Will it one day be possible to seek happiness through the possibilities that our digital world makes available? Nitin Mistry looks at the potential power of adding an emotional layer to the functional web, aligning digital tools with the emotional spectrum of the human condition.
Whether it’s a container for content, a communications tool or digital utility, the internet was, and predominantly still is, a functional space. This has caused it to evolve in a particular way, one devoid of empathy to certain aspects of the human condition, namely emotion. Is this something that should, or ever could, be addressed? Can the online experience be enhanced to derive more meaning using the language of emotion?
Initial attempts at imbuing feelings into digital communications seem juvenile. Emoticons for instance, mock the complexity of emotions with a cheeky wink and a churlish kitsch. Why is it that one can only ‘Like’ things? Wouldn’t it be nice to share using other facets of our emotional range with perhaps a, ‘I’m so angry’ button, or ‘it made me cry in a happy way’ button?
Some categories are more intuitively aligned to adopt emotions. Take the ever changing ‘browse by mood’ feature on Spotify. Created using expert suggestions and friend’s playlists, it guides users based on whether they want to ‘Have a laugh’, feel ‘forever alone’ or want to indulge in ‘anthems of angst’. Content segmentation by emotion is one solution and, in retrospect, a natural first step.
Interestingly, we have been very good at converting certain real world tools into digital ones. Maps are a case in point — now a common digital tool that, on a functional level, was an intuitive progression for its printed forebear. It detects where you are, you tell it where you want to be, and it instantly maps the quickest route depending on your mode of travel.
But being complex individuals perhaps we don’t want to reach our destinations ASAP. Maybe you’re feeling romantic and want take the scenic route. Or perhaps you want to experience “happiness” on your journey by way of seeing as much greenery as possible.
Researchers at Yahoo have developed a GPS algorithm using crowd-sourced data that allows users to choose a ‘Happy Route’ between two points, placing emphasis on the journey rather than the destination. It’s one idea that points to an abundance of possibilities.
By considering the emotional nature and motivations of people, we can add a human layer to an experience that, to date, has been purely rational and perfunctory. Adding this filter of emotional empathy can help elevate even the most utilitarian of functions into something with deeper resonance. Like the Yahoo Happy Routes idea, the challenge is in recognising when it will enhance the native function in a genuinely useful way.
Imagine then an email tool that could alter the message based on the tone we wanted to convey. Whether it be authoritative, jovial or disappointment, it could be an indispensable lifesaver for this particularly impersonal channel where miscommunication of intent is common.
Communication is one area where opportunities abound; another is context. Consider a simple bus timetable app that detects when your bus is running late and knowing the user is stressed or annoyed, responds with an appropriate goodwill gesture; a discount off the next trip or a free music track to lift the spirits.
Moving from screen-based interactions to the ‘Internet of Things’ provides even more scope for digital experiences to be augmented by emotional nuance.
Recognising that its owner has had a stressful day — based on scanning your calendar, communications and biometrics — imagine a home that configures itself around their emotional needs. Ambient lighting, temperature adjusted to induce calm, recipes suggested based on how they could improve mood, TV and music playlists created to increase positivity and induce laughter; sounds like science fiction, but all entirely possible with today’s technology.
One challenge to overcome is the subjectivity of emotions — what makes one person happy may not work for another. How do we quantify the subjectivity of feelings into a resolute, mathematical data set? Surely in the era of ‘big data’ there is enough information out there to give us some indicators of an individual’s emotional language.
There is a huge opportunity with this approach to uncover untapped possibilities in the technological space. The challenge is in recognising the right opportunities and creating solutions that speak to our emotional selves. When perfunctory tasks become conduits for experiences beyond the rational, and when we begin to express our broader humanity onto the digital canvas, then perhaps the idea of a happy button doesn’t seem so naive or far-fetched.