Everyone knows “details matter,” but time and again product’s design and workflows are steamrolled in the name of deadlines. But not taking the time to workout the details can dramatically shift how a product is used and the data perceived. From choosing the right visualization, to the right font – details matter.
We were recently informed that a paper submitted to ACM Transactions on
Interactive Intelligent Systems (TIIS) was accepted for publication (due out in 2020). Our paper was a study on some of the smallest details in email products: Avatars and Signatures. And what we found, was quite surprising! We have included the introduction from our forthcoming journal paper here.
In many environments, but especially within a work context, employees are expected to use email with a tacitly agreed-upon degree of professionalism and work appropriateness. While the specifics of these requirements have been informally codified as following good grammar, and avoiding inappropriate topics (e.g., politics or sex), aspects of presentation (design decisions) in emails have not been formally addressed or studied.
The primary contribution of this work is a study of how email author controlled presentation choices impact reader perceptions within a professional environment. While there are many dimensions that email authors have at their disposal (e.g. semantic content/grammar , typographic changes, etc), this paper focuses on the two unique dimensions that authors can manipulate to present and identify themselves; Signature (the text after the sender signs off), and Profile Avatar (which appears next to the sender’s name in the client). These are initial and lasting impressions by authors – that augment how senders present themselves.
In a non-email context, initial and non-performance impressions have been shown to directly color all subsequent performance behavior in what was termed the Halo Effect . In other words, if Colleague A initially thinks well of Colleague B, then good work B does looks fantastic to A, and bad work is easily overlooked. With the converse being true as well: if Colleague A initially thinks poorly of Colleague B, then bad work B does looks horrible to A, and good work is easily overlooked as pure luck or an anomaly. These impressions can take a long time to overcome, biasing future actions for an extended period of time[3, 4]. Further, in researching the Halo Effect, these biasing impressions are driven by non-performance, non-content features such as physical appearance[5, 6]. This parallels Signature or Profile Avatar, initial non-content features of a sender. In a more theoretical way, this work seeks to determine if there may be a theoretical parallel between the Halo Effect and email presentation choices.
To measure readers’ subconscious reactions to these presentation variations, 900 unique Mechanical Turkers were asked to complete a personality test about the sender of an email (while controlling the emails content). To quantify the recipients’ view of the sender, the Big Five Inventory (BFI) was used, a mainstream conceptualization of personality , measuring five personality (or perceived personality[8, 9]) dimensions: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness. Four indicator questions were added relating to style to examine how recipients view the quality of the email.
Results show that these self-presentation design dimensions impact the perception of both the sender’s personality and the mail’s quality. Further, while variations can positively impact the recipient’s view of the sender, these variations often have negative impact. This implies that many of these seemingly innocuous presentation changes should be made that consider the context of the receiver.
To briefly summarize the findings; Signatures should be as simple as possible (if present at all), and including social media contact information can have some positive impact on the recipient’s perception. Profile Avatars allow users to have some flexibility in presenting themselves as being serious, or slightly light-hearted, but having no Profile Avatar is ideal. However, if the absence of a Profile Avatar results in a placeholder image (as in many email clients), this will generally have a negative impact, and therefore users should choose a Profile Avatar over having a default place-holder image. Of particular note are that decisions such as including Signatures about emails being written on a phone, or having Profile Avatars of babies, have a very strong negative impacts.
 E. Gilbert, Phrases that signal workplace hierarchy, in: CSCW, ACM Request Permissions, 2012.
 E. L. Thorndike, A constant error in psychological ratings, Journal of applied psychology 4 (1) (1920) 25–29.
 D. McRaney, You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the OtherWays to Ou tsmart Yourself, Penguin, 2013.
 P. Rosenzweig, The halo effect:… and the eight other business delusions that deceive managers, Simon and Schuster, 2014.
 T. J. Wade, C. DiMaria, Weight halo effects: Individual differences in perceived life success as a function of women’s race and weight, Sex Roles 48 (9-10) (2003) 461–465.
 K. Dion, E. Berscheid, E.Walster, What is beautiful is good., Journal of personality and social psychology 24 (3) (1972) 285.
 O. P. John, L. P. Naumann, C. J. Soto, Paradigm shift to the integrative big five trait taxonomy, Handbook of personality: Theory and research 3 (2008) 114–158.
 J. J. Connolly, E. J. Kavanagh, C. Viswesvaran, The convergent validity between self and observer ratings of personality: A meta-analytic review, InternationalJournal of Selection and Assessment 15 (1) (2007) 110–117.
 K. Fong, R. A. Mar, What does my avatar say about me? inferring personality from avatars, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41 (2) (2015) 237–249.
Cover Image by Davide Baraldi on Unsplash