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Emotional Design Through Tech
Freddie Halbrow

Emotional Design Through Tech

Monday, 17 February 2020 09:14

In this part one of a three-part series I'll be exploring and explaining emotional design in technology. Additionally, I'll be looking into visceral emotions, also known as immediate emotions.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't watched any of the three films I refer to in this article then I suggest that you do!

Do we design emotion-inducing products and services?

Reading this question you would most probably say 'Yes, we do'. But do we?

Let me bring in two movies into this discussion: 'Her', a 2013 film directed by Spike Jonze and 'Blade Runner 2049' a 2017 film directed by Denis Villeneuve. Emotional design in these two movies is taken to a whole new level.

What is emotional design?

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

  • Behavioural
  • Reflective
  • Visceral

Imagine that you own a classic 1967 Ford Mustang 550 Shelby, one gorgeous piece of machinery. You get up on Monday morning to prepare for your workday, jump into your Mustang, key in the ignition and...nothing happens. Your classic beauty won't start. You try to start your car two more times but the engine is not roaring. Now, this is where emotion comes in. You start to feel frustrated and you panic because you're going to be late for work and you're worried about the costs to get your beauty up and running again.

You pop the hood, making it look like you know what you're doing. You give the ignition one more try. Your frustration is immediately replaced with pure joy when you hear that engine come to life! Yes!

These feelings are referred to as immediate or visceral emotions - emotions that we have no full control over. If you want to understand more and delve in deeper into behaviour and emotions then I recommend an article by David Dunning, titled, "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 of the Mustang starting up, 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 with the user of the product or service then there is simply no emotion that will be expressed by the user.

I had a casual conversation with my colleagues and I wanted to know what they thought of emotion-inducing tech. What we noticed is that a lot of the things we interact with are designed so well that it becomes second nature to use the product. You don't need to decipher anything. You just simply use it without thought.

Just like when you open a door or take a step forward on a moving escalator, there is no thinking required 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).

Some products activate immediate visceral emotions either positively or negatively such as your phone, your car or the clothes you wear. We tend to be emotionally attached to certain brands.

During the conversation with my colleagues, we observed that the way emotional design is depicted in the films "Her" and "Blade Runner 2049" is rarely experienced today.

Imagine having a digital assistant that has been designed to fulfil more than what it was made for. It sounds too good to be true. The level of experience that you get from using the said product is so amazing that it begins to surpass immediate/visceral emotions. Combine that with advanced artificial intelligence (AI) then you're likely to see a romance like Theodore and Samantha's. Or perhaps you're a simple individual like Howard Wolowitz from the famous series "Big Bang Theory" and you just need the hand.

If you haven't watched these two movies yet, I recommend that you do. These films will change your perspective of AI technology and design at every level, especially in emotion experience design.

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

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

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 as if 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 she interacts with physical world reactions such as the rain that behaves the same way it would on a 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 is becoming humanistic and 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.

During a conversation with my lead and design colleagues on AI and emotional design, one interesting point that caught my attention is that disruptive design tends to break 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. 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. 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 and select their movie to rent out, and often have non-returns, Netflix took that entire process and digitised it.

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

This method wasn't widely adopted by a lot of the video rental businesses and it set Netflix apart from its competitors.

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

My view on emotional design through tech is that we're currently aiming at improving 'the easy' which is providing a good experience through immediate/visceral emotions. However, 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.

Keep an eye out for part two and three of this article when I'll be exploring 'behavioural' and 'reflective' emotions in more detail, aligning it to technology.

Feel free to send me comments and feedback on

Published in UX Design
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