Why technology needs to consider emotions

Digital technology surrounds us. Our interactions are increasingly digital, whether buying coffee, checking in at airports, checking out at the supermarket or interacting with friends and families.

What does that mean for the development of technology?

To ensure technology is widely adopted, a broader perspective of the technology is needed, including the systems it interacts with and the people who may use it. Understanding user experience is critical. Especially critical is realising there is an emotional component when users interact with technology. Consideration of emotions when developing technology has been neglected in the engineering disciplines, in my experience. In the case of software, at best all the decisions about experience are left to a user experience designer who might develop an interface but not be involved in the software development stage.

Yet research has shown emotions are a key factor in whether people successfully adopt technology long-term. Technology not only has to be easy to use, but should be fun and engaging, and ideally generate positive feelings. Some companies appreciate the emotions, notably Apple and Airbnb, but the consideration of emotions in technology development has not yet become widespread.

The need for more focus on emotional aspects has become critical with the explosion of smartphones, triggered by the release of the Apple iPhone 10 years ago. People make rapid decisions about whether to use an app. Unless the app is engaging, it is abandoned. The requirement to be positive and engaging should carry across to websites and enterprise software. Programs and websites should not be frustrating to deal with, but routinely are, and should be changed.

An illustration of a different way of thinking about technology development comes from a research project I was involved in several years ago. The aim was to build software to help grandparents and grandchildren have fun together over the internet — increasingly needed with families distributed across a country or even internationally.

Three prototypes were built and successfully trialled. One allowed simultaneous manipulation of a shared photo stream, one allowed sharing of messages and photos once a maze was solved, and one allowed grandparents to read a book to grandchildren while the book was shown on their computer. The latter prototype allowed the children to be disruptive in a playful manner, by turning pages or scribbling on the book. All three prototypes created positive interactions with an element of surprise, as one person was unsure exactly what the other would do.

A personal experience highlighted the importance of emotions for me. Several months before she died, my mother had a serious fall in her home, where she lived by herself. Her family insisted she use an emergency service system consisting of a call button pendant she could press if she were in trouble and a box where she needed to press a button to check in daily. The threat of being sent to an aged-care facility was raised. My mother hated the ugly pendant she was supposed to wear around her neck. It made her feel less independent and somewhat dehumanised — negative emotions. She told us we were making her wear a cowbell. She also was stressed by needing to push a button at a pre-determined time. It became clear users’ emotions were not taken into consideration in the design.

The developer thought the technology worked well and was surprised at the negative reaction. Later, we conducted a study of people’s experience with emergency alarm systems, which confirmed my mother’s views were not exceptional. Many people struggled with the loss of independence and wanted a system that helped them feel cared for positively. We redesigned part of the system, replacing the box where the older person needed to press a nondescript button with a digital photo frame. A caring team member would send a daily photo. The older person needed to click on the photo frame to view the photo, which served the same purpose as pushing the button, but made them feel much better.

Subsequent projects where emotions have been factored into design have been a screening app to match people with depressive symptoms with appropriate treatment recommendations; a novel digital intervention to promote personal recovery in people with persisting psychotic disorders; and SleepWell, an app to help people with sleep difficulties.

Recently, there has been a lot of interest in artificial intelligence. Many companies are experimenting with chat bots to automate part of their interaction with customers. I caution companies to think carefully about how and when to deploy such bots. Answering a routine maintenance task about a computer or giving an interest rate for a bank might be good. However, providing emergency housing assistance would need to be considered more carefully to ensure a positive experience.

‘Incorporating Emotions in Technology Development’, a free public lecture by Professor Emeritus Leon Sterling, Thursday November 16, 5.30pm–6.30pm, Council Chamber, Hunter Building, Kelburn Campus, Victoria University of Wellington. Discover more and register here.

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