A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 15, 2016

Why the Future of Design Is Emotional

The devices on which we have become so dependent are decreasingly differentiated: they perform astonishing tasks of relatively high functionality and quality at breath-taking speed. And they all possess quirks which we find alternately annoying and endearing.

But our primary attachment is based not so much on their features as on our attachment to the ecosystem - and the fear of  complication leading to reduced convenience that could affect us if we switch.

Which means that the only realm in which manufacturers and marketers can effectively compete for our attention, let alone business, is in how these devices make us feel. 

Apple got a jump on every one else with its attention to design. In the world of hard numbers and whiz kid technology, this was radical - and supremely successful. But there are few competitive advantages these days and almost none that strategists would term sustainable.

So if the money and the underlying electronics are more or less equivalent, the future belongs to those whose designs can tap into our deeper needs for security and prominence and acceptability and competence and belonging and a raft of others. There is no doubt, as the following article explains, that designers are starting to do so now and will build this more comprehensively into the devices of the future. Success will flow to those enterprises who can economically optimize these elements. JL 

Daniel Eckler comments in a series of essays in Medium:

We design objects to solve problems, to fulfill needs. (But) the first time you meet someone, your first thought isn’t “How do they function?” it’s “How do they make me feel?” emotional bonds (or lack thereof), are the invisible currency of contemporary life. As we begin to rely on (smart) tools, their ability to forge emotional connections and pick up on social cues will be just as important as their ability to decipher data.
In 1950, the American psychologist Harry Harlow conducted an experiment that separated infant monkeys from their mothers just a few hours after birth. Each monkey was isolated in a cage and given two dummy mothers. One mother was constructed of metal wire and held a milk bottle; another was covered in synthetic fur and designed to resemble a real monkey, but it provided no sustenance.
Instinctually, Harlow assumed the infants would gravitate towards the metal mother because it provided a basic need: nourishment.
Much to his surprise, the infants preferred the animate mother despite her lack of milk. In fact, when the two mothers were placed side by side, the infants would suck milk from the metal mother and cling to the more realistic looking dummy.
Despite receiving all of the physical nourishment they required, the infant monkeys displayed much higher levels of anxiety and aggression as they matured. The obvious conclusion is that most creatures have immediate physical needs — be it sustenance or shelter — but there is a large emotional component that needs to be nourished as well.
Harlow’s monkeys preferred the animate mother because they were not just seeking milk, they were desperate for an emotional bond.

Form, Function, Feeling

Function lies at the core of every manufactured object, be it a door knob or a chair. We design objects to solve problems, to fulfill needs; whether it’s something we take for granted, like our effortless passage into another room, or a comfortable place to sit.
That said, there has been conflict tugging at the core of our design principles since Louis Sullivan popularized “Form follows function” at the dawn of the 20th century. Function may be the fundamental concern for many designers, but how strictly to cling to this maxim? Some, including Austrian architect Adolf Loos, would go so far as to call ornamentation a crime.
To flesh this out, let us consider an object that is primarily functional: the La-Z-Boy reclining chair, deliberately built for comfort and relaxation. All of its features are geared towards function, from its puffy cushioning to the side-mounted handle that allows us to recline for a nap. Some might say that its design is so explicitly functional that it is, for lack of a better word, ugly.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Picasso’s Chair, a contradictory piece of seating that’s impossible to sit on, unless you’ve been sculpted to fit into its jaunty, uneven lap. Picasso sketched his prototype on paper before folding it into existence, much like an origami swan. Its function is purely aesthetic; its form toys with the relationship between the 2nd and 3rd dimension in a playful way. In short, Chair’s experimental design has very little to do with utility.
Form and function are universal concepts that every junior designer considers when developing new work. But there is a third, more subtle factor at play in design; one that many designers may relate to subconsciously but rarely express as a priority in their design thinking: feeling.
While Picasso’s chair does touch us emotionally, its pursuit is primarily intellectual, pushing us to consider the meaning of aesthetics, perspective, and form itself.
Contrast this with The Waterproof Garden Chair by Bert Loeschner. This piece and others in his series encourage viewers to empathize with the common chair by anthropomorphizing it. A garden chair that was once hidden out of sight on a back patio suddenly becomes an old friend who looks neglected and lonely, and you find yourself apologizing because you’ve left him alone in the rain for the last 10 years.
Not every object that deeply considers feeling is so explicit. There are those rare sublime objects that manage to blend function, form, and feeling in a truly holistic sense. Hans Wegner’s Shell Chair immediately comes to mind: a piece of design that is not only beautiful and highly functional, its pleasant lines and smiling undercarriage encourage us to feel something, be it calm, comfort — even joy.

