February 2018
Text by Birgitta Geischberg

Image: © aleepiskin/istockphoto.com

Birgitta Geischberg completed the her studies of Technical Communication at the Munich University of Applied Sciences in 2017. The topic of her bachelor thesis was "Emoticons and their impact on readers :-)". Simultaneously with her studies, she helped with the development of software documentation in her family business. She is currently working on a project at EvoBus GmbH.




How Emoticons were developed and proliferated
35 years back, Scott E. Fahlman suggested the use of text faces :-) to label playful remarks in written articles on university forums. Text faces are known throughout the world. In Japan, they are upright (^_^). The brackets form the outline of a face, "^^" indicate the eyes and "_" indicates the mouth. Step-by-step input of these characters in UNICODE displays them as pictorial faces. The boom in Messenger services abetted the phenomenal increase in their manifestation and variety. The word "emoji" summarizes all pictorial messages. Cultural reading limitations are becoming increasingly blurred.



This article is a translation from the German professional magazine 'technische kommunikation'. To read the original article, please visit www.tekom.de.

Emotion amplifiers

Many readers find technical documentation boring and dull. But the motivation to deal with it can be boosted; perhaps even with character combinations that were invented 35 years ago.

The dry linguistic style, in which instructions are written, is often one of the reasons why they are not read with much interest. For many readers, instructions are just commands, explanations and guidance. This perception is based on the imperative style that is often used to formulate instructions. The reader is reminded of when they used to read at school, or possibly of a teacher who wasn’t particularly liked. However, there is no doubt about the fact that a clear communication style is essential, even if it is for safety reasons alone. Therefore the focus should be on the mode of expression and choice of words and not the choice of text type.

Elements of everyday communication

The idea of incorporating elements of everyday communication when writing instructions is based on the observation of interpersonal communication. People, who are emotionally connected to what they want to convey, appear more authentic and leave a greater impression with the reader. Their emotion is transferred to the reader.

Triggering and using emotions does not need to be limited to magazine articles - Silke Jahr has already established this in her interdisciplinary study on emotion structures in factual texts. Her approach shows that the objectivity of scientific texts does not suffer due to the addition of a certain degree of emotional content. Operating instructions or descriptive texts can also be formulated in a language used in everyday life without compromising on quality. This brings us to the question: what are the elements used in everyday communication?

Interjections (exclamatory or expressive words): Thanks to their different types and variety in the possibilities of expression, expressions such as "Press the lid firmly shut – click – till it clicks into place" offer various approaches to make texts more lively and interesting. But when they are used, their translation creates a problem on the one hand because the meaning of interjections hugely depends on the language. Even animal sounds are not expressed in the same way in all languages. On the other hand, there is a regional difference in the forms of expression for one and the same statement. This also reduces reliable comprehensibility.

Words that express emotions: Words such as "volume of air flow" instead of "air volume" make the content of a text illustrative, easy to visualize and tangible (see example in the section "Editorial implementation". Ed.). Illustrative, easy to visualize nouns, simple action verbs and relatable adjectives are known to be used in the field of marketing. When used with a sense of proportion, they increase the emotional content of a set of instructions. So the instructions become more appealing to the reader.

Addressing the reader: A personalized salutation shows that the author is more involved. The editorial manual regulates to what extent this can be implemented in the field of technical communication. If personal salutation is not used, then the text seems impersonal.

Emoticons: These characters convey information in text messages and can be found in chats and advertisements as well as in business emails or as company logos. So far, their use in printed instructions is rather uncommon. They are mostly used to represent a positive or negative state or action in pictures, textless instructions and other visual media, thereby saving the process of translation.

An irreversible trend

We are familiar with emoticons because of social media and applications such as WhatsApp, Twitter or Snapchat. According to figures from 2016, the WhatsApp messenger alone has 42 billion messages running through the servers every day. This gives a rough idea of the amount of emoticons used daily. And it is not just young people who communicate using emoticons every day; other age groups, who communicate electronically, also use emoticons. Simultaneously, they are also buyers of electrical appliances that require technical documentation. Therefore it is conceivable that information can be communicated via emoticons in instructions as well.

What emoticons express

Earlier studies that dealt with the phenomenon of emoticons, which at that time constituted simple representation of text faces, considered emoticons as a supplement to "CMC" – computer mediated communication. In its scope, CMC is similar to face-to-face communication but without non-verbal content. The term emoticon was ascribed to the function of reproducing missing content of face-to-face communication in CMC. This opinion has changed with recent studies.

Emoticons have now been assigned a meta-communicative function. Their meaning changes with their positioning in a sentence and they convey much more than mere facial expressions. In simple terms, they can be assigned a semantic and iconic meaning. Emoticons thus mean much more than what they originally did.

