They don’t make ’em like they used to…

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Country Ken.


Country Ken is a 1967 long-scale Epiphone Casino. You might not think that he’s anything special.

The paintwork is cracked across nearly every inch of his body and neck. There is a large patch of paint missing from the corner of his body, where the player’s arm rests against it. The paint on the back of his neck has bubbled and turned black, where the sweat from 46 years of heavy playing has reacted with his nitro-cellulose finish. The original Burgundy Sparkle colour on his body has faded to a dull copper from contact with sunlight.

To many people, he looks like a piece of junk, found in some old relative’s attic; the sort of thing that would be discarded once found. In actual fact, he is the most expensive thing I have ever purchased.

So why would I spend twice the value of my car on a beaten up plank of wood? The reason is simple: because of the feeling I get from playing music on it. Any artist will tell you that it’s impossible to write or play good music without inspiration, and what better to provide inspiration than an instrument which radiates the 46 years of love, devotion and attention shown to it by those who have played it.

The Epiphone Casino was a hugely well designed instrument. It was used by the best in the business when first released, and the original guitars are a highly sought after today. It has been imitated countless times in the years since. But none of these modern, machine built models can possibly hope to match the care and attention that was put into building the handmade original. In comparison they feel cold, rigid and almost clinical. They lack feeling. They lack personality.

Where’s this going?

The same can usually be said about modern UI and web design. Those who design and build great user experiences allow fun, feeling and personality to shine through at every stage of the site or application’s use. Those who build cold, clinical interfaces rarely see the same levels of user engagement.

One of the best examples of this is Github. What could be an incredibly tedious user-experience – let’s face it, pushing code and fixing bugs is rarely anyone’s idea of “fun” – is made rewarding thanks to the generous use of Octocats, playful error messages, and the gamification of stats on user profiles.

With Siri, Apple managed to remove some of the stigma attached to feeling like a dick when talking to your phone by making it tell you jokes.

Google’s brilliant video advertising focuses on stories and real-life events that their target market can empathise with, and introduces their product’s user interfaces almost as an additional character in the stroy itself. By personifying their products in this way, users immediately feel an affinity towards them.

There’s a reason that copywriting, content marketing and conversion rate optimisation have become multi-million-dollar industries. The people who do these things are (for the most part) professionals, and have spent years perfecting their craft.

With the low barrier-to-entry in web and UI design these days, far too many people are focusing on pitching their product in a cold, lifeless environment, without trying in any way to empathise with their users, and as a result, they struggle.

The cheap imitation guitars I linked to above suffer from the same issue. Instead of being built by people who love and make guitars, like the original they are attempting to imitate, they are built by people who know how to operate the machinery they are built with – two very different approaches.

So before you next start a design, spend some time with a product you love. Think about the feeling it gives you when using it. Then think about the feeling you want your users to experience, and try and implement your UI in a way that really makes them feel like they know your product, on a personal level.

That way, when you finally show the user that “Sign Up” or “Buy” button, it feels less like a sale, and more like an invitation.

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