Man & Machine

The first time you meet someone, your first thought isn’t “How do they function?” it’s “How do they make me feel?” And when you’re asked about that person later, you describe their personality: “She’s relaxed, smart, witty. She makes me laugh.”
It may seem peculiar to apply the same attributes to inanimate objects, but if we take a moment to think about our belongings, we all have a handful of items that aren’t particularly useful or pleasing to the eye. Why have we kept them? Because we’ve formed a connection, and they’re meaningful in some way: the birthday gift from our best friend, the movie ticket stub from the first date with our significant other. These connections effect us subconsciously, breathing life into otherwise inanimate objects.
These emotional bonds (or lack thereof), are the invisible currency of contemporary life — something that advertising agencies are especially adept at tapping into. A 30 second spot for Trident isn’t concerned with form (the gum itself) or function (elimination of bad breath), they’re selling you an emotional experience (a kiss on your first date). If the ad works, it’s because they’ve transformed an innocuous grey sugar cube into an emotional connection with an attractive woman.
It’s no surprise that The Volkswagon Beetle, released in 1938 and produced until 2003, is the best selling design in automotive history. Referred to as “the people’s car”, its friendly round contours are punctuated with a pair of headlights that resemble cartoon-like eyes and a smiling bumper. The vehicle has such an affable design that Disney based a live-action film on the car: a thinking, self-driving Beetle called Herbie the Love Bug.
According to car design researcher Sam Livingtone, our attraction to the Beetle’s human features is deeply rooted: “Consumers are reading to some extent the face of the car as the face of a person and therefore will infer from it an attitude, be it aggressive, benign or friendly. Even if people don’t consciously read the face of a car, they certainly do it subconsciously.”
Imagine, in the not-too-distant-future, kicking back on your sofa and enjoying a relaxing evening in your smart home. Your smart TV is cued and invisibly connected to a smart sound system tailored to your eccentric taste in ’70s Krautrock. Your smart LED lighting complements your spouse’s face as it would in a Spielberg film. Your smart watch is poised to buzz the moment the ratatouille has simmered in your smart kitchen.
As you sit down to taste the 100 year old recipe that your grocery app recommended, your television activates to let you know that your favourite program is about to begin. You politely ask it to “Power down and record.” You compliment your spouse and bring a spoonful of ratatouille to your mouth, only to be startled by a buzzing notification at your wrist. Your spoon falls to the table. As you pick it up and swipe away the mess with your serviette, you glance at your watch face. It’s Gus, the grocery app, and he’s curious about the meal you’ve yet to commence: “How’s the ratatouille?”
As we begin to rely on these tools, their ability to forge emotional connections and pick up on social cues will be just as important as their ability to decipher data. Gartner forecasts that there will be 25 billion connected devices by 2020 — ranging from wearables and automobiles to televisions and household appliances, including home robots.
The ideal device is one that is context-aware — one that is able to recognize a social situation and adjust accordingly. Think of a quarterback that is able to step to the line of scrimmage, read a defense, and call an audible based on a split second read.
If Gus the grocery app really wants to impress us with his intuitive behaviour, he’d wait for a moment in our day when our mood has peaked, or when we have some down time, to ask how our meal was. Being in tune with our emotions is not only pleasant, it encourages user activity, which feeds more data into our devices, creating an ever-evolving loop of efficiency: something that we might even refer to as a “relationship.”
This is already beginning to happen: affective computing is a growing field that seeks to imbue electronic devices with emotional intelligence so that they can respond to our feelings. Emotional information is interpreted via sensors that analyze a person’s physical state, taking special note of bodily changes that are associated with different emotions.
As the field continues to grow, a combination of video cameras, microphones and wearables will take into account everything from body language (facial expressions, posters, gestures), to speech patterns, to physiological changes (temperature, heartbeat, muscle tension, pupil dilation). All of the collected data will help to paint a detailed picture of our emotional makeup.
Just as GPS indicates our location, alternate devices may soon feature an emotional chip that can detect your mood and other advanced emotional states. Once our devices are aware of our emotions, they can wield their acquired intelligence to help us lead better lives.
At work, your smartphone may dissuade you from scheduling an important meeting when you are exhausted, and your laptop might encourage you to take a break when you feel restless. On your way home, your car has curated a playlist to match your mood and your smart fridge will greet you with a handful of dinner ideas based on its contents. Our machines might even collaborate to achieve optimal efficiency: imagine a mirror that adjusts the bathroom lighting to boost your mood when your reflection suggests that you are feeling self-conscious.
Although the preceding technology exists today, it might be a while before it’s properly integrated into all of our devices. In the meantime, we have a present day tool that hints at how our emotional journey with computers might pan out, and it looks like this :)


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