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Apps Are Getting All Emotional

Emotional design isn’t just for you and your feelings. It makes the software better too.

Apps Are Getting All Emotional
[Photo: Flickr user «davemc»]

A growing wave of apps is hoping to really get you.

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While the tech industry is often seen as more interested in engineering than emotions, some designers are aspiring to engender a more affecting user experience, and build tools for us to develop our own emotional intelligence.

One example of tech’s shift toward battling angst instead of obsessing over analytics is Emojiary, a new app that encourages you to journal daily using only emojis–by a company that embraces a feeling-based approach to design.


“There’s an interesting emerging trend around how to track your behavior, usually around physical activity,” explains Albert Lee, the founder and managing partner of the New­ York-based product studio All Tomorrows. Emojiary, Lee suggests, is more like a smartwatch but for your feelings.

In an era of social media and the quantified self, mood tracking is on the rise. There are a handful of smartphone apps designed to track your feelings, whether by asking you to input data (like MoodScope) or gathering data passively, about where you may be or the content of your Facebook posts (like Moodit). (According to one project at Rice University and Microsoft Research, app use and phone calls correlate with better moods). Affectiva, an emotion-analysis app developed at MIT that uses facial recognition to detect mood, has already been used by advertisers and marketers and may soon land on your phone. Some “mindfulness” apps, like Melon or Muse, rely on EEG-sensing headbands to monitor and track your brainwave patterns.

And already, the largest web companies are gathering data around user emotions and designing for it. Spotify can correlate a user’s mood with the kind of music they listen to, while Facebook is able to read the emotional content of users’ news feeds and tweak them accordingly, as its controversial study this year demonstrated.

When Designers Get Emotional Too

Not all emotionally designed apps are about emotions per se, the way they are in Emojiary. There’s also a larger trend of designers taking into account emotional context as a baked-in feature of a product’s design.

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Aarron Walter, the director of user experience at MailChimp, told me that his own approach to designing at MailChimp sought to address one of the most enormous stresses of the web: the feeling you get at that particular moment when you’re about to press send on a giant email campaign. In the past, he explains, “designers have just been shooting for making a usable product and not creating an emotional experience.”

That’s not enough, Walter says: “Designers shooting for useful is like a chef shooting for edible.”

And considering the competitive landscape out there, apps must go beyond usability and functionality and strive to create a compelling emotional experience.

Aarron Walter

In his 2011 book Designing for Emotion, Walter explains what he means by emotional design: design with personality that encourages empathy and a sense of connection with a human. To achieve this warmer sensibility, he suggests using cute mascots, personal idiosyncrasies, and favors layouts that use the golden ratio rather than grid-like structures.

All Tomorrows is also designing with emotions in mind, and pays a similar, holistic attention to user experience. Lee, who has a background in design and architecture–he’s worked at 2X4 and Ideo–says that at every step his studio aims to avoid stress and uncertainty and encourage engagement in their apps, and these principles inform their UX design process as well.

That design begins in the first moments of the app, in an onboarding process that aims to give the user a sense of a journey. “All spaces are experiences that have a set of flows embedded with them,” Lee says. That flow, he says, is something to be considered in app design as much as it is in IRL space.

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In designing their app to take into account the user’s emotional context, All Tomorrows is focused explicitly on a more internal and ethereal journey, in which the user gets in touch with their emotions. Lee noted that an impetus for the app was that a growing numbers of people report feeling unhappy. In both form and content, the app’s emotional design is about supporting the user.

Image via All Tomