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Design Talks: Emotionally Intelligent Design with Pamela Pavliscak

Jordan's expertise spans across brand strategy, service design, and UX. She works with organizations to help strengthen teams and innovate.

Welcome to the first discussion in our brand new Design Talks series dedicated to sharing the insights of thought leaders and top designers from around the world. We interview experts who work with design in different contexts, with different purposes, and through different approaches. We hope to provide intellectual and creative inspiration to all of our readers.

Our first guest is Pamela Pavliscak, a “futurist researcher” who studies our conflicted emotional relationship with technology.

Her work is part deep dive research, part data science. As a researcher, she creates experiments that challenge us to see technology—and ourselves—in new ways. Whether documenting new internet emotions or asking people to confront their digital alter egos, Pamela’s work is aimed at understanding how technology can help us be human.

Pamela advises designers, developers, and decision-makers from organizations like IKEA, Virgin, KLM, and Capital One on how to create technologies with feeling. She is faculty at Pratt Institute in NYC, is leading the development of a next-generation research platform, SoundingBox, has spoken at SXSW and TEDx, and has written a book called Emotionally Intelligent Design.

Toptal Design Talks with Pamela Pavilscak

Hello Pamela, thank you for joining us on the Toptal Design Blog.

Could you tell us… what is emotionally intelligent design?

I think we’ve paid a lot of attention to the functional layer of technology. Emotionally intelligent design is privileging the emotional layer of design. Not simply evoking emotion, but also looking at emotion in all its forms as we experience technology.

From your research on happiness in technology, what do you see as the leading causes of unhappiness, such as addictions, etc.?

What keeps coming up over and over again is that people feel like certain emotions are amplified when they’re using technology. We all tend to talk about our experience with technology in terms of attention. “It’s taking up too much time.” “It’s distracting me.” “It’s pulling me away from other things that I might want to be doing.” But when you move past that layer, underneath are the negative emotions that we feel. And a lot of times, they aren’t subtle. They can be really strong, negative emotions, like anger, frustration or depression.

I think the mental health toll that technology is taking is a real one, and something we need to begin paying more attention to as designers.

How does living with technology affect our well being? Can we use technology to make us happier? “Happiness” being a relative term, of course…

When we talk about happiness in terms of design, we often focus on that peak moment—a little pop of delight or a moment of joy. Those are great when they happen, but as humans, we have these natural adaptations that cause us to get used to things—then they’re no longer exciting, or enjoyable, or simply as delightful anymore. It’s called hedonic adaptation.

But we certainly have big picture moments of happiness with technology—those moments that strike awe into us. It happens at the connection between people, or at the immensity of an experience. It’s those moments of communion where everyone feels like they’re together.

An example is the solar eclipse of 2017 when communities were formed that brought together really positive feelings. So the potential is certainly there, and it goes beyond, say, making things convenient, efficient, or productive.

So it’s really about connecting and sharing joyful moments with people where we could use technology to make us happier?

Yes, I think there’s a sense of communion and community—that we’re in it together. Creativity is where I see a lot of happiness for people. And I mean everyday creativity, like remixing other people’s ideas, putting together an awesome playlist, or making something to share with somebody else.

That’s where a lot of that happiness comes in, and where we could try to cultivate more of it. It’s more authentic participation than just going through the motions and getting stuff done.

So technology… More like an enabler?


Design Talks: Quote about emotional design of technology by Pamela Pavliscak

Could you talk about the distinction between emotionally intelligent design and design that could be called “manipulative” under the banner of “persuasive design”?

That’s a really interesting question because what we’ve seen in the past few years is the popularity of persuasive design, and a lot of it operates on emotion, right?

You start with a negative emotion. Sometimes it’s not that bad of a negative emotion—maybe it’s not anger, maybe it’s just boredom. Then you solve that emotion or make it better for a little while, but you use variable rewards.

You never know when it’s going to get better, and that’s what keeps people coming back. What happens is people start feeling terrible because they don’t want to be caught in that loop. Maybe it’s not even “manipulation” at that point. Maybe it’s simply feeling awful, feeling out of control, or feeling like your emotions are getting away from you.

Then I think there’s a second level of manipulation where you’re actually trying to evoke or support emotions that people aren’t likely to want to feel or to cultivate on their own, or that only benefit the business, rather than the person. This is a tension we have throughout product design—finding that balance.

How do we balance what the business is trying to do—their goals—with these human goals? The tension is even more pronounced when we’re talking about emotion because it’s so primal and personal. It’s something we really need to take a lot of caution and care with.

In other words, tread carefully. It’s a very fine line, and it’s about balancing business needs without coming across as manipulative, or “creepy.”

Yes, and I think it’s almost bigger than that. We’ve always thought about individual needs because we talk about “the user.” But that’s usually singular. When talking about emotion, we’re forced to think about community, social awareness, and broader issues because emotions travel between us really easily. My emotion can affect somebody else’s, and then, given the network effect of a lot of our platforms and applications, that emotion can grow exponentially. In a way, it leads us to really think about the effects of technology on people as human beings.

