Emotional Connection with The Computer

OK, this article isn’t about virtual pets, Sim-girlfriends, or robots that cook better than your wife.This article is about why people buy Apple products, and what you need to do to create that same level of fanatical following for your company’s stuff.

iPhone is a killer device – and it’s successful not because of its features. Comparing to the ancient Windows Mobile phones or even the Zune, it completely sucks – no radio, application development platform is this Cocoa crap that’s a decade behind C# and Java.

The iPhone is successful because the things it does, it does *very* well. Every aspect of the user experience, every interaction is so polished, it feels like it was (1) designed by a single hand, and (2) was created by a true craftsman. The device creates an EMOTIONAL RESPONSE. I can’t help it but smile every time I drag my finger across the screen to switch to another page on the Home screen. The animation follows my phisycal action PERFECTLY. It does not miss a single frame.

Contrast this with the Android phones – same functionality is jagged and laggy. Apple has their damned walled garden, it’s expensive and tied to AT&T, the network provider almost everyone hates with passion. Yet, the iPhone is incredibly successful in the mainstream, among non-techies – and Android is popular with just the nerds.

Emotional connection is completely orthogonal to functionality. You can have a beautiful product – a product that evokes wows – that does NOTHING AT ALL. It will obviously be difficult to sell, I’m not recommending you build one – just realize that the two characteristics are very much separate.

Also, note that engineers by default tend to value functionality over polish – and that polish is exactly what makes the emotional connection. Click on the checkbox and wait half-a-second for it to become checked – no big deal in terms of functionality, right? HUGE deal in terms of customer perception. Most non-technies won’t even be able to quantify what makes them dislike a product, but they’ll say that it “didn’t feel polished” or “felt like yet another bleh product.” Invest your heart and soul into polish, and you’ll get the usability study participants to say “wow, this must have come from Apple.”

Here comes the rub: features and polish compete for your company’s resources. Unless you do something, features will always win. Your product will fall smack in the middle of the sea of mediocrity, evoking the same emotions as as average accounting spreadsheet.

With so many technologists ignoring the emotional aspect of the computing experience, I encourage you to think about it as your potential competitive advantage. It can create the level of loyalty that is fundamentally stronger than the dependency on your features. Microsoft had a tablet 5 years before the iPad; those tablets ran all of the applications on the Windows platform. Seemingly, a huge competitive advantage – a FEATURE advantage, a platform entrenchment that seems insurmountable. We all know how the iPad was able to gain serious market traction, even with this disadvantage to begin with.

So make the every N-th sprint of your development cycle a “polish” sprint. Refuse to take any features – have everyone running around with a fine comb, looking for ways to make your product beautiful, desirable, usable. Even better, hire dedicated User Experience people.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hey Alex,

    Would you say that branding and marketing has a bigger effect than simply polish? Maybe the polish in a product determines the brand? That seems logical in many ways. What about a company that has a branding issue that releases a new product? The product, regardless of polish, would instantly be judged.

    Some people from Hotmail posted on Reddit.com asking the users for ideas and comments on Hotmail. I thought it was very interesting. The first response from people was the brand. The follow ups to why people disliked or didn’t use Hotmail is because they all went to GMAIL. Here is the link if you’d like to take a look at it:


    Here is a great post to the Hotmail team, which they seem to ignore:


    It’s interesting reading all the comments and I think the “polish” of the product along with many other factors effects the overall brand of a company.

  2. Jon – I’d say that polish is just one (albeit important) component of the brand. You can do other stuff – like employing experts to review / endorse your products or using bandwagon effects (“I want to be like the guy in the ad… i’ll get that product!”)

    Your company’s brand definitely casts a shadow on the brand of your products – for example, anything Apple produces will be taken by-default as the most elegant thing out there (even if it’s kind of mediocre). Anything Google produces will be taken as “potentially revolutionary” in terms of technology (even if it makes no sense, like Google Wave).

    Hotmail most definitely has a branding issue – but I’m afraid that asking the customers directly to tell them why they’re switching to GMail – in the reddit format like they did – brings exactly nothing. They get a bunch of trolls talking about stupid shit. You don’t get your customers to tell you that they want a car – they’ll tell you that they want a faster horse. Innovation has to come from understanding the root cause of customer complaints, not the surface-level symptoms.

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