If someone searches the Internet to find a clear meaning of individual emoticons, he would soon find a plethora of varying interpretations. Ambiguous meanings must not be used in instructions for liability reasons. Moreover, the meaning of an emoticon depends on the text, which opens up room for interpretation. Originally Scott Fahlman, who is considered to be the inventor of emoticons, proposed that the use of text faces should indicate a joke for instance. A joke relativizes a statement with its punch line or even completely inverts the previous meaning. Ironic statements use a similar structure.

Analyses of chat histories show that emoticons are often used in this way for indicating a joke. Based on this premise, there should be no use for emoticons in instructions. Irony, which, if misunderstood, can be interpreted as sarcasm, can contradict DIN 82079-1 (4.7.1). The standard dismisses the use of offensive language. Not to forget the legally uncertain ambiguity of such constructs.
So does this mean that emoticons cannot be used in instructions? If they are so ambiguous and difficult to understand, everyday communication would suffer considerably and the use of emoticons would rather decrease than increase.

Studies about the function of emoticons demonstrated that emoticons could also be misunderstood in everyday communication. When the function of emoticons was not recognized, the iconic content would be interpreted incorrectly most of the times or the emoticon would simply be skipped while reading. Hence the sentenced lacked the semantic information content. This applies to ironic statements or jokes in many cases and these were therefore never used while formulating instructions. But how can emoticons be used in technical documentation?

Editorial support

Basically, a technical communicator would never want to demotivate or offend his readers. Rather, he would like to gradually equip the reader with action and decision-making competence. Let us imagine that we are in a training workshop, where the trainer teaches in the following sequence:

  1. First, he explains and shows the action steps, points out the special features and warns the trainees against the consequences of mishandling.
  2. Next, he supervises the trainees when they perform the action steps taught to them.
  3. Finally, he is happy with his trainees when they independently perform all tasks successfully. This increases the motivation level of the trainees.

A technical communicator does what is described in the first step by selecting the text type, language, layout and images. In the second step, he needs to leave his readers alone because, after all, he is not present with them. Then how does the reader receive the necessary feedback? On the one hand through correct product response or product function.On the other, through the instructions that describe these expected product responses. Thus, the reader can check for himself if he has understood the instructions well.

Up to this point, the technical communicator has been able to successfully perform the trainer’s tasks described in the first two points. But how can he increase the motivation level of the trainees as described in the third point? Could the technical communicator be represented by say a smiling emoticon in the text? The emoticon would replace the missing facial expression of the technical communicator, taking recourse to the original basic premise of the function of emoticons.

So far however, there are no scientific studies that deal with the question of whether emoticons have a motivating effect in texts. Hence there is a need to take a further look at the results and knowledge from other fields.

The effect of emoticons

These small, colorful things must have something more to offer than what is apparent at first, if one chooses to go beyond thinking of them merely as objects of play. Current studies show that emoticons get their meaning from the text and are very rarely used by themselves. As already established, their meaning needs to be parsed (grasped) and cognitively developed together with the text. There are no studies that exclusively deal with the iconic meaning of emoticons, but there are applicable studies with images of faces.

First, let us learn some basics of how images and texts are perceived and processed: when visual impulses are perceived through the fovea area (part of the retina that provides the clearest vision), the signals are sorted and organized according to Gestalt (German for form/shape) laws, for example figure and ground, groups or proximity. After about 180 to 200 milliseconds, the perceived text characters initiate a neuronal activity in the lower left part of the temporal cortex – regardless of which side of the eye perceives the object – measured in MRT (magnetic resonance tomograph).

Optic nerves extend from the eyes to the back of the head and intersect such that incoming signals of the left eye are registered in the right rear part of the brain hemisphere and vice versa. What’s fascinating here is that the signals are not only received exclusively in the left brain hemisphere after 180 to 200 milliseconds, but also that an alternating display of text and faces already activates different areas of the brain. Consequently, text characters are differentiated from faces long before the allocation of meaning, which then takes place in the areas of the brain that are located well towards the front.

Images are further processed in the right brain hemisphere while text characters remain in the left brain hemisphere. Text characters and faces are cognitively separated and then processed. In a sense, this applies to emoticons too because they are also representations of faces.

In these processing phases, faces are already differentiated from other images such as landscapes and houses based on the Gestalt laws, and are further processed in the fusiform gyrus for instance. This area of the brain is activated when detailed forms need to be differentiated between. For example when a car lover wants to exactly determine the model and year of manufacture of a car. Or when a pedestrian recognizes another passerby by face.

The cognitive process that takes place here is already assigned to the higher process levels; everyone can consciously experience it. This is the case when we try in vain to recognize someone, who has just enthusiastically greeted us and seems to know us. So it is quite possible that the cognitive recognition performance for an emoticon is much lower. However, this aspect has not been analyzed in greater detail in neuroscience. The assumption that emoticons, as expressions of rudimentary and emotional facial expression, can be processed and recognized faster and more unconsciously rests on other studies in the field of cognitive psychology.

