Signatures and Ceremony: Adding Emotion to Electronic Signatures

This blog was originally published on Medium in “User Experience Design [UX].”

As designers, we think about more than form and function. We explore the boundaries between what users have, what they need, and what they desire. When we’re dealing with workflows or other business tools, we know what users have and what they need, which gives us a pretty good start. But sometimes, a project comes along that requires more nuanced thinking due to the personal nature of the experiences. That’s what I encountered when we were tasked with advancing the experience of our electronic signature process for Adobe Document Cloud.

A signature is a promise. When a person puts their name on a piece of paper, they’re saying, “You can trust me, and here is the proof.” That’s a lot of weight for a few letters to carry, but it’s a weight we all understand.

Along with the weight comes ceremony. Applying a signature to a piece of paper is more than the discrete act of signing: choose a pen, settle it in the hand, feel the friction as its nib scrapes over the paper, and toss the pen down with a flourish or maybe just place it timidly on the table. A check is torn from its checkbook with a zip, a contract is shoved across a conference table with a whoosh. All of these actions can be fraught with emotion, whether the dotted line is on a birth certificate or a check to the electric company.

Now, as people move more pieces of their lives into the digital realm, they need to understand that electronic signatures are more than a series of bits and bytes; like an ink signature, an electronic signature represents a person’s identity.

The need is practical: bills must be paid, services contracted, and payments sent. But there’s more to it than that, because identity doesn’t travel alone. It’s always accompanied by emotion.

From a design perspective, making space for identity presents a huge opportunity. We have the chance to go beyond serving the practical needs of users to serving their emotional needs as well.

A signature is a statement

No one ever completed a click and thought, “I clicked that submit button with particular élan,” or “the way I clicked that submit button really represents who I am as a person.” But everyone has those sorts of thoughts about their signatures. A pragmatist may dash out a hurried scrawl while a romantic may underscore the letters with a flourish.

A signature is a personal statement that tells the world how the signer wishes to be perceived, and that, in turn, says a lot about who a person is and aspires to become. Think about the experience of signing on a mobile device, like a card reader at the grocery store. Most people don’t like the way their signatures appear on the display, but few can put their dissatisfaction into words. They just know it doesn’t look like “them.”

Maybe the problem is the lack of pen impression, or maybe it’s the absence of ceremony; a stylus slipping across a sheet of plastic delivers an experience less satisfying than the application of pen to paper. This is more than a style problem; it’s a process problem that may morph into a legal problem and can even be a security problem.

When people who sign an agreement electronically don’t feel an emotional attachment to their signature, they tend to minimize its binding nature. Some studies even indicate that people feel less committed when asked to click instead of write. While users shouldn’t have to be aware of the complex workflow and encryption that support an electronic signature, they do need a sense of formality if they are to be expected to follow through on its promise.

This means designers need to think about more than making electronic signatures easy to use. They must also think about how to give users the sense of a ceremonial act bracketed between a distinct start and a distinct end.

Who and How

Historically, the personal identity of a user has not been part of the UX equation. We’re accustomed to thinking about UX in terms of giving roles access to functions.

That hasn’t changed. We still have to design user experiences that accommodate everyone. But as people conduct more of their lives online, we need to find a way to reflect users’ individual identities back toward them as they engage with documents online.

The first known signatures were scratched into clay tablets. We progressed to pen and paper. Now we sign with the click of a button. Next, we’ll move beyond the signature to the fingerprint or something else. Our identity will bind us, not the way we formulate the letters of our names.

How we carry forward the emotional quality and ceremony of a signature remains to be seen, but designers working today have a huge opportunity to make something that feels pure and substantial, something unambiguous and understandable, and maybe even something completely innovative.