Emotional design and social interfaces

Earlier today, I watched Objectified, a great documentary about industrial design.  It reminded me of how permanently-built and unsustainable many material things are, and how easy it is for us to form emotional attachments to objects with personal stories that we then are reluctant to part with.  At the same time, I was thinking about different signs I could create for my public spaces project, signs that would tailor to people’s emotions in hopes of changing their behavior.  For example, an elevator will have a speech bubble sign on it that says “I’m feeling tired today. Please take the stairs!”  I started thinking about what the world would look like if our environment “spoke” back to us, even through inanimate signs. If we are taken off guard by a new friendly “Good morning!” thought-bubble-shaped sign on the door when we go to work, would our initial reaction be to say “Good morning!” back, before realizing that we were just about to talk to a door? Would we start noticing more things around us, and could we become more appreciative of them?

I applied the same idea to daily material things often taken for granted.  What if your toaster told you when your bread was done, and when you said “thank you,” it replied “you’re welcome”? I’m not talking about creating robot appliances that will chat with you about your day and the daily news, but simple conversation pieces that made you feel like you were interacting with someone who just did you a nice favor. Not everyone can say “ah yes, this [insert thing] was passed down by my grandma and has considerable sentimental value to me,” but what if by giving certain products simple voices, you will form an emotional attachment to them and are less likely to replace them when something shinier comes along? (Come on, do you really need this muffin toaster that cooks your eggs too?)

In this age, we are constantly making things faster, smarter, smaller, bigger, better, building more and more until you walk into a Walmart Supercenter and suddenly you’re dizzy thinking about how much stuff there is. Some people don’t think twice about replacing a 1-year old digital camera when a newer model arrives, or even a 1-month old bag for another bag (of course, this one is absolutely perfect and you will never ever have to buy another bag ever again). Instead of designing new products that come equipped with these voices, we could build our own little toaster soul and equip it to our toaster, adding another kind of “creator bond” to our new relationship with the toaster. These low resolution social-emotional interfaces have the potential to increase awareness of our surroundings and make people more appreciative of what they have.

Update 1/19 – Suggested readings (thanks to all those who contacted me and suggested the following)

Cziksentimihalyi, M. 1991. Design and Order in Everyday Life. Design Issues, vol. 8, no. 1 (Autumn 1991), MIT Press, 26-34. (Works that have cited this paper)

Alex Taylor, Microsoft Researcher.

Blevis, E. 2007. Sustainable interaction design: invention & disposal, renewal & reuse. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (San Jose, California, USA, April 28 – May 03, 2007). CHI ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 503-512. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1240624.1240705

Lim, Y., Donaldson, J., Jung, H., Kunz, B., Royer, D., Ramalingam, S., Thirumaran, S., and Stolterman, E. 2008. Emotional Experience and Interaction Design. In Affect and Emotion in Human-Computer interaction: From theory To Applications, C. Peter and R. Beale, Eds. Lecture Notes In Computer Science, vol. 4868. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 116-129. DOI= http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-85099-1_10

Norman, D. A. 2004. Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. Basic Books, NY.

[Door picture from ArchiExpo]

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  • I wonder if churn rate on things like toasters is very high. Certainly with a toaster, if we’re talking about teching it out enough for it to interact with you, then it’s going to be put on a much faster technological treadmill. (Better and more lifelike talking toasters, until next year where you can get one that talks via AI-trained algorithms with data from other owner-toaster interactions gathered in real-time through the cloud, and only $40!) And aren’t microwaves and fridges typically so long-lived that it’s usually energy-efficient to replace them?

    Probably better targets for interaction-based attachment higher-cost items that should be used longer than they usually are, like cars or phones. If cars developed lots of personality from use, then there would be higher switching costs. However, the most obvious way to do it would be to allow the personality to be transferred from car to car, like a SIM card. But perhaps since it’s not usually in manufacturer’s incentives to reduce switching, a third-party solution might apply which would be more stable (requiring hardware customizations which are more difficult to install).

