While doing some research the other day, I came across a very interesting paper on recognizing facial expressions. The authors state:
On the other hand, there are a limited number of distinct facial expressions of emotion that appear to be biologically wired, produced involuntarily, and whose meanings are similar across all cultures; for example, anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise
–P. Ekman. The argument and evidence about universals in facial expressions of emotion. In D.C. Raskin, editor, Psychological methods in criminal investigation and evidence, pages 297–332. Springer Publishing Co, Inc., New York, 1989.
It’s interesting that these facial expressions are absolutely cross-cultural. It certainly explains how 🙂 has taken off in the last 20 years (or 200, depending on who you ask). I’ve always regarded the emoticons as part of the icing in the UI design cake. However, if these facial expressions are hardwired, and there seems to be a lot of supporting research then it opens up a new way of using these emoticons. Using interactions which are hardwired into humans is essentially the ultimate realization of Neilsen’s principle “Use recognition, not recall”
So maybe the next time you’re thinking of designing an success or error UI, why not toss an emoticon to help the user along? Odds are they’ll figure out what is going on faster than anything else you could do*
Oh wait, the footnote
*Sure, there had to be an addendum. While we may be good at recognizing human facial expressions, we’re not necessarily hardwired to recognize little bubbly round guys smiling or sticking their tongue out at us. In reality, there needs to be research to distill what it is we recognize about facial expressions into clean icons before we can take advantage of this. Manga may already getting there though: