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Insights | By Dan Willig

Emoji: Tools for Digital Communication

We're beginning to see widespread acceptance of emoji as an effective means of communication. While phones in Japan have used emoji—Japanese for "picture character"—character sets since the 1990s it wasn't until 2010, when hundreds of emoji characters were incorporated into Unicode and available on iPhones that they began to spread globally. 

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Wall Street Journal Best Selling Book


  • Learn the three patterns of all successful digital brands (including companies like Apple, Netflix and Uber).
  • Understand why many great new products fail, and the formula for building products that won’t.
  • Discover the key reasons companies resist change and how to overcome them.

In a time when we're bombarded with digital communications, often on multiple devices simultaneously, the ability to quickly interpret the sender's intent or respond to a message quickly and effectively is essential and emoji often help with this. 

Recent studies indicate that people who use emoji in communications are perceived as nicer and even tend to be, " mindful of the emotional state of the people with whom they are communicating as well as making a statement about their own emotional state to be understood as well" (L. Kaye, S. Malone, H. Wall, 2017). This emphasises how powerful emoji communication can be for businesses to relate to their customers, humanize the business and make it feel like they’re on the customer's side.   

In our practice, we've observed and experimented with ways of using emoji in UI designs, informational diagrams and data visualizations. They are especially handy for quickly communicating an emotional response. What is a customer likely to be feeling at a moment in time? Emoji can be used as a common language to quickly capture or communicate these feelings. A great example is the kiosks in Ikea stores where shoppers can quickly tap an emoji button to communicate their current state of their satisfaction as they transition from the shopping experience to furniture pick-up. 

Another recent trend uses emoji in UI to illustrate the business's understanding of the customers' likely emotional response to an event. A 2016 Penn University study showed that use of emoji in messaging with customers increased customer satisfaction by 78%. As an example, providing a sad or puzzled emoji on error pages and no-search-results-found pages can capture customers in a moment and elicit a sense of feeling understood by the business, "they know I arrived here and am disappointed about it—they care about me and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt this time." 

For many years, emoji were viewed as somewhat juvenile but we believe things are starting to change for this rapidly developing language and that we'll be seeing more widespread use of emoji as a serious, and even professionally acceptable form of communication in the years to come.

One of the challenges to written communication has always been deciphering the author's affect—innocuous statements can easily be read out of context and viewed as argumentative, whiney, insincere, etc. These limitations were addressed in early chatrooms with character based smileys such as :P and :). These opened up new possibilities for remote digital communication, freeing people to use sarcasm (and have it understood as such) and more importantly developing a more human connection for people who weren’t face-to-face. 

In a McLuhanian sense, our keyboards and screens became extensions of ourselves. Suddenly, remote listeners were able to develop a stronger awareness of the messenger's effect or emotional state, giving him/her a deeper ability to more fully receive the message as intended. This is really powerful stuff we're talking about! 

Due to their inherently cutesy appearance, it’s no wonder emoji have struggled to earn the respect they deserve as a useful tool in professional communications. As more Gen-Xers and Boomers have adapted to new forms of communication through chat though, the stigma of emoji communication appears to be dwindling. In 2015, Face with tears of joy emoji was named Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year, although not without some snickering. 


Emoji naturally have some shortcomings, primarily when it comes to understanding intent. As a relatively new language, many of the icons have yet to be codified and there are naturally shifting meanings associated to particular images. 

For starters, although they are largely image based and can be universally understood, cultural differences in symbolic meaning of specific icons or gestures can lead to confusion. Along these lines, with its roots in Japan, there are quite a few emoji that are specific to Japanese culture that might not be as useful or understood elsewhere.

Additionally, dialects of emoji use have been observed in particular contexts meaning that some icons may be widely used and understood in specific social circles but they lose their meaning or the meaning might change in others. And in more adult-themed digital communications some emoji have been assigned specific meanings that could create an awkward situation for someone not familiar with the lingo. 

The final limitation we'll talk about is technology and that different platforms have varying degrees of emoji character sets. In these instances a character entered in a chat program on an Apple device running the latest version of iOS is likely to have a character or variant not available on older versions or other devices or apps, leading to a misfire in communication. You may have added emoji to a powerpoint but when ordering a print of the deck, the character is replaced with a different symbol or worse, simply left an unintended blank space. 

The Emoji Tipping Point

So the obvious question is what is next for emoji? How can we begin to harness its power as a tool for communication and empathy in 2017 and beyond?

Let's go back to what makes it so useful: Emoji adds context in environments where it could otherwise be difficult to interpret meaning or intent. Emoji is great for capturing or communicating emotional state or as emphasis when paired with written copy. 

Some of the fields where we’ve seen emoji used successfully include:

Ikea and other retailers are leveraging kiosks with emoji buttons to capture the mood of customers at specific times during their customer journey in the retail store. Moving this kind of kiosk around the space over the course of a month can provide useful data about areas of the store that need more attention to provide a better quality customer experience.

In our own client work, FROM has been strategically using emoji in customer journeys, user flows, personas, and similar to create that sense of empathy between our clients and their customers and are finding them to be effective! 

Media coming in 2017 include an academically researched book, card game, and even a feature animated film.

Facebook's recent update to its Like functionality with emoji (displayed below) has not only made it a more accurate and useful tool—now people can display a reaction to sad, angry, funny, and love-inspiring posts—but opened up new affordances such as the rainbow flag emoji that was live during 2017 pride (June).

Screenshot of Facebook emotional reaction feature

This makes us wonder if all rating systems will see a similar change. After all, iTunes is now pushing its Love/Dislike icons over its 5-star rating system and Netflix moved away from its own 5-star rating system years ago in lieu of Like/Dislike icons. As an avid music collector, I'd love to be able to mark songs in iTunes or Spotify by how they make me feel so I could easily generate smart playlists for dreary days, beach days, spooky nights, and so on. 

Screenshot of iTunes illustrating the new love icon and the 5-star rating

We've reached a point when simple binary liking and rating systems feel too simple—instead we desire platforms that allow us to capture and share our emotional reaction to content. In the coming years we're certain to see more innovation in this area.

With so much exchange of written messaging happening throughout each day of our digitally-connected lives, emoji fill a void that simple text and punctuation aren't able to. We encourage you to embrace emoji and not only for fun and casual communications but in your professional life as well.