How to Sell Imagination

I recently was speaking with a friend who works as a UX consultant about optimizing websites for lead conversion and sales conversion. I was curious if he had come across any types of “go-to” tricks that seem to increase leads and sales, no matter the business or website.To my delight, he did indeed have such a trick: the word Imagine.

Don’t Sell Features

When selling a product, whether it’s a software product, consumer good, B2B or B2C, leads and sales can increase by helping the buyer imagine the improvements in their life that will come from buying the given product or service. This is an especially effective alternative to selling people a set of features, which while more tangible, fail to excite and move people to action.

There are some brands that sell you on imagination extremely well. Take Apple for example. Apple is what is often referred to as an aspirational brand – in other words, many Apple consumers are drawn to their purchase because they like the way Apple makes them feel about themselves. They enjoy imagining their life with Apple products, because having an Apple product stands for elegance, creativity and affluence, and Apple has sold them on imagining that lifestyle.

(Note: Aspirational branding, or as you might more commonly hear it, “selling the dream” is not just for big companies. Startups can take advantage of aspirational branding as well. Here’s a nice explanation of this process and why it works.)

Then compare this to the way that Microsoft used to package and market its software. It was feature heavy, dense and cluttered – all of which made you feel like you would be buying something powerful, but not something life-changing. Of course, Microsoft has since made the transition to its Metro-style branding, which is cleaner, simpler and more inviting to the imagination.

How to Invite Imagination

In the case above discussing website UX, the changes being made were often copy changes, literally using the word imagine. Replacing tedious bullet point lists of features with simple copy that invited the buyer to imagine their life with the added benefits of this product or service. Copy is certainly a wonderful and straightforward way to elicit imagination in potential consumers, but it is far from the only way.

Visual cues are a fantastic communicator as well. Take the above packaging as an example. Apple helps you imagine iLife making your life more simple and clutter-free by organizing your photos, movies and music. Beyond package design, beautiful photos with products in use can place a potential consumer into an immediate setting, and imagine themselves actually using the product and enhancing their life. That’s far more powerful than having them think about a list of individual features.

Find Out Why Your Product is Exciting

Figuring out why your product is exciting is an exercise that should really be incredibly simple, but many companies find ways to overcomplicate this process, and that’s when feature bullet point lists begin to creep in. Stop for a second.

Think about the original reason you began building your product or service. What problem were you trying to solve? Answering this question should come before any building ever takes place, so the answer ought to already be readily available to you. And that’s really about all there is to it.

A valuable answer to that question sets you on the right path to explaining to people why your product or service is exciting. Answering that question helps invite potential consumers to imagine their life with (at least) one less problem.


The Other San Francisco

It seems that we can’t get through a single week without seeing another article or infographic about how expensive San Francisco is becoming. And if people aren’t complaining about the housing prices, they’re complaining about the influx of technology workers who are making the prices so high to begin with.

Okay, so we get it. San Francisco is expensive. But shouldn’t it be? I mean after all, San Francisco is the happiest city in America, and the only U.S. city to crack the top ten happiest cities in the world. San Francisco AND Oakland (it’s nicer than you think) both made this top 5 most exciting cities to live in list (albeit by some strange criteria). Oh, and San Francisco was named the most romantic city in North America.

In case it wasn’t obvious enough yet, we pay a lot of money to live in San Francisco, because living in San Francisco is worth a lot of money. Simply, the quality of life here is better. 

So why do people still complain?

James Temple from SF Gate recently hypothesized:

The truth is that a lot of this debate isn’t actually about rent, gentrification or economics, or anything rooted in a real class struggle. Some of it is just hipster-on-hipster hatred. Middle-class humanities majors grumbling about middle-class computer science majors.

He might be onto something there. But I have another theory. I think that many of the people complaining simply don’t quite know what they’re missing out on.

I’ve heard a number of friends living in the Nob Hill, Russian Hill, North Beach quadrant of the city complain that they’re “kind of bored with San Francisco.” Guess what? These same people rarely ever leave that northeast quadrant of the city. They couldn’t find Mount Davidson on a map. They couldn’t tell you where either of the waterfalls are in Golden Gate Park. They probably have no idea that there are hidden rope swings and slides in the hills of Glen Park and Bernal Heights. Quite simply they’ve passed up opportunities over the years to discover how jawdroppingly stunning this city is.

A call to action

I’d like to remind people who live here (and visitors too) that there’s more to San Francisco than what you’ve seen in Ms. Doubtfire and Full House. Much more. San Francisco is small, but it’s densely packed with surprises and delights at every turn. If you never take the time to fully get to know the city just because “The Sunset is too cold” or because “I don’t know how to get to Fort Funston” then you’re never going to know why you pay so much to live here in the first place.

And a final, friendly reminder: Don’t call it Frisco.