    If you could think of a compelling way to develop owner-vehicle rapport which would be more permanent, but without triggering the resale value reflex, then perhaps you could really diminish excess consumer switching. Maybe something as simple as a third-party system which embodies the vehicle and is a bit more smarmy about effective maintenance. Build an owner-vehicle bond while lengthening the lifespan of the vehicle (otherwise people don’t take care of their cars) in a more trustworthy way than the manufacturer’s “put money in” lights.

  • Catherine

    I’m not too familiar with literature on the emotional design side of things. On the sustainability side, you could check out Eli Blevis’ CHI 2007 paper on Sustainable Interaction Design, but more specific to this idea would be “Understanding Why We Preserve Some Things and Discard Others in the Context of Interaction Design” from CHI 2009.

    I like your idea of applying emotions to stairs and doors, I can see it as a cool proof-of-concept video!

  • @Nick: I had more non-gadget-like objects in mind as it would be easier to build these small enhancements and somehow attach it to them, not to mention that they have greater affordances for low-res enhancements. With electronic gadgets (mobiles, cars, mp3 players, etc) however, I think people will expect them to be built in, not attached to its surface. With cars though, it’s probably easier to form an emotional bond to it, because (and you see this in movies a lot! dunno about actual life :)) people travel with others and have memories of their friends or family or some cool place they went to. Cars already have some sort of social/emotional value to them, so it might not be necessary to manually add on another layer. The questions I posed were preliminary thoughts – I haven’t actually thought it all the way through yet :)

    @Catherine: I read that paper in Jen’s class! Loved it! It seems like there’s a lot of literature on sustainable design, but not any that I know of that combine with emotional design as well. They seem to be mostly tailored to people’s sense of practicality and what’s good for the environment rather than emotional attachment. I’ll add references to the blog post as updates when I find them.

  • I wonder if churn rate on things like toasters is very high. Certainly with a toaster, if we're talking about teching it out enough for it to interact with you, then it's going to be put on a much faster technological treadmill. (Better and more lifelike talking toasters, until next year where you can get one that talks via AI-trained algorithms with data from other owner-toaster interactions gathered in real-time through the cloud, and only $40!) And aren't microwaves and fridges typically so long-lived that it's usually energy-efficient to replace them?

    Probably better targets for interaction-based attachment higher-cost items that should be used longer than they usually are, like cars or phones. If cars developed lots of personality from use, then there would be higher switching costs. However, the most obvious way to do it would be to allow the personality to be transferred from car to car, like a SIM card. But perhaps since it's not usually in manufacturer's incentives to reduce switching, a third-party solution might apply which would be more stable (requiring hardware customizations which are more difficult to install).

    If you could think of a compelling way to develop owner-vehicle rapport which would be more permanent, but without triggering the resale value reflex, then perhaps you could really diminish excess consumer switching. Maybe something as simple as a third-party system which embodies the vehicle and is a bit more smarmy about effective maintenance. Build an owner-vehicle bond while lengthening the lifespan of the vehicle (otherwise people don't take care of their cars) in a more trustworthy way than the manufacturer's “put money in” lights.

  • Catherine

    I'm not too familiar with literature on the emotional design side of things. On the sustainability side, you could check out Eli Blevis' CHI 2007 paper on Sustainable Interaction Design, but more specific to this idea would be “Understanding Why We Preserve Some Things and Discard Others in the Context of Interaction Design” from CHI 2009.

    I like your idea of applying emotions to stairs and doors, I can see it as a cool proof-of-concept video!

  • Chloe

    @Nick: I had more non-gadget-like objects in mind as it would be easier to build these small enhancements and somehow attach it to them, not to mention that they have greater affordances for low-res enhancements. With electronic gadgets (mobiles, cars, mp3 players, etc) however, I think people will expect them to be built in, not attached to its surface. With cars though, it’s probably easier to form an emotional bond to it, because (and you see this in movies a lot! dunno about actual life :)) people travel with others and have memories of their friends or family or some cool place they went to. Cars already have some sort of social/emotional value to them, so it might not be necessary to manually add on another layer. The questions I posed were preliminary thoughts – I haven’t actually thought it all the way through yet :)

    @Catherine: I read that paper in Jen’s class! Loved it! It seems like there’s a lot of literature on sustainable design, but not any that I know of that combine with emotional design as well. They seem to be mostly tailored to people’s sense of practicality and what’s good for the environment rather than emotional attachment. I’ll add references to the blog post as updates when I find them.

