Using humour in the user experience

We look at how humour is being used in some websites and ask if the punch line is falling flat?

The web is still in its infancy and the speed at which it is emerging and converging with other traditional media is incredible.

The use of humour on mainstream websites has been steadily growing, compared to its widespread use in more traditional media such as print and television. The question to ask is when is it appropriate on a website? For example, if you arrived at your local supermarket trying to find a specific product, you would not expect the shopping assistant to be pretending to be a comedian and cracking jokes and not helping you with what you were trying to find?

In this article we look at how it can improve the user experience, discuss if this is the right approach for some organisations and give examples of where we have seen this in action.

Error pages

Probably the most obvious example we have seen is on error pages or in some cases referred to as the ‘404 page’. A 404 page is the name of the custom error page a user is shown if they click on a link and the link is missing or invalid.

Effective 404 error pages communicate why a particular page couldn’t be displayed and what users can do next. Often the best error pages do not overwhelm the user with choices but indicate that something has gone wrong with the site and give them options to get back to a suitable location or state.

Take a look at the following examples of 404 pages with an added injection of humour:

Pattern Tap – http://patterntap.com/404

When you reach the error page you are presented with the title ‘Don’t get angry, and don’t cry.’ on the right hand side of the page. This seems to patronise the user in the tone of the copy.

patterntap-404

Craigslist – http://sfbay.craigslist.org/404/

The error page on Craigslist is not that helpful at all with only one link back to the homepage and an ASCII art picture of a dog. The first sentence after the title reads ‘There is nothing here’.

Craigslist-404-page

Kottke – http://kottke.org/404

When you reach the error page you are presented with the following title ‘404. You’re screwed.’. This is not a particularly pleasant or inviting bit of copy, and the remainder of the copy patronises the user and almost makes fun at the user’s expense when the error and blame is with the site.

kottke-404-page

User interface

Sometimes humour has been added to elements of the interface in order to add some fun:

Last.fm – http://www.last.fm

One you have logged into Last.fm there is a link in the top right hand interface bar in between ‘English’ and ‘Help’, which when clicked changes the standard interface from red to black in colour.

lastfm-paint-it-black

The user can change the interface back to red by clicking the link, but the link copy has now become ‘Simply Red’. This is a very playful device that may increase the stickiness on the site by playing on the fact that some users are curious by nature. This can however also increase the cognitive workload of users, and the link seems to be placed in a prominent area of the top bar before the search. Perhaps this would be better located in an area called ‘colour preferences’, or ‘my page’?

lastfm-simply-red

Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/

One you have logged into Flickr the welcome message and introductory greeting often changes to a different language for example the message reads ‘Hola spotle55! – Now you know how to greet people in Spanish.’. This is another playful feature and mixes humour with learning to further engage the users on the site.

flickr-hola

Examples of humour working well

Sometimes humour has been implemented in a way that works well and engages the end users.

MailChimp – http://www.mailchimp.com/

MailChimp is a leading email tool for designing and sending email campaigns and they have been praised for the humour in the interface they have created.

When designing an email campaign if you set the window width to be too wide for the recommended email campaign width, you can ‘detach’ the monkey’s arm.

mailchimp-email-width

This is a fun feature and humour has been part of MailChimp’s success on the web.

mailchimp-email-width-3

They do have an option for ‘turning off’ the humour elements on their website, as it is clear that the language they have used has caused offence to some users. They have acknowledged this by the creation of their ‘party pooper mode’ which turns off the humorous language and content that may offend.

mailchimp-party-pooper

Conclusion

Using humour is fun and is a welcome relief for designers and developers, but try and also think of scenarios when a customer may be coming to your site to complain, or they have a problem with your product or service. They may not be in the best mood and that humorous message could be a tipping point for a customer to leave your site permanently.

Some thoughts about using humour on your site

  • You need to understand the context of why someone is coming to your site and what their current mood is.
  • Humour does not translate across cultures. It is often not understood and in some cases can offend.
  • More often than not a user is looking for specific information and does not want to be entertained.
  • If used effectively humour can engage users and increase site stickiness.
  • Try not to interfere with the interface when using humour in areas the user relies on e.g. top navigation and top right search area.
  • With an international web presence make sure you localise the humour to the relevant country.
  • Provide a feature to turn off the humorous elements of your site.

When might humour be appropriate on your site?

  • When the site is web start up or has a technical community.
  • A site that is more conversational e.g. an individual’s blog.
  • A sites that is a branded promotion site, an artist site or a site where the topic is directly about fun or leisure.
  • Not in key areas such as error pages e.g. a technical problem as a result of a failed task.
  • Within some aspects of the copy.
  • When part of a game on the site.
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