Emotion and Design

by Andreas Komninos | | 6 min read

Factors specific to the things we use in our everyday lives influence how we feel when we are using them. It is, therefore, the role of designers to both understand how we are affected by the products they design, and how they can be developed to (on a small scale) improve the associated user experience, and (on a much grander scale) improve our lives.

A Brief Introduction

On an average day we experience a wide range of emotions, such as disappointment when we have to get up early, happiness when we see our loved ones, anger when the train we are travelling on stops without forewarning, or frustration when we struggle to open a jar. In the same way emotions arise as we navigate and interact with our environment, these emotions are evoked when navigating and interacting with technologies. While some emotions are less common, like sadness and empathic concern, many products induce a wide range of emotional responses. Some of these emotions are an unintended by-product of certain design qualities, whilst other emotional responses are the result of careful planning to improve the user experience associated with a particular product.

What we mean by the 'Emotional Response'

Emotions result from changes in our psychophysiology, and these changes are, more often than not, due to events in our surroundings. An emotional response to environmental stimuli is mediated by cognition, which helps us interpret information and, as a result, heavily influences the type of emotion we experience. For example, fear arises from some perceived threat in our environment, such as falling when we are looking over banisters on a landing. Once we have identified the threat, our nervous system is stimulated to prepare us for action. So the cognition of threat – in combination with the ensuing physiological changes – is central to our experience of fear as an emotional state. In this respect, the person's state of mind can either diminish or exacerbate the psychophysiological changes that arise from an event.

A Real-World Example of the Emotional Response

Consider how you react to the phone ringing when you are either A) expecting a phone call or B) not expecting a phone call. In the first scenario, you are ready and prepared for the ringing, and you have expectations both of who is calling and their reason for contacting you. For example, if we are anticipating a call from a potential employer regarding a recent interview, it would seem fair to suggest we would feel tension, fear, and perhaps excited, and once the phone starts ringing these emotions would be elevated. In contrast, the second scenario introduces the potential for an alternative emotional response, as we are not prepared for the call and we have no preconceptions of who might be ringing. For example, you might be annoyed or shocked to hear the ringing, especially if you were relaxed or doing something at the time.

Environmental factors can also influence our emotional response to an event. These factors can be general, such as things occurring naturally in the world (e.g., weather – some people are happier on sunny days, while others prefer cold weather), and others are specific to certain situations (e.g., our workplace) or things we come in contact with (e.g., computers and devices). Using our previous example, think about how a call from a colleague might make you feel during work hours when you’re both at your desks, or if they happen to call you while you’re at an important meeting with a client.

The Role of Design in The Emotional Response

In both of these scenarios, our emotional response can also be influenced by a number of factors relating to the telephone itself. A soft and rising tone is less likely to cause shock or unsettle us than a harsh and sudden tone. In addition, if the telephone device enables us to view the caller ID, our emotional state is liable to change. For example, if we see the name of a friend or close family member, our initial annoyance might dissolve and instead we may feel intrigued, happy, or, depending on the time of day, concerned. And if we see a number we don't recognize or the number of a business call center, we might feel annoyed, angry, and if we have received calls from them in the past, extremely frustrated that they won't stop calling.

These simple scenarios demonstrate the influence of the person's disposition, his/her cognition (i.e., thoughts about the incident), and the design of products and technologies on our emotions. While the first two factors (disposition and cognition) must be taken into consideration, and all three factors (disposition, cognition, and design) are inextricably linked in determining the person's eventual emotional state, the influence of design on emotion (to somewhat state the obvious) should be central to our thinking as those who design and develop products and technologies for human users.

The Take Away

Our emotional state is constantly shifting according to stimulation from our environment. While emotions can be experienced without such stimulation, most changes occur as a result of some outside force. What we refer to as 'emotions' are psychophysiological changes, which occur naturally and, as stated above, due to events in our surroundings. These changes are mediated by our cognition (i.e. how we interpret information), our disposition (i.e. how we feel at the time) and environmental factors (i.e. things taking place outside the person's body). It is, therefore, the role of the designers to both understand how we are affected by the products they design and how they can be developed to (on a small scale) improve the associated user experience, and (on a much grander scale) improve our lives.

References & Where to Learn More

Paul Jarvis, The importance of emotion in design, 2014

Hero Image: Copyright Holder: Thomas. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-ND 2.0

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