Human empathy

Some basic moods always show the same neuronal response patterns. Conversely, even the active tightening of one’s facial muscles in a defined emotional expression triggers the same measurable neuronal response patterns in the brain. After some time, the corresponding emotions are also felt. This gives rise to clearly discernible basic patterns for the expression of joy and anger. In a study, the subjects were shown images of facial expressions for joy and anger and the neuronal response patters in the brain were measured by means of functional magnet resonance imaging (fMRI).

The subjects showed an unconscious mimic response to the respective images after 300 to 400 milliseconds. For example: when an image representing the emotion of joy was shown, the cooperation of the angle of mouth and hence of the zygomaticus major could be measured. Zygomaticus major is a muscle that lifts the angle of mouth. When an image representing the emotion of anger was shown, the cooperation of the eye area above the corrugator supercilii could be seen: frown, drawing down of the eyebrow. Images of unknown persons were shown during the study. It focused on response behavior as a reaction to emotional facial expressions and not on facial recognition. If we equate the images of faces used in the study to emoticons, we can assume that the reader would give a similar neuronal response when he recognizes a smiling emoticon.

Editorial implementation

If a text of instructions contains emoticons, the reader unconsciously starts wondering whether the text is of a serious nature or not. This casts further doubt on the technical communicator or even the manufacturer. Another reason to avoid emoticons is the lack of clarity about liability. We have already briefly discussed ambiguity that could become a point of contention in a case of liability. And what would happen if the reader sees an emoticon smiling at him after every correctly performed action? Most people would find this a bit too much, and rightly so.

There have been studies on the chat behavior of men and women in separate and mixed groups and how they handle emoticons. It was found that in groups, where both men and women communicate, the use of emoticons is mostly moderate and equivalent from both sides. Based on that, the number of emoticons in instructions should be limited to one per page. Emoticons are used in sentences that convey an "added emotional value" or even an associatively tangible outcome of an action and amplify it. This comes across more clearly in the following example:

  • Press the "Ventilation on" key.
    The display shows the "Fan" icon.
    The volume of air flow increases noticeably :-)

Both product responses that have been described here are also perceived through other senses. In the first sentence, the icon is seen by the eyes and in the second sentence, the air flow can be felt on the skin and is therefore more associatively tangible than the visible icon. Let us assume that the fan was switched on because of high or low ambient temperature. In this case, a tangible cool or warm air flow will immediately evoke a positive emotion. The word "noticeably" is therefore combined with a positive emoticon in the text.

So do emoticons used in texts act as the new miracle weapon for getting the reader in a good mood? Perhaps yes, or at least it would be worthwhile to think along these lines. This is because through the channel of empathy, the iconic content of emoticons reinforces the semantic content of the text and of the words that express emotions.

Another important point is that the results of many studies show clear links between cognitive performance and emotions. This is also demonstrated by a study conducted by Prof. Dr. Dr. Manfred Spitzer from the University of Ulm. The study demonstrated that memory performance could be increased if the learning took place in an emotionally positive context. If we assume that, through the instructions, the technical communicator wants to equip the reader with action and decision-making competence, which the reader should acquire, then it is recommended we give a serious thought to the emotional content of instructions.

Irritating focus of vision

Emoticons stand out from the text because they are different. They lighten the mood of the text and draw the reader’s eye but this can lead to problems. As shown by the example below, incorrect focus of vision can prevent the registering of information:

  • Set the cooling power
    to maximum 20 °C,
    except in winter :-).

Studies on the function of emoticons showed that these are always used at the end of noun phrases or at the end of a sentence. The first phrase ends with a comma, and a (colorful) emoticon right next to it can catch the reader’s eye. So it is possible that reader overlooks the part of the sentence "except in winter" – indicated by the faint text color here.

When the reader reads the text, his eyes suddenly jump over some text (saccades). Studies showed the occurrence of an Inhibition of Return (IOR), which inhibits return to previously viewed points. Although these results can be applied only to a limited extent in this context, they should be taken into account so long as studies provide resilient data.

It is therefore recommended that a study with eye-tracking, which takes the aspect of IOR into account, be conducted if one wants to seriously analyze the use of emoticons in instructions.

Similar to warning symbols

Emoticons are displayed differently on different operating systems. Identical emoticons are displayed differently to Apple and Android users. Moreover, there are cultural differences in how emotional indicators are valued. Asian cultures, which are more about the collective character, focus on different emotional indicators than Western cultures where more importance is attached to the concept of the individual. Emoticons are therefore differently valued and interpreted.

To this day, there is no reliable dictionary that explains the characteristic forms and allocation of meanings of emoticons. This is why their use is limited to enhance the basic message of texts; to convey approval or rejection. Emoticons should not be used as the only message-conveying component in instructions. However, their full potential could be exploited if they were to achieve the same symbolic status as warning symbols. These are recognized internationally and are also explained in the reading conventions of all instructions and therefore can be used with legal certainty. If emoticons had the same status, they could possibly denote standalone statements and be used in small displays, HUD (Head-up-Displays) and virtual environments for instance.


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