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You hear lots of people talk about the importance of authenticity, but why is authenticity so critical for innovation? Well as it turns out, your users will treat their relationship to your innovation (and you, by extension) as they would any other personal relationship in their lives.  So, even though your innovation is most definitely not a person, your users will tend to think of it like one. They’ll think of it in terms of personality, and sometimes even gender!

As soon as we realize that our designs are being thought of as a personal relationship, authenticity becomes critical. We don’t like people in our personal life that are inauthentic, and our users won’t like products that are inauthentic. Your users are smart; they can tell when you’re being inauthentic.  Once they sense that you have a purpose other than what you purport it to be, they will lose their faith in you.

The key to our designs' continued success is forming a close, personal, and authentic relationship with the people we’re designing for.

Authenticity is a tricky little word. While on the surface, it might appear that you can be authentic by just being yourself, that alone is not enough. It’s a two-way street. The people you’re interacting with have to believe you’re “just being yourself.” This means that you’re not solely in control of your own authenticity.

Most of us probably didn’t realize that, as designers, we were signing up for the job of creating personal relationship between people and the products or processes we’re designing.  Now, while there hasn’t been a ton of psychological work done on what makes for a good relationship between a person and an anthropomorphized product, there has been a lot of work on how to build healthy relationships between two people. Even though our design is not a person, we can use these findings to create an authentic design.

There are three traits your design must exhibit to make your users feel that your design is authentic.  Master these, and you can count on your users to not only come back to you time and again to experience the latest work you have to offer, but you can also count on your users to espouse your awesomeness to all of their friends and family, making you an instant sensation.

Smart and Competent

Smart Surgeons
Photo by US Army Africa via Flickr CC

Would you trust a surgeon to take care of that procedure for you if they weren’t very good at performing surgery?  Of course not. People don’t trust someone they consider to be incompetent. This is why competence is key prerequisite to authenticity.  In fact, Andrea Abele and Bogdan Wojciszke, professors of psychology, found that competence along with warmth (which will get into next) account for 80% of our impressions of other people.  So, we must look for ways in our designs to demonstrate our competence to our heroes.

The first way to demonstrate competence is to get the basics right.  Now, what the basic are, exactly, is entirely dependent on your field.  Architects shouldn’t design buildings with three-foot tall doorways. Software developers shouldn’t create back buttons that actually take you forward a step.  Restaurants should serve hot food hot and cold food cold. Sometimes the basics are so basic that it’s easy to overlook them. But that would be a mistake. Get something basic wrong, and your users will immediately call into question your competency as it relates to every single aspect of your design.  What’s probably one minor mishap to you is more of a where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire situation to them. So mind your p’s and q’s and make sure you’ve got your basics covered.

The devil, and the next place for you to demonstrate your competence, is in the details.  So many designers lack the will or the resources to specifically craft each and every detail in their design.  Instead, they revert to the default decision. Their details are crafted to be whatever’s cheap and easy. Great innovations meet a higher standard, though. Every detail of your design should serve the story you’re telling.  Details that conflict with your story actually pull your user out of the experience. Because these stick out like a sore thumb and can’t be swept under the rug, every slapdash detail is a huge red flag, declaring to your users your lack of competence.  Instead, take the time to carefully craft each detail of your design, show your users that you care about them enough to get every detail just right for them.


The second major factor that people use to evaluate others, according to Abele and Wojciszke's research, is warmth.  We tend to like warm people more than people who are cold. Go figure. But this has important implications for our designs and how they reflect on us as designers.  We need to make an effort to ensure that we and our designs take a warm posture towards our users.

The first key to being warm is to put on a jacket.  (Sorry, we know that was a particularly bad pun, even for us. We’ve just been told that by our mothers so many times, it just sort of came out.)  Let’s try that again. The first key to being warm is to be welcoming.  (There we go.)  Whether they’re returning for the umpteenth time or if it’s their very first experience with your design, you should be ecstatic that they’re there!  Without them engaging with you, you wouldn’t be making anyone’s life better, and that is the point after all. So be excited to see your users. Literally welcome them.  Tell them how happy you are to see them, how grateful you are to have them, and how you hope that their experience with you will be a positive one.

Photo by Christin Hume via Unsplash

The second key to being warm is to demonstrate caring.  Start by asking your users how they’re doing.  Find a way to build a dialogue into your experience.  Create moments for emotional check-ins with your users to make sure they’re happy and frustration-free.  Even if things are going swimmingly, they’ll appreciate you asking them. Of course, sometimes you’ll check in and find that things aren’t going so hot after all.  In these cases, it’s important to act. Don’t let their cries for help fall on deaf ears. A silent response from you is the quickest way to convince your users that you don’t care about them whatsoever.  So be sure to do your best to rectify the situation whenever you find out that a users is having a problem with your experience.

The final key to warmth is honesty.  Your users can tell when you’re being insincere.  So don’t even try it. Explain to them where you’re coming from.  Own up to it when you make a mistake. Share your reasoning behind a tough decision.  Your users will appreciate your honesty. It will help them view you as a warm, authentic person.


Believe it or not, being funny actually helps establish authenticity, and it’s a great way to demonstrate both your smarts and your warmth.  But we should be quick to note that not all types of humor are good for authenticity. Mean-spirited humor can have just the opposite effect; your users won’t trust that they won’t the be the butt of the joke the next time.  Good-natured humor, though, shows a high degree of empathy. It highlights your ability to understand your heroes and their context enough to know what they will find funny and what they won’t.

row of four men sitting on mountain trail
Photo by Matheus Ferrero via Unsplash

Self-deprecating humor does a great job of creating authenticity.  Self-deprecating humor, even a groan-inducing bad pun, is so effective, because it renders us vulnerable.  It shows that we’re human, and that we’re well aware that we come with flaws. Showcasing this vulnerability actually invites others to empathize with you.  They relate to you, because they, of course, recognize that they have flaws, too. Once they begin to think of you as being rather similar to themselves, they will begin to see you as authentic. So don’t be afraid to let your weird side out, to show a little whimsy.


The experience you create for your users must be authentic.  Your users will treat their relationship with your design as they would a relationship with another person. Build that relationship by demonstrating your competence.  Get all the basics right and make sure every detail enhances the overall story you’re creating. Exude warmth. Finally, take a chance and open yourself up with humor. Your users will like you all the better for it. Welcome your users and show them you care about them. Demonstrate these qualities in your design and your users will view your design as one built on authenticity.

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