Emotional Design Through Tech

Freddie Halbrow
Feb 7 · 7 min read

So, I’ve decided to go back to my old ways of writing. Which essentially is speak to me, a bit weird but it works.

To start, I just want to mention that this is part one of a three-part series in exploring and explaining emotional design in tech. In this article, we’ll be looking at visceral emotions also known as immediate emotions.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t watched any of the three films I refer to, soldier on and continue reading whilst watching the movies!

Ex Machina (Alex Garland | 2014)

Now, I’ve been asking myself this question for the past few weeks “Do we design emotion-inducing products/services?”

Reading this you’d most probably say ‘Yeah, we do’.. but do we?

So, what brought me to this question where two major films that have earned their title of ‘Not to be deleted’ on my PC, and these are ‘Her’ a 2013 film directed by Spike Jonze and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ a 2017 film directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Emotional design in the two films I mentioned above is taken to a whole new level, a point in which you start questioning whether we’re currently doing that? Or are we moving towards that? But all of these questions can be answered if we know what emotional design is.

Emotional design is creating a connection/bond between the user and the product/service they interact with. Referred in Interaction Design Foundation (IDF), there are three stages/levels in forming an emotional connection with a user and the object/service.

  1. Behavioural
  2. Reflective
  3. Visceral

Imagine that you own a classic 1967 Ford Mustang 550 Shelby, that is one gorgeous piece of machinery. You get up Monday morning, prepare for your day at work, jump into your Mustang, key in the ignition and.. nothing. Your old beauty won’t start up, you’ve kept everything original in it, time has taken its toll on some parts.

You try this two more times and nothing. Now, this is where emotion comes in, you start feeling frustrated and you’re panicking because your beauty is turning into a piece of doo-doo and you’re going to be late for work.

You pop the hood, try to look like you know what you’re doing, you give the ignition a try again and your frustration is immediately replaced with pure joy when you hear that engine come to life.

Now, these feelings are referred to as immediate/visceral emotions. Emotions that we have no full control over. If you want to understand more and delve in deeper into behaviour and emotions I recommend an article by David Dunning What a Feeling: The Role of Immediate and Anticipated Emotions in Risky Decisions published in a journal called “Journal of Behavioural Decision Making”.

Back to the question of whether we design emotion-inducing products/services.

If you think of the example I just gave of starting up the Mustang, the answer would be yes, we do design emotion-inducing products/services… but products/services that activate our visceral emotions through a context.

If there is no context of the product/service with the user, there’s simply no emotions that will be expressed by the user.

I had a casual conversation with my friends and I wanted to know what they thought when it came to emotion-inducing tech. What we noticed is that a lot of the things we interact with is either designed well that it becomes second nature in using the product. You don’t need to decipher anything or crack your skull, you just simply use it without thought.

Like when you have to take a doo-doo or open the door, there’s no thinking behind these interactions with these products. You know what you want to do and everything happens seamlessly (except for the door interaction, that is a different story in this current age if you consider Norman Doors).

Then some products activate immediate/visceral emotions, stuff like your phone, car, the clothes you wear. All of these products activate our immediate/visceral emotions either positively or negatively when we interact with them or put through a context.

This conversation went on for a while and what we noticed in comparison to the films “Her” and “Blade Runner 2049” is how emotional design is depicted in these films, something that is rarely/not experienced in this current age.

Imagine having a digital assistant that has been designed to fulfil more than what it was made for, the level of experience that you get from using the product is so amazing it begins to surpass immediate/visceral emotions. Combine that with advanced AI tech and this is essentially the point where we see the ‘Theodore and Samantha’ romance. Or maybe you’re a simple individual like Howard Wolowitz from the famous series “Big Bang Theory” and only just need the hand.

If you haven’t watched these films I advise that you do so now, like honest, just give me claps, speed read and go watch them. These films will change your perspective of AI technology and design at every level, especially in emotion experience design.

“Her” is based around the protagonist who builds a romantic relationship with an AI that he interacts with through a device and earpiece.

Her (Spike Jonze | 2013)

“Blade Runner 2049” this one still plays mind games with me. It has the same advancement in AI technology as in “Her” but takes this physical product that you interact with to a whole new level. Watch the video below to see what I mean.

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve | 2017)

Now, where the mind games come in is when you realise that ‘Joi’ the AI is a hologram, and with holograms, we all know that they are intangible. What is amazing about this film is that we see a relationship between ‘Officer K’ the protagonist and ‘Joi’ the AI. The software and interface design are so crazy it seems like all laws of maths and physics are being defied.

Going back to the fact that ‘Joi’ is a hologram, not only does she borderline tangible and intangible but interacts with physical world reactions such as the rain which behaves the same way it would on a normal human.

There are a ton more of movies that are similar to “Her” and “Blade Runner 2049” which all seem to show the highest level of emotional design through AI such as “Ex Machina” directed by Alex Garland. We see a similar theme and styling in all of these films towards AI. AI becoming humanistic and being a product of a non-singular physical embodiment.

The closest we get to surpassing immediate/visceral emotions in this age through design and tech is when the user has sentimental value tied to the technology. This does not only evoke memories but pushes beyond immediate/visceral memories.

I seem to have a neck in having conversations with people on stuff that intrigue me. So, after speaking to friends about AI and emotional design, I thought I would ask my lead and design colleagues to hear what they have to say about it.

One interesting point that caught my attention is that disruptive design has seemed to be a point into breaking the norm of how we interact and use things.. and with this, emotional design evolves.

One great example they gave me is how Netflix started up. I wasn’t born till ’95 so, they mentioned quite a bit that I wasn’t familiar with.

Netflix used to be a DVD-by-mail rental service, which was different from the VHS/DVD walk-in rental businesses like Videoland or Blockbuster (I was lucky enough to have been born to see and know of these). What set Netflix apart from all the video rental businesses is their approach to giving the rental service to customers. Instead of having physical outlets where customers would walk in, pray and hope that the movie/s they want to rent out are available, topped off with the worry of any outstanding returns they have under their store account, Netflix took that entire process and digitised it.

You’d go online, pick the movies you wanted to rent out and Netflix would burn the movies on to a DVD disk which was then sent by mail. You could watch it for as long as you want, the only catch they had is if you wanted to rent out another movie you’d have to return the previously rented movies in exchange for the new ones.

This was something that wasn’t widely adopted by a lot of the video rental businesses and it set Netflix apart from all the other competitors which in this age are relics of an age that has passed.

When a disruptive design is introduced, a new way of interacting with a product/service is changed and adopted by the market. Yet it seems that we somehow stay stagnant in between disruptive designs thus resulting in the slow growth of emotional design in pushing past immediate/visceral emotions.

This is just my view on emotional design through tech, and I feel that we’re currently aiming at improving ‘the easy’ which is providing a good experience through immediate/visceral emotions when there are greater levels of emotions that potentially hold a much greater design challenge. Much like providing the same level of experience portrayed in the films I refer to, or even greater.

I’m really bad at coming up with conclusions to stuff like this, but in part two and three we’ll be looking at ‘Behavioural’ and ‘Reflective’ emotions in more detail, and as you guessed it.. through tech, I’ll be sure to keep it interesting.

I hope you enjoyed the read as much as I enjoyed bull crapping most it, and don’t forget to give claps, likes, hearts, or whatever it is that shows up on there.

DVT Software Engineering

Making an impact in Software Engineering

Freddie Halbrow

Written by

DVT Software Engineering

Making an impact in Software Engineering

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