Feelings in communication

Alastair Somerville
4 min readMay 9, 2018

I’m glad to say I’m doing another new workshop at EuroIA this year. Last year was mixed realities and collocated information and the year before was senses and meaning.

This year, and within the conference theme of Humanogy, it’s about how to think about feelings in communication between intelligences, human, technological and anything in between.

That’s not Conversation

Emotion in communication has become more obviously important as interfaces move to more natural forms of structure.

The carefully controlled world of DOS commands (the inflexible, infuriating “Syntax Error” message) has moved onto the repetitive rephrasing of verbal interactions with smart speaker systems.

Interactions not conversations.

Communication without any need for emotion to be understood or reciprocated.

Yet, as any frustrated DOS user can remember, even the simple message “Syntax Error” did fill you, as a human, with emotion.

Now, we have smart speakers and, tho the semantics are more sophisticated, the frustration remains. Ask Alexa for a specific recording of a piece of classical music to build quickly to an angry interaction of repeated misunderstandings. The tightened voice of an Amazon Echo user stopping another incorrect track from being played.

Emotion is always in our interactions as it is part of our core meaning making and sharing systems. We need emotion to make sense of things and to communicate our (dis)satisfaction.

Interaction without emotion is hard.

Conversation without emotion is impossible.

Architecting Emotions

In September, in Dublin, I will run the workshop Architecting Emotions.

I really dislike the word Architecting but it’s a deliberate choice as the workshop is trying to help understand the structure, the place and the moment of emotion in conversation. It’s a tiny space (which is why it gets ignored so much) but it is a crucial place.

I will be using Non Violent Communication as core structure for this but I am also looking at ideas like ORID Focussed Conversation and also new work by Jorge Arango (his Semantic Environment Canvas is very interesting), Peter Morville’s Planning For Everything (which links to ORID in sense of there being a flow, a map of intent that shifts and diverts but maintains directions) and, finally for now, Erika Hall’s Conversational Design (the need for character in technologies is an important point).

I have been cutting up conversation models for a while now. This image shows a few stuck together.


The theme of the EuroIA conference is Humanogy (a word easier to type than say). It’s about the fused space of humans and technologies that I mostly know of as the “As if” space (a phrase from Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation): humans acting “as if” they were technologies, technologies acting “as if” they were humans.

It’s a tricky space as it’s stage filled with actors; some good, some bad. It is filled with unreciprocated emotions, empathic abuse and lies. It has scripted and ad libbed interactions in which misunderstandings are rife.

I do not believe that humanogy is possible without appreciating emotion.

Making humans behave as if they do not have emotions will fail. Building technologies that ignore emotions will fail.

What to do in a workshop?

Clearly, this is an enormous subject area and huge amounts of it are unknown (Google Duplex was announced last night and its “as if” human design is already being criticised. However, as with Glass, Google seems to like to deploy as test so, by September, we will know more about this product).

I know the workshop will have a core exercise around analysing conversation thru Non Violent Conversation (NVC). In particular, there is an excellent set of cards about defining emotions and needs that is great for extending participants’ vocabularies. I have found in a lot of usability testing/research that delimited vocabularies is a problem in emotional design discussions (there is an old Medium post about Emotion Cards you can read on one method I’ve used).

NVC is about the strongest structure I have encountered for architecting emotions in the space between people and between technologies and people.

It’s in that space that the workshop will play.

Workshop design

As with most of my work, I will publicly prototype and so I’ll update this post as I build the workshop and materials.

If you have any advice, ideas or opinions: drop them in the comments or contact me on Twitter Alastair Somerville.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX