Using humor in UX design

Posted on April 15, 2015
4 min read


April is the month of blooming flowers, chirping birds, and at least for the first day, mischievous pranksters dedicated to eliciting a laugh or two. April Fool’s Day is an exception to the rule, a limited one day pass to step outside of your usual personality and show a more light-hearted side.

But what if your company that wants this humorous element to represent your brand every day? How can you convey this through your web presence? What would this look like?

As with anything, there is no set formula for injecting some humor into your web design. You will undoubtedly end up offending the sensibilities of someone, somewhere in the world. But if implemented with tact and foresight, adding some playfulness into your design can help to distinguish yourself among competitors and to create a stronger connection with your users.

Set yourself apart

Online services such as MailChimp and Wufoo have set themselves apart from competitors through humorous, friendly, and easy-to-understand copy, branding, and interaction on their site.

MailChimp’s email platform is represented by a regal-sounding monkey named Freddie Von Chimpenheimer IV, while Wufoo helps users create forms and surveys within a colorful platform that recalls a Fisher-Price toy. Freddie the chimp always has a greeting or compliment when you log on to MailChimp, and the easter eggs throughout the site don’t add to the functionality, but they sure add to the memorability of the experience.

freddie joke

MailChimp uses Freddie Von Chimpenheimer as a way to inject humor into the user experience.

These two companies stand out in their respective fields by taking a risk and showing some personality; why shouldn’t creating a form make you laugh as well?

Wufoo welcome message: Holy tabula rasa! You don't have any forms! Let's go make one!

Wufoo includes jokes and witty copywriting in its welcome message and other places within the product.

“We were determined from the get go to make sure Wufoo wasn’t just going to be excellent at what it does, it was going to be fun, too.” –Kevin Hale, Co-founder of Wufoo

Being funny doesn’t have to mean being unprofessional. In the infant days of the web, businesses did all they could to put forward a “legitimate” front to the world to prove that they could deliver on their promises.

Today, we don’t just view websites anymore, we experience them. And bringing a smile to a user’s face can transform that experience from likable to lovable, which could make all the difference.

Make an emotional connection with users

Successful use of humor is part of establishing an emotional connection with your users and reminding them that there are real humans behind the design!

As explained by Aaron Walter, UX Design Lead at MailChimp, creating a pleasurable experience is at the top of the web usability hierarchy of needs. Once you have established that your site is functional and usable, adding a dash of humor can move you up to the pinnacle of that pyramid, helping your users to enjoy their time interacting with your service.

Pyramid of user needs: Functional, Reliable, Usable, Pleasurable

Aaron Walter plays on Maslow's hierarchy of needs to explain the needs of users.

Wufoo guides you through the creation of a survey with example text from a popular 80’s cartoon, which will make you chuckle with Wufoo at the inside joke. Even if you’re not of the age to recall the cartoon, you will grin at its inventiveness. And it sure beats, “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” or “Lorem Ipsum dolor sit amet.

Wufoo placeholder text: "From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe..."

Wufoo's placeholder text is designed to delight users who grew up in the U.S. in the 80's.

Use appropriately

From politics to entertainment to e-commerce, creative use of humor can apply to all types of services.

Keep in mind the same rules for using humor in real life apply to the web. You wouldn’t try to crack a joke after your friend has just received bad news, and likewise, you shouldn’t spring an easter egg on a user who has just been told they’ve lost their work or is struggling to complete a vital task on your site.

It’s important to understand the context in which your user will be interacting with your service to determine if humor is appropriate and, if so, to what degree. If your service is a party game or exists to encourage practical jokes, then your users are going to have a higher threshold for humor than an organization raising money for a cause.

Even when humor is intimately related with a company’s brand, like MailChimp, there are still times when jokes and gags will not go down well. In this case, MailChimp offers a “party pooper” mode that allows customers to disable and re-enable “MailChimp humor.” Their mantra is “fun is around every corner, but never in the way of the workflow.” If their comedic flair is not appreciated by customers or gets in the way of doing their work, it can be turned off. No harm done.

Test the Waters

If you’re unsure how your users will react to some humorous copy or a quirky interaction, test it out.

Some simple user testing or audience research (preferably in advance) could even help you understand the type of humor---slapstick, sarcastic, witty, etc.---that your user base prefers. A quick survey asking what their favorite comedic style is, if they have one at all, or where they browse online for comic relief can give some insight into your users. Even a basic demographic question like age can vastly alter your plans on how to approach changes.

So get out there, don’t be shy, and experiment. Being funny is a difficult thing. You might not hit the right tone on the first try, but by considering a humor-centered design, you may open up an opportunity for your brand to stand apart from the rest and to connect with users on a new level!

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