A web site that cares how you feel

Summary:Every so often, you see something that provokes a "But of course! Why has nobody done this before?

Every so often, you see something that provokes a "But of course! Why has nobody done this before?". Sometimes that's a big and clever thing, like the first time you sit at a graphical web browser and click, or when you pick up an iPod and realise that its one purpose in life is to feed you music with as little drama as possible.

Sometimes, it's a little thing, something apparently trivial that just makes you go 'huh'. Then 'huh, that's smart'. Then the realisations come clustering in as fast as you can think of them.

One of those little things is mentioned here, on the Viget web designer blog. No, I haven't heard of them either, nor the Wufoo site it references. Wufoo make online form design and handling tools, and by the look of it they do a remarkably good job.

But it's not the cleverness of the Wufoo tech that matters. It's the addition of a tiny drop-down menu on their problem-reporting support page. Alongside the normal "what went wrong", "where is the problem" and "how can we contact you" fields is one important extra. It's labelled "emotional state": you get to choose between Excited, Confused, Worried, Upset, Panicked and Angry.

Yes. I know. How Californian. (Actually, Wufoo hails from Florida). It says something about being British that I can't offhand think of a way of phrasing the question that doesn't sound a bit odd. Most bug report sites merely ask you to rate the importance of the problem - something so unremarkable we never consider the unstated ambiguity in the question. Important to whom? To the person making the report? Perhaps - but I always feel that I have to consider the larger picture to try and be objective about things. Sure, it matters to me: but perhaps it's just a little thing. I have to be reasonable to elicit a reasonable response, and that puts me, even just a little, on the back foot.

That's why it's so much better to ask how it makes you feel. That removes the ambiguity and that (unanswerable) call to objectivity: it's absolutely clear, and gives the people having to rank the incoming bugs a much better idea where they have to focus their efforts to keep their users happy. Which is what matters more than anything. It doesn't depend on the person reporting the problem being good with English or being comfortable adding emphasis to what looks like a technical, clinical description.

But it goes further than that. As you look at the options, you have to ask yourself how you feel - and with that, you ask yourself why you feel like that. Unconsciously, you run through your state of mind and make allowances for all the other factors that got you there other than the immediate problem. And that makes you feel human and that you're being dealt with by humans: empathy in automatic response systems? Blimey.

It is a tiny thing. It's by no means universally applicable, and it's not guaranteed to work every time even in this one particular application. But it is a genuine innovation, and one that directly addresses one of the greatest unstated problems in our online world: you can't automate humanity.

That's rare and good and necessary. Nice work in one little drop-down box.

Topics: Emerging Tech

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Editor, ZDNet UK. Ex technology/technical editor of ZDNet UK, IT Week, PC Magazine, Computer Life, Mac User, Alfa Systems, Amstrad, Sinclair. Micronet 800, Marconi Space and Defence Systems, and a dodgy TV repair shop in the back streets of Plymouth. Can still swap out a gassy PL509 with the best of 'em.Dear Reader - contact me via our m... Full Bio

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