Thursday, May 19, 2005


personality and situation in emotional design

At present the field of emotional design takes a simple view of the relationship between a design, and the emotions associated with the design. Most researchers start with the idea that objects will elicit certain emotions, and that these emotions are uniform from person to person. However, the research trying to demonstrate this relationship is not always clear-cut. I believe that some of the assumptions are flawed. People aren't uniform in how they react emotionally to an object. Moreover, individuals aren't even consistent themselves in their feelings.

Emotional design research would surely profit from looking that the explorations, and difficulties, of research done 30 or 40 years ago in the field known as environmental psychology. Environmental psychology looks at how people react to their environment. The field was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, then began to flounder. Since the main research was long before the Internet, it seems to escape attention from design researchers today.

What environmental psychologists wanted to understand is, why some people like the countryside, and other people like cities? Such questions are perhaps analogous to certain emotional design questions, such as: why some people like candy-colored objects while others prefer matt black ones? The question noted that people had preferences, but that they differed in these preferences.

One camp in environmental psychology wanted to explain preferences with reference to personality. Someone named McKechnie developed an environmental personality test, which rated one's need for privacy, desire to seek stimulation, and preference for pastoralism. Other people noted that people reacted differently to certain environmental factors such as noise, and that these differences might be based on personality.

While grouping people by preferences was a start, it still didn't provide conclusive answers to what different people wanted. It seems that people's preferences would change over time. This preference change is a bugaboo of personality assessment. Researchers and subjects alike want to believe personality is stable (one looks flaky otherwise.) But researchers started to wonder if preferences were at least partly situation-dependent. My preference for the countryside might rise if I've been city-bound too long, though I might generally not like country-living.

I think the findings of environmental psychology point to the need of emotional design to move away from an object-focused orientation. The formula "cool stuff = smiling people" is the logic of advertising, but isn't the reality of people. So let's not get carried away by the likely reaction to a Starck juicer. Only some people will like it, on some days.

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