Polite user experience

Sandy (www.iwantsandy.com) is an email bot. Typically mail bots handle mailing list subscriptions. Sandy manages to-do lists and calendar – you email her things to remember, and she reminds you at the right moment. Thanks to Harry Brignull for the pointer.


What’s interesting is the interaction approach they have taken:

  1. They’ve created a retro secretary avatar called Sandy.
  2. Sandy talks in the first person and is very, very polite.

Mind your Ps and Qs

In their book “The Media Equation”, sociologists Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass set out to show that (to some degree) we treat computers as if they were other human beings. We follow social rules when working with them, including being happy when a computer flatters us, and expecting politeness in our dealings with them.

Politeness is incredibly important in web software. Politeness greases the wheels of a transaction between humans, and since we expect the same behaviour from computers, politeness must be important for online transactions too.

Politeness is all about emotion, and hence its value is hard to quantify, especially to software developers not famed for their sensitivity. From a purely logical perspective, saying “Error: you have entered invalid data” is just the same as “Ooops. There’s a small problem with what you typed in”. But emotionally it’s completely different. People delivering customer experiences in restaurants and shops know it, though. And good interaction designers, thinking about how humans and computers will exchange information over time, know it too.

Sandy must exude

Sandy is very polite. Quite charming. Her status messages say things like “I’ve saved your settings for you”. She signs off her email with “Always here to help”. It makes the service pleasant to use.

I think there are two important reasons why the folk at Iwantsandy.com emphasised politeness so much:

  • Politeness builds trust: To use the service at all, you have to give Sandy complete access to your inbox. That requires a lot of trust. Sandy is so polite and solicitous that she builds trust quite fast. On one part of the site she gives you the option to ” stay in the loop with my delightful, occasional newsletter?” And I almost said yes!
  • Politeness is a brand experience: A lot of your interaction with Sandy will be via plain text email, so there’s no graphics or layout to speak of. The only way to convey Sandy’s brand values is via her tone of voice.

Flowery language is not enough

All this talk of politeness reminds me of Allan Cooper’s “14 principles of polite computing” [PDF, 300K]. He points out that politeness goes further than just putting “yes, please” on your dialogue button. It’s also about remembering user preferences, making it clear what’s going on, and not asking “are you sure you want to…?” all the time.

In the end, I didn’t sign up to Sandy’s newsletter because even though she was very sweet about it, she didn’t give me the facts I needed: how often, what’s in it, why is it valuable? Providing the information I need to make a decision is polite – it shows a consideration for my time. Maybe Sandy’s just nice on the outside, but doesn’t really care.

Being untrustworthy is one of several software personality types summed up by Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users. Here are a few of them…

The just trust me guy: He says it's done but there's not enough feedback Anal retentive guy: You did not enter a daytime phone number Brilliant but temperamental: Capable of amazing things but hard to work with.

Do you want Sandy or Brad?

Ultimately, I’m not sure I need what Sandy’s offering. I think it’s aimed at mobile email users, and I have not yet succumbed. But if you decide to use Sandy, do let me know how it goes.

One other question: is the Sandy brand sexist? There’s a 1960s, Bewitched/I-Dream-of-Genie feel to the Sandy graphic. At worst, she conjures up images of patted bottoms and “be a good girl” condescension. My wife, Debre, suggested that there should be an parallel iwantBRAD.com site, offering a cartoonish hunk interface paradigm. But with a tan like that, would you trust him?

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