Meaningful design? Think about emotion.

Seoul City’s Big Ear Policy (source)

Emotion is a word that people tend to use in contrast to thought. It’s seen as separate, not a part of rationality or critical thinking. This view permeates our culture and has historically been the de facto view of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and User Experience (UX) research. But recently, HCI and UX have moved away from this perspective, towards one that empathizes with users and appreciates the subtleties of emotional life. How can we better design systems for people? The answer lies in understanding emotions.

Emotion has often been treated as information. This perspective dates from the 19th century, where emotion was seen as sentiment or feeling, as opposed to “rational” and calculated thought. In many subsequent experiments, emotion is something that can be measured, objectively and with repeat results.

In the groundbreaking book, Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio shows that emotion is part of the same cognitive system of decision making — which before was believed to be part of the “rational” system of thought. Damasio emphasizes the role of bodily feeling as part of the process of mapping emotion, but distinguishes between the two. A feeling happens in the body, but the emotion is linked to mental states.

Similarly, Martha Nussbaum shares the idea that emotions are “upheavals of thought” that is, part of the cognitive system of evaluations. From a more philosophical perspective, she sees emotions as judgments about external situations outside our control. These judgments relate to our project of eudaimonia — Aristotle’s name for human flourishing or the good life. Crucially, eudaimonia does not discount the experience of typically negative emotions such as anger or grief, since they can be formative to the project of flourishing.

But, unlike Damasio, Nussbaum argues that bodily experiences aren’t prerequisites to the experience of an emotion — I think is helpful when thinking about the sheer variety of emotional experience. We aren’t always seething, tense, and hot when we feel angry — but when designers see emotion as discrete bodily phenomena they fall into the trap of easy categorization.

It might be better to say that emotion is interaction. Interaction between people, things, events, tangible and intangible. We can involve the cultural and social meanings that are lacking in both informational and cognitive theories of emotion. Anger only becomes meaningful when placed in the specific sociocultural context that gives anger meaning. Sounds like a tautology? In other words, my own happiness has meaning because our culture recognizes happiness as inherently worthwhile and positive and because, as Nussbaum suggests, it’s part of the way I relate to my own flourishing.

It’s not that we need to design FOR emotion, but design WITH emotion. It’s difficult to make user experiences that cause an emotion — let alone an emotion shared by everyone, everywhere, at all times. Instead, I think designing WITH emotion is much smarter. Appreciating the subjectivities and embodied thoughts of each user goes further than trying to measure how happy someone is when using a product. The result? Technology that has meaning.

Here’s an example. From 2011, Seoul’s Metropolitan Government put in place new technologies aimed to increase social innovation from the ground up. One of these was the “Big Ear Policy” which quite literally listened to citizen’s concerns and suggestions. The act of listening is a powerful way to engage emotions. People tend to open up when they feel heard. The aim of the policy was to co-create innovative solutions in civic life and listening was the first step towards that. The government placed a large sculpture of an ear (the Big Ear) in front of the City Hall so that when someone spoke to the ear, it was broadcasted in the basement of City Hall. Citizens felt they could engage with the government because they felt the government cared about what they said.

We can see that the Big Ear is meaningful for people, not because it seeks to make people happy or content, but because it is open to the richness of different emotions. That is designing WITH emotion. It has to do not just with an individual’s sense of flourishing or eudaimonia but also with cultural meanings about identity as a citizen. Emotion is not just one thing, it’s many different things. That’s why, if we want to make things that are meaningful, we need to think (and feel) about emotions.