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After a prolonged period of communal isolation, we’ve gotten used to seeking connection through our devices. More people than ever are Very Online, with a significant portion of daily interactions mediated by technology. More time spent in the digital realm naturally leads to consumers asking for better digital experiences, flashes of humanity in those digital spaces they occupy. To bridge this gap, designers need to cultivate a sense of recognition for their users.

As tech continues to evolve, this human touch becomes even more vital to the digital experience. It’s no secret that norms are shifting and the online-first way of doing things—in work, shopping, or even our day-to-day communication—is here to stay.

So what does it mean to humanize the digital?

What is “humanizing,” really?

A word that, in the 1600s, meant “to civilize” brings to mind something very different today. In modern English, “humanize has two meanings: It can refer to the desire to represent something as human, and it can also represent attempts to inject a little human interaction into something. Because interactions with customer service or in a checkout line have often been the basis of humanization in the past (sounding robotic was an easy way to lose a sale at the point of purchase), brands tend to think of these as the only way to humanize themselves. These companies may assume that if one aspect of a customer’s experience is sufficiently humanized, then that’s enough. 

But interaction is actually a carefully-designed experience. There’s a reason digital designers refer to any touchpoint—any moment that a user or potential customer has to pass through something on their journey to getting their product—as an interaction. The key to creating a product that is humanized, though, isn’t just about finding places and ways to connect with something  approximating a human; it’s about using a product that makes users feel human.

Even in an era of one-click buys and instantaneous transactions, it still pays off to take a personal approach. Research from Accenture shows that 91% of consumers would be more likely to buy from a company that recognizes them, remembers them, and provides relevant offers and recommendations.

An interaction now, a new customer later

This is why proliferating interactions is the first key to creating digital experiences that feel human. Interactive experiences go beyond entertainment—they ultimately serve the purpose of connecting the human who’s interacting with their environment. This could come in the form of a piece of content, an ad, an app, or even something as small as a form field when they click purchase. And when they engage with these, they establish a relationship. 

Some examples of successful experiences that humanize products include: 

  • Though some may view Siri as the standard-bearer of ‘human’ voices in digital interfaces, the mindfulness app Headspace made its mark by using narrators to cultivate a relationship with users. These voices and narrators have become key to the brand’s identity and have helped it reach a base of over 30 million people.
  • Ticketing software platform DICE models its interface on the exhilarating experience of scoring a coveted spot at a show—putting the power in users’ hands rather than ultra-fast algorithms. If a concert sells out, it uses a direct person-to-person resale system that connects users and ensures a real fan gets a space.
  • What better way to humanize a company than by admitting past mistakes? That’s exactly what Domino’s did in its ‘bad pizza’ ad campaign, going as far as to include negative online customer reviews before successfully revamping the brand.
  • By addressing customers with a simple prefix—Mr.—across its website, checkout, and email communications, the online menswear platform Mr Porter recreates a time-tested, personal shopping experience which makes users more than just a number.
  • Red Bull Stratos invited the public to follow along with a world record freefall attempt from the edge of space. In doing so, it rallied millions of viewers together around a common theme of exploration that captured a phenomenon far beyond just the brand’s individual products into a high flying front-row seat.

Beyond interaction: empathy-driven design

Both UX designers and marketing strategists need to know how humans respond to their products. That’s why it’s no surprise that many big names specializing in these fields have strong foundations in psychology. Empathy is now central in online-centric communication, for both designers of platforms and their users. Feeling through a common experience is a basic tenant of what makes design good. 

How fascinating, then, that empathy as a concept in the English language is only a century old. And when it was first defined in the early 1900s, in what was then a direct translation from German science books, it meant something that was nearly the opposite of its present understanding. Empathy was more akin to projection: spreading your feelings onto the people and objects around you. 

What’s remarkable, looking back at the history of empathy, is that it wasn’t human-centered at all. It operated mostly as a way to use one’s own human feelings to understand art or the outside world. People ran tests and studies to understand empathy, and there was a notion of “kinesthetic empathy.” According to The Atlantic, one subject described how merely imagining a bunch of grapes brought about “a cool, juicy feeling all over.” Later, in the mid-twentieth century, new experiments helped broaden empathy’s scope to conceptualize the feelings of others.

All of this shows that empathy was always its own humanizing machine—a word that spoke our bonds with objects, and later with tech, into existence.

Be wary of the cognitive load 

As you begin your own process of enlivening interactions between you and users, remember the cognitive load you’re subjecting them to. There is a toll that every product takes on its user, and so these interactions need to have meaning. Don’t overdo it.  

When it comes to designing a checkout experience, for instance, an empathic designer will try to strike a balance between engagement and convenience. Polling shows that almost 20% of US adults who abandon their online shopping carts do so because the process took too long or was overly complicated. 

That’s not to say, however, that maximizing efficiency and prioritizing speed is all that matters. Simply mimicking human interaction won’t cut it, either.

Technologies like chatbots have yet to provide the same assurance that comes with knowing you’re able to connect with a human on the other end. With digital apps, over half of users in a CGS survey said they’d be unlikely to return to a service if it didn’t provide an option to reach a human agent.

All in all, digital products resonate most when they facilitate an experience that stretches further than a fleeting moment. By understanding users and taking an approach centered on empathy, brands and designers can craft a humanized digital experience that sustains relationships with customers and positively melds online and offline existence.

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