Design with Emotion: When UX Scares People

When I was in elementary school I was terrified of mailboxes. Not the kind that you see in front of suburban houses with a little red flag raised. Specifically, I was afraid of the mailbox shelves in the main office of my elementary school.

In our class, students took turns being class leader every week. As class leader, we would be responsible for getting students in line to go from the classroom to recess and back. We would be responsible for cleaning up after arts and crafts. And most terrifyingly, we would be responsible for handling our teacher’s mail!

A Terrifying UX is Worse Than a Confusing UX

Now let me tell you just why this was so scary. As class leader, the pressure was on. You did not want to screw up. And mailboxes presented the perfect opportunity to mess up if you weren’t paying close attention because they had (and still have) a terrible user experience.

These mailboxes were the kind where each teacher has a little rectangular box all stacked high and wide. Along each divide were labels with the teachers name that corresponded to their mailbox. Now here’s the problem: does the label refer to the mailbox above or below the name? What is a 6-year-old to do!?

Of course, logic kicks in and you come up with devices to solve this conundrum. You can look at the very bottom row of mailboxes. If this row has labels below it, then you know that each row above it also has labels below the corresponding mailbox. If not, then the labels are on top of their mailboxes. (It turns out generally the label goes below the corresponding mailbox.)

So even as kids we come up with devices and workarounds to figure out how to properly use things in the world around us. But we can also learn from this as we design and develop products for the 21st century.

Design with Emotion in Mind

As mentioned above, the only thing worse than creating a confusing user experience is creating a user experience that actually scares people. Consider the product you’re building. The higher the stakes are – that is, the more the user has to gain or lose by using or misusing your product – the more important it is to not terrify your users.

It’s not just enough to think about how and why a user wants to use your product. Designers have to go deeper, and put themselves into the shoes of users to consider the circumstances and feelings that users bring with them when using their product.

Design, at its best creates strong positive emotions in the user. These emotions that delight users make them want to return to using the product time and again. However, if not treated carefully and considered, the user’s emotions can be neglected and lead to negative, and even terrifying experiences for users. And who wants that?


Rethinking ‘Form Follows Function’

It’s often stated that form follows function. In other words, objects take their current form – their shape and aesthetic look – based on their intended use. We understand what a chair is supposed to do, because in general it looks like a chair.

Objects and design that hold function as an afterthought tend to just not work as well (duh!) even if they look nice.

Form Follows Function Isn’t Good Enough

If everything that was ever created and designed followed the ‘form follows function’ guide, then once we arrived at functional, good-looking objects, we would have stopped designing. We would be held in the purgatory of “good design” without having ever ascending to the heavens of “great design.”

That said, we didn’t stop at “good design” which means that something must have come after ‘form follows function’ to make us continue to fiddle and rework objects to our liking.

Form Follows Failure

In Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things, he asserts that form follows failure, not function. By this he means that everything that was ever designed has a potential to reach, and if it hasn’t yet reached its full potential (by any small details), then it is failing. So we modify objects and design with precision until we acheive some sort of objectified perfection (“great design”).

Additionally, our behavior isn’t static, and the way we interact with objects over time may change, thus changing what we expect an object’s potential to be. An object that was once considered perfect may become dated, requiring redesign just five to ten years later.

When Design Goes Digital

The good news is that human interaction and behavior with objects is shifting faster than ever, thanks to web and mobile design. People are updating what they expect from digital interfaces, which means that older products that were once great might now fall into the “failure” bucket and require some reworking.

So I urge designers and makers to consider everything they use, every interaction, and think about where potential is not being reached. Imagine possibilities that could make your experiences better. And then let form follow.


We not I

“Those leaders who give credit and take blame are more likely to be successful than those who take credit and give blame.”

About two years ago during my senior year of college, I was taught to use “we” in emails in place of “I” – especially to give credit for ideas, projects, suggestions, etc. I work in a small company, and by using “we” more often in our emails, we effectively create a more consistent and frequent sense of the collective.

It’s funny how much two microscopic words can impact the way we communicate, and the way we make others feel when we communicate. Consider the below examples:

“Hey David,

It was great to talk with you today. I came up with a set of suggestions for your product design. I’ve attached those here. Let me know when you’d like to speak to review these.



“Hey David,

It was great to talk with you today. We came up with a set of suggestions for your product design. We’ve attached those here. Let us know when you’d like to speak to review these.


In the cases above, not only will my team appreciate the fact that I’m giving credit for the work, but David would also get the idea that multiple people provided input, and that his problems were given more consideration than what just one person could afford.

When to Use “I”

Of course there are exceptions. It would be wierd to use “we” in place of “I” if you’re writing to someone 1-to-1 (no Cc’s) about a project or idea that doesn’t involve outside parties.

Internally, using “I” is also smart if you want to voice an opinion that is truly your own.

So try it out. See if replacing “I” with “we” makes a difference for you or your company.