Alastair Somerville

Nov 16, 2016

4 min read

Fairytale moments

Arthur Rackham – all rights
  • Snow White dies
  • Cinderella’s mother dies
  • The wolf is axed to death
  • Snow White comes back to life
  • Cinderella marries a Prince

Fairytales are full of moments of strong emotion.

People have complained that this is bad for children. However, fairytales have been passed from generation to generation for centuries.

Fairytales recognise something important. Not merely the importance of a well crafted story but also how emotion is core to the understanding of the experience.

Those emotional moments understand that we make meaning with emotion.

The shock of the moment

However, companies keep designing and testing for the rational actor. A calmly decisive figure who encounters products and takes actions. Companies bias both their research and usability work towards this actor by creating moments where participants are settled into places where such calm clarity is possible.

But those moments are fake.

That research is wrong.

Emotion in action

I generally ask people to communicate questions that are quite factual. I do this to minimise the emotional effects that I know are always there.

At UX Ireland last week, and after a chat with Johan Adda at the User Centered Design conference last month, I decided to put in a couple of questions with specific emotional content.

Rather than talk through the problem, I’d make people experience it.

Everyone knew the context of the questions: something that might be asked while in an office or at work.

Is the customer angry?

Angry customers are quite common for people at work. This question is quite hard though because normally there would be several steps of contextual understanding before asking the question.

The team tried to build such a narrative and also created a metaphorical object from spikey tubes and plasticine. This object was anger.

The participant got that point.

However, she couldn’t work out who was angry. The exercise began to loop

This is quite normal when emotion is in play. Emotion constricts cognition so points that may seem obvious, like it’s the customer, are lost. The idea is unavailable to the person. They keep seeking meaning but spiral off into their own personal confusion of emotion and senses.

I’m sacked?

Being sacked is a traumatic moment that people are aware of, may have personally experienced or watched either in real life or in a movie.

The team needed the participant to ask if he had been sacked.

The tactile narrative they created went from settling him into a work place, with all the normal props, and then suddenly slamming a box down and forcing him to place items into it.

He guessed what he needed to say quite quickly.

The shock of the moment was enough.

Meaning making is accelerated and constricted by emotion. It collapses many possibilities into a few probabilities.

Emotion surfaces consciousness

Sometimes it pushes a person to conscious awareness of a decision to be made. That’s why the collapse of possibilities is important. It’s a pre-selection of choices for the conscious mind.

This is emotional design when it works within the contexts of the while person and the place.

What does this all mean?

Yet, in those moments, there is confusion and there is certainty.

Prototyping and testing explored how people, when they are not calm rational actors, can fail and succeed in recognising patterns and finding meanings.

Build for emotion.

Test with emotion.

That’s all.

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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