, there is a key part when creating the personality and that is, who are we?

Reader: Why shouldn’t I just copy the personality of another brand I like? Such as Google, for example. Who doesn’t want to be like Google? Copying another company’s personality does not guarantee the same success. We can observe them, take some things, and be influenced by them but it will never be the same. There are many variables playing a role, such as the type of product or service, geographic location, audience, culture, etc. This is why the first step is creating a personality from our perspective and the second step is creating it from the users’ perspective. At this point, the users’ approach and experience presents us with new opportunities and serves as a framework to design a comprehensive experience making use of other disciplines such as Psychology, Marketing, Communication, Semiology, and Content strategies to create a framework to build the personality.

How do we define a digital product’s personality?

Personality’s enneagram

We can define it through an identification model that includes both the product owner’s perspective (as an answer to Who are we?) and the client’s or final users’ perspective (as an answer to Who do they expect us to be?). There are many models, such as Personality Wheel, Myers-Briggs, Personality Type, personality’s enneagram, etc. We developed ours based on Carl Jung’s theory along with the assessment of international psychological institutions. 

The model consists of a circle crossed by two axes. The horizontal axis marks out the level of distance (serious) or the level of closeness (friendly) that the product will have regarding its users. The vertical axis goes from the leader’s and the follower’s personality, which marks out how much guidance will the user receive or how much control will the user have regarding navigation and communication. These axes allow us to identify different personalities, each with unique elements that make it stand out from the rest. At the same time, each personality applied to a product’s context will have specific guidelines that should cross over the whole experience, from the rhetorical writing levels up to the use of graphic, visual or interactive resources.

Myers-Briggs Personality Type

Once the model has been built, we now have to contrast the business’ personality expectations with the users and find a common factor.

To sum up: Why does a product or service need a personality?

  • Personality connects, attracts, and boosts special and long-lasting relationships with our clients.
  • Personality allows us to stand out from our competitors, especially in a swamped market.
  • Personality drives an emotional answer from our audience, which promotes long-term memory of our brand/product.
  • Personality makes our users feel passionate and connected, which makes them the most powerful marketing tool.

At Revolt, we work with a multidisciplinary team, which allows us to have a comprehensive perspective of each project that we carry out.

Our main goal is to add value to our clients’ business by taking the next step and operating as consultants of strategic design, before, during, and after a project.

Welcome to a new way of building digital products with personality.