  • (sorry, the dates/numbers of comments is messed up because I just installed Disqus and it didn't auto-add the old comments)

  • I wonder if churn rate on things like toasters is very high. Certainly with a toaster, if we're talking about teching it out enough for it to interact with you, then it's going to be put on a much faster technological treadmill. (Better and more lifelike talking toasters, until next year where you can get one that talks via AI-trained algorithms with data from other owner-toaster interactions gathered in real-time through the cloud, and only $40!) And aren't microwaves and fridges typically so long-lived that it's usually energy-efficient to replace them?

    Probably better targets for interaction-based attachment higher-cost items that should be used longer than they usually are, like cars or phones. If cars developed lots of personality from use, then there would be higher switching costs. However, the most obvious way to do it would be to allow the personality to be transferred from car to car, like a SIM card. But perhaps since it's not usually in manufacturer's incentives to reduce switching, a third-party solution might apply which would be more stable (requiring hardware customizations which are more difficult to install).

    If you could think of a compelling way to develop owner-vehicle rapport which would be more permanent, but without triggering the resale value reflex, then perhaps you could really diminish excess consumer switching. Maybe something as simple as a third-party system which embodies the vehicle and is a bit more smarmy about effective maintenance. Build an owner-vehicle bond while lengthening the lifespan of the vehicle (otherwise people don't take care of their cars) in a more trustworthy way than the manufacturer's “put money in” lights.

  • Catherine

    I'm not too familiar with literature on the emotional design side of things. On the sustainability side, you could check out Eli Blevis' CHI 2007 paper on Sustainable Interaction Design, but more specific to this idea would be “Understanding Why We Preserve Some Things and Discard Others in the Context of Interaction Design” from CHI 2009.

    I like your idea of applying emotions to stairs and doors, I can see it as a cool proof-of-concept video!

  • Chloe

    @Nick: I had more non-gadget-like objects in mind as it would be easier to build these small enhancements and somehow attach it to them, not to mention that they have greater affordances for low-res enhancements. With electronic gadgets (mobiles, cars, mp3 players, etc) however, I think people will expect them to be built in, not attached to its surface. With cars though, it’s probably easier to form an emotional bond to it, because (and you see this in movies a lot! dunno about actual life :)) people travel with others and have memories of their friends or family or some cool place they went to. Cars already have some sort of social/emotional value to them, so it might not be necessary to manually add on another layer. The questions I posed were preliminary thoughts – I haven’t actually thought it all the way through yet :)

    @Catherine: I read that paper in Jen’s class! Loved it! It seems like there’s a lot of literature on sustainable design, but not any that I know of that combine with emotional design as well. They seem to be mostly tailored to people’s sense of practicality and what’s good for the environment rather than emotional attachment. I’ll add references to the blog post as updates when I find them.

  • (sorry, the dates/numbers of comments is messed up because I just installed Disqus and it didn't auto-add the old comments)

  • Dear Chloe, what a great idea! I watched Objectified a few months back, and shared some of the same insights into the products that surround us today. I think, on a more abstract level, the significance of building these emotional connections to our objects is really a way to influence behavior modification, and enable social change. 

    Your idea about the elevator is particularly striking. If you dont mind, I think I’ll suggest to our emPower group on campus, and see if they want to use it as a means of saving our energy :)

  • Hi Max! I actually tried to put signs near the elevator that said “I’m tired. Please take the stairs today.” I hid nearby and watched people for about an hour or so. Two people stopped before pressing the elevator button, got a strange look on their faces, and walked away. The problem with the signs is that they weren’t big enough, and I think in order for people to anthropomorphize spaces or things, there needs to be some interactivity involved beyond paper signs, like lights and sounds that suggest tiredness (blue lights, descending tones perhaps?)

    It would also help to figure out how much energy the elevators are actually using vs. other things. It could be that the elevators are quite efficient compared to heating in student dorms that’s contributing to most of the energy costs or something. I think visualizations are a powerful way to motivate people when simple messages goes in one ear and out the other.