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Tired of being grownups

For a long time, I have been fighting with the question of how much personality a business relationship can sustain. Oddly enough, this question manifests itself in the use of emojis on our website. But as it turns out, this question goes much deeper.

Even in a serious set of a large corporation, I was able to build and maintain personal relationships with C-level execs and treat them in a similar fashion as I would a friend. While this may reveal what it means to be a friend of mine, I claim that I bend the rules on the professional end in my favor.

These experiences frequently led me to wonder who defines the tone between two people doing business together, whether under the same flag or in a vendor-customer relationship. To use other words: How seriously do professional relationships have to be?

One article that recently struck my attention (and inspired me to write this post) is The Kawaiization of Product Design by Tobias van Schneider. He observed a trend that products are increasingly becoming kawaii – Japanese for cute.

And emojis are kawaii, too. And while they certainly do a much better job at expressing emotions than regular people could with prose, that very cuteness makes them feel misplaced in a business context. At least it feels off when addressing serious-appearing companies. But that comes with an internal conflict.

Being the person who wears the marketing head at my current company colabel, one of the decisions I frequently face is the tone we are using towards our customers. On the one hand, we are and want to be perceived as a young and dynamic company (which we are) but at the same time, we need to transport a base level of trust.

Honing in on the fact that we are young and proud of it: It appears that as companies “grow up”, the use of playful language (and emojis) fades away. In an attempt to appeal to larger audiences, it is safer to settle on a common denominator. I would take a bet that IBM does not have a single emoji on their website. But does that mean that startups have to use them, just to prove that they are one? I don’t think so.

The best software where I have seen emojis work at scale was Notion where I think that it adds to the overall product experience – because emojis are not prescribed but chosen by the user on their terms. Slack and Discord are two additional examples but in that sense, these are no different from consumer apps like WhatsApp or Messenger. Inside our software, that’s similar although we use it as a design element in many places; aside from the benefit of them being cheap symbols, our users have a base literacy of emojis which we can piggyback on.

There is no definite answer for emojis but it helps to sometimes recognize that there are humans we are communicating with. Cuteness may be good in some places but the very moment emojis seem overused, it puts all credibility at danger: What are they trying to cover up? Do they think I am stupid? Can I even trust them?

None of this forbids to use colloquial language at times or sprinkle an emoji on top. But each of us earns the right to be trusted by offering something of value and delivering it in a way that transports appreciation. My sign of appreciation to you is that I am rewriting paragraphs for this article several times, even though I already know what I have in mind and wouldn’t need any better structure around it to know what point I am trying to make.

Going back to the title, this line suddenly made me understand that most people don’t like to wear a facade. Being a grownup can be tiring at times. They merely do so in order to protect themselves but that does not mean that this is what they want. As it turns out, there is nothing wrong with addressing high-level executives with colloquial language and emojis. They use it too with their friends from the Golf club (Example: “That’s not the only hole you’ve missed today, Greg 💩”).

What they – and everybody else – expect is respect. Being treated as a human. If that is provided, it is also fine to sometimes let the inner child shine through and let it be a part of the relationship. But if there is the slightest risk that is being threatened, every emoji will just add fuel to the fire.