In his book “Designing for Emotion”, Aaron Walter rightfully states: “As we gaze at the world, we discover ourselves looking back”. We humans are narcissist beings seeking ourselves in the world around us. Our minds are guided by emotions and emotions are to some extent universal. Darwin wrote that we all have a common emotional lexicon guiding us through life. This emotional lexicon is the result of an evolutionary process guided by natural selection. We are social beings, biologically prepared to interact with others.
Our ability to survive depends on our ability to read other peoples’ emotional mood. This ability has become part of our biological heritage to a point where we readily perceive emotional states in everything that is vaguely lifelike or in other words: we tend to read emotional responses into anything, animate or not. This is a bizarre result of our automatic interpretative mechanism.
Anthropomorphism in design
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human motivations, beliefs, and feelings to animate and inanimate things alike.
We don’t have to see two eyes, a mouth and a nose to perceive a human presence. We scan patterns, analyze and interpret even the most subtle indicators as stimulus to anthropomorphize. An example of social dynamics is turn taking in human-computer interaction: we enter a command, in turn the computer responds, in turn we enter another command and so on. This lures us into believing that we are engaged in a social interaction although the machine is merely responding to a command and not acting with any intention.
Computers as social agents
When we interact with computer interfaces we project human emotions and beliefs into the inanimate computer. When the interaction is smooth and enjoyable we attribute the pleasure to the machine in the same way we blame the machine when things don’t work out as we wish. To blame (or to attribute pleasure) is a social judgment that assigns responsibilities which can come about only if we are treating the machine as if it were a causal agent that makes choices on its own as a human does, which of course it doesn’t (Don Norman, Emotional Design).
The baby-schema effect
Consumers detect anthropomorphic shapes in product designs easily, and they use their knowledge about humans to evaluate the appearance (e.g., as friendly, aggressive). Design for emotion means seeking out an emotional connection with the user. For a human being the most natural way to bond emotionally is with another human being. However a designer can use the principle of anthropomorphism to favor emotional engagement. An example can be the baby-schema effect where a design or a product simulates the shape or patterns of a baby face to evoke a positive emotional response. Customers’ responses to products and their physical appearance are shaped by deeply embedded psychological mechanisms.
Twitter, Brizzly and Mailchimp are just a few that use the baby-face bias principle in their logos. The brands play with cuteness to evoke positive emotional responses in their users.
Principles of evolutionary psychology
Only recently, consumer research has acknowledged that “consumers are biological and Darwinian beings”. According to the general framework of evolutionary psychology, all human behavior relies, to a certain degree, on innate perceptual, cognitive, affective and/or motivational mechanisms that have evolved through natural selection as adaptations to specific ancestral conditions. These adaptive mechanisms are considered functional as they increased the chance of the human species to survive and reproduce, and they still affect domains of modern everyday life, even though the mechanisms have been adapted in a total different environment a hundred thousand years ago.
Design can make use of these principles to create products people can relate and connect to. It is far more natural for us to interact with something that is humanlike, even if it is an illusion. The illusion can help to build emotional bonds and positive responses.
People anthropomorphize and they do it even with the most unlike things. Why shouldn’t designers make use of this tendency and build products that satisfy our needs to connect emotionally? Emotionally engaging products (if working fine) increase the pleasure of the interaction to a point where we form long-lasting emotional bonds with a brand or product just as we do with other human beings.
Our human nature, our primordial desire for emotional connection will eventually shape our products and machines in a way to adapt them to us and emotion are essential part of an engaging experience. To design authentic emotional engaging experiences and products there is a simple rule to keep in mind:
the principles for designing pleasurable, effective interactions and relations between people and products are the same ones that support pleasurable interactions and relations between humans.