Origins of the smiley face and its use in feedback

Have you ever wondered where the first smiley icon was used and why? The origins of smiley facesIn a news article I found in the Guardian the contested origins are linked to a 1963 American children's TV programme called ‘The Funny Company’. It featured a crude smiley face as a kids-club baseball cap logo, with the message ‘Keep Smiling’.

Around the same time, Harvey Ball in Massachusetts, designed a simple smiley face for the State Mutual Life Assurance organisation, as part of ‘a friendship campaign’, which was an early employee engagement initiative about their interaction with their customers.

By the 1970’s two brothers, Bernard and Murray Spain, again in the US, came up with the now classic smiley design to sell novelties and coined the now often heard phrase, ‘Have a nice day!’

But then I stumbled across the news that some ancient Hittite pottery, dating back to 1700 BC had been discovered with a smiley face neatly inscribed onto the side! It really is a simple and ancient way to communicate how we are feeling.

What about smileys in customer experience and feedback?

In customer experience and research circles, a range of smiley faces has now become a norm for replacing the often used Likert scale. Typically, 2, 3, 4 or 5 smiley faces give the respondent the choice of a very happy to a very unhappy response.

In fact smiley feedback is so popular now that many Microsoft applications have yellow smileys top-right of the screen - check out Explorer, Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Let’s face it, it’s multi-lingual, accessible to any age or ability, very quick and simple and pretty much universally recognised, with one or two exceptions...

Some cultural issues with smiley face feedback

Culturally, the smiley face can sometimes mean different things to different people. For example in China a plain smiley face can be taken to mean ‘a despising, mocking or obnoxious attitude’. Extra elements can be added to make the expression more clearly recognised in their culture

Likewise, the use of colour for your smilies in some cultures needs care. For example red does not always automatically denote a bad thing, negative thing, or danger. In India red is often the positive colour of the wedding dress and in Japan red is the traditional colour for a heroic figure.

Clearly in our use of smiley faces in surveys and feedback, we must assess cultural effects, as with any form of communication.

A smiley summary

I haven’t been able to identify when the smiley was first used in a survey, however at ViewPoint we first used them back in 2009 as can be seen below, left. The image on the right is the new Pulse Smiley Kiosk, showing one of our free-to-use smiley ranges.

Whether you’re asking a single rating question or adding smiley feedback images into your multi question feedback terminal or other survey, you're safe in the knowledge that for almost 4,000 years, human beings have communicated their emotions and feelings with the good old smiley face!

smiley faces for feedback


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Written by Simon Rowland

Simon is the CEO of ViewPoint. Find out more about Simon Rowland.

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