Design Talks: Quote about designing for emotion by Pamela Pavliscak

Switching gears a little bit—for today’s designers, what are some of the practical tips for applying emotional design in order to better connect with people?

One model that I’m shifting to in my work is looking at the design of any technology, not as an experience, but more as a relationship. What do I mean by that? I mean that a relationship evolves gradually over time, and continues to grow and build. I think that’s something we’re not used to doing, and part of it is simply the limitations that we have. We’re very constrained in our design process by time, by budget, or by teams that are distributed. It’s hard, but I think we need to be looking at it as we do a relationship.

In a relationship, we have a period where we’re just starting to notice each other or getting to know each other, and then there’s building trust, and then there’s developing shared interests or shared ways of being together. Until, finally, there’s more of a give and take, and an integration where it becomes part of your life.

There are a lot of models of relationships in psychology and sociology—I think that’s something we can draw on. When we do that, it shifts the mental model we have of design in a lot of ways.

Wow. Interesting.

You didn’t know you were in a relationship with your technology, did you?

No. It’s something to keep in mind! Are there research methods and/or approaches that designers could employ while designing for emotion?

I think so. A lot of times, when I’m meeting with a team or giving a talk, people come up to me afterward and say, “You know how often we talk about emotion in our design process?” I’ll say, “Well, I’m not sure.” They say, “Never. We never do.”

One really simple thing we can all do is to start paying attention to emotion when we’re doing our research—whether that means developing a tool to capture it, or using some of the tools that are already on the market that can help you capture some of the emotional signals. I think that can be a first step in making that conscious effort.

Once we get out of research and into the design process I tend to have people go back to those relationship ideas and model a design on milestones in a relationship: big moments, moments of change, or big shifts that might occur over time. Think about how a product is getting to know you. It might be through a time when something goes wrong and then it recovers, or it might be a time when you are going through a big change and the technology is there.

Help people think in metaphors. What’s the analogy for that relationship? Is it a coach? Is it a trainer? Is it a doctor? Or is it something that grows out of one role and into another? They’re all techniques that we can easily use within our current range in design thinking techniques to build a more emotionally intelligent experience.

Design Talks: Quote about emotionally intelligent design by Pamela Pavliscak

As designers then, how do we convince clients that emotionally intelligent design and connecting with people positively is important?

I think this is an easy one in a lot of ways, though it doesn’t seem like it would be because you think to yourself—the horror of talking to clients about emotions—really uncomfortable, right?

But I guarantee that designers already have a whole unit in their organization that is charged with thinking about emotion—marketing. The marketing and branding folks are already speaking this language. They’re already speaking about the brand personality and about the emotion the product conveys. We’re just taking it to the next step as product designers.

That’s a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of designers.

Well, it won’t be designers alone. I see more teams developing past designers. They’ll collaborate with psychologists, behavioral economists, sociologists, and all kinds of other specialties so that we’re sure it’s not falling too much onto one role.

As designers, are we going to have to collaborate with a wider, broader team in the future?

Absolutely. I see this already coming as a trend in the design community and with a lot of bigger organizations. I think most of that movement is happening in the discussion around ethics, and the call for humanists being involved in the field. We have to put a stronger emphasis on psychology, sociology, and cultural studies because those are all huge components of our emotional experience in everyday life. Technology is all tangled up with that now. There’s no way around it.

Last, but not least, what is the one thing you’d like designers to know about designing products that help us live “happily” with technology?

We have a real responsibility to our communities because design silently scripts our lives and everything we do. You just need to look around you right now, wherever you are, and you’ll see that everything’s been designed. And the way it’s designed not only affects our outer world, but it affects our inner world—how we conceptualize things, how we think, and how we feel.

More about Pamela Pavliscak:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/paminthelab

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pamelapavliscak

Web: https://soundingbox.com

Her Book: Emotionally Intelligent Design: Rethinking How We Create Products

Tedx Talk: How to Live Happily in the Digital Age

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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

What is emotionally intelligent design?

While the functional layer of technology has typically been the main focus when creating digital experiences, emotionally intelligent design is the prioritization of the emotional layer of design. It’s not simply evoking emotion, but also looking at emotion in all its intricate forms as we experience technology.

What is the purpose of technology?

Technology does many things, but it should always help us be more human. It can connect us with others and create moments of communion where everyone feels like they’re in it together. Technology creates both functional and emotionally intelligent interactions.

Does technology affect health?

Certain emotions are amplified when using technology and they’re typically negative. The mental health toll that technology is taking is a real one and something we need to begin paying more attention to as designers. Technology has the potential to help us be more human—to build communities and relationships.

Does technology have a positive effect on society?

Technology can provide bigger picture moments of happiness—those moments that strike awe into us. It happens at the connection between people or at the immensity of an experience. It’s those moments of communion where everyone feels like they're in it together. Technology can build communities and relationships.

What is an engaged user?

"Engaged user" refers to a user who has engaged with your page. However, when designing interactions, there’s a tension between business goals and the goals of the user—which is heightened when emotion is involved. Designers have a real responsibility to our communities because design silently scripts our lives.