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When you're not facing the one you're talking to, without body language, it's hard to communicate what you want him to feel. A good example is those status on Facebook :

God damn it, I woke up this morning and noticed that I love bananas so hard !

Some will understand that this guy has some "funny" friends, but there still people wondering if he's serious and what that really mean.

So now, let's say you're a startup providing programming services. This startup wants to look friendly and as a designer you decide to use funny icons. For example :

enter image description here

Is it really relevant ? I mean there's probably people that will get it and find it pleasing but what about the others, is it going to discredit the startup if they completly miss it ? Is it worth the risk ?

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Friendly is good, funny is good, sarcasm can be funny, but how is sarcasm ever friendly? – Marjan Venema Jan 11 '14 at 14:18
Using a spoon and a fork like you would have use a hammer and screwdriver to represent a multi purpose service is somewhat a form of sarcasm, isn't it ? – Gabin Jan 12 '14 at 10:10
Not necessarily. I don't quite understand what you mean by a multi-purpose service or what kind of services you would offer, but a spoon and a fork (even upside down) could also just mean that you offer a "menu" of services. I wouldn't call that sarcasm, but an out-of-the-box association. – Marjan Venema Jan 12 '14 at 12:14
This isn't really a UX question but rather writing/language. Ultimately, humor can be appropriate if it's well executed. Well executed being the key variable. BTW, a better icon to use would be a spork. – DA01 Jan 12 '14 at 18:56
@DA01 Thank you for the "spork", I didn't know haha. What a funny word/thing. And you're right, it would be probably a better icon. – Gabin Jan 13 '14 at 6:21
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Your last word says it all: risk. This question is really about risk management, and calculating what the damage would be if it failed, or possible gain from failing. Wait? What? Gain from failing? Yes. There can be a gain in failing.

Failing Examples

  • Frankie goes to Hollywood, a brittish music band from the 1980's made a slightly provocative video realeasing their infamous Relax video. Today this looks like nothing, but back then it was not politically correct. The video producers knew it, and took the risk realeasing it. It got banned by the British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC), and radios started playing the song like crazy. As a consequence of the ban, Frankie goes to Hollywood made a fortune.

  • More recent examples of the same kind in the music industry is the label Parental Advisory. The only effect that has on user behaviour is that youngsters know what to buy to annoy parents and relatives and at the same time impress fellow friends. I think non of Eminems song doesn't have a that label.

enter image description here

  • But this is not a subject only related to the music industry. This is also seen in other areas, such as health and cosmetics. Old Spice made the "man on the horse" commercial, which itself was very successful with 47 million views on Youtube alone.

enter image description here

  • It was so successful that another company in the same industry had to relate to it in their commercial. This was of course a big success to Old Spice, since they where mentioned by a competing company. It's not hard to read the frustration from competitors when they had to put this post up:

enter image description here

Now, users who didn't see the Old Spice commercial in the first place, or didn't remember it wouldn't get the Axe commercial. But would it have a negative affect on them? This is disputed as some say the company would suffer from not connecting to its customers. I disagree on that notice, since I believe more in Michael Porter who wrote that all visible activity a company does is a benifit. User who doesn't get it just move on and forget about it. As they do on other commercial not getting to them. No harm done.


So this is not uncommon behavior, using sarcasm, irony and humor to be funny. But what you need to think about is what it makes your product look like. Which image will it have after a successful campain? Do you like that image, or do you have trouble relating to it? Your answers there will give you the answer how to sell your product.

Is it relevant? No, not at all - but it sells products all right. Who hasn't seen Jonathan Ive, cheif designer of Apple, talk his pants down on the new iPhone design. It's hilarious to watch, and still we buy the iPhone. Do I feel bad about it? No. Does it relate to the product? That this piece of solid beautifly crafted plastic is still a phone (iPhone 5C)? Not in my book.

Is it worth the risk? Most definately, otherwise it hadn't been done. But you need to make sure your product delivers what it promises, funny or not.

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Thank you Benny for this interesting answer, full of usefull examples. It makes me think about two things : sometimes it's rewarding for a company to go as far as their core values get them, no matter if some would dislike it (like the recent Burger Kings' campaign on Facebook). The second thing is this quote from Jason Fried : "Be clear first and clever second. If you have to throw one of those out, throw out clever". However, what happens if we don't understand Axe's ad ? – Gabin Jan 12 '14 at 10:41
@Zhouzi I've updated my answer (below the Axe commercial image). #TL;DR No harm done! – Benny Skogberg Jan 12 '14 at 18:36
thank you ! :) I'm glad to learn that there is no harm doing it. Just a last question and it'll be all fine, what does the phrase "all visible activity a company does is a benefit" truly means ? Does it also include a bad benefit ? Because some activities may have a bad consequence. – Gabin Jan 13 '14 at 6:42
@Zhouzi It's all in the scope of "All publicity is good publicity" and "If you can't be seen, you don't exist" :-) – Benny Skogberg Jan 13 '14 at 7:05

I would first mention, I am not a UX designer or researcher, but an end user.

If you want to be funny, most of the time I don't have a problem with that. There are two exceptions:

  1. If it's serious. A partition table is corrupt. A backup is unreadable. These should probably have as little humor as possible. Windows 8's frowny face crashscreen is about as much humor as a thing like that should ever have.

  2. If it's anything I may have to see repeatedly within a short period of time. Suppose I'm trying to get a USB drive to read, so I keep trying it in different ports. If the drive is dead, I'm going to keep getting an error. If that error is trying to be humorous ("LOLOL it didn't work!") it will quickly get aggrivating, like a relentlessly cheerful helpdesk person who can't seem to express sorrow that they can't get your problem solved.

If you want to be sarcastic, be careful. I can personally say sarcasm is a minefield that easily and almost imperceptibly fades into offensiveness. If you are being sarcastic about anything the end user could feel remotely attached to you will probably alienate them. The only passably safe subject is yourself, and if you are too sarcastic about yourself you may make them believe you are really that bad, or that inversely, you're really arrogant because you feel like you can crack jokes about yourself.

Finally, I think I get your example (we're not just a one-trick pony, but can use multiple tools and use them well) and like it. It doesn't seem sarcastic to me.

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I like your second example. It makes me think that in this case, the best way to be friendly is to be simple. It'd be to have something like "It looks like you tried to plug an USB device but it didn't work. Do you want to repair it or seek for a working one ?". No humor when facing an annoying situation, that's probably the point. – Gabin Jan 12 '14 at 10:21

I would strongly advise against using humour in applications. The old adage about only 7% of communication being verbal is very relevant here.

If you had a funny message on-screen, you would need to consider two additional scenarios:

  • What if my user didn't understand the joke?
  • What if they thought we were being serious?

It's far safer to keep things friendly and professional throughout.

As for sarcasm, well that's a brilliant idea, quite the best you've ever had. Well done, you.

See what I did there? ;)

If you want to use sarcasm without irritating your audience, you need to be very sure that they're going to understand what you're saying and that you mean no offence. (This doesn't just apply to web applications, of course.)

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I like the question "What if they thought we were being serious ?". It's a great way to measure what would happen if the message isn't correctly delivered. – Gabin Jan 12 '14 at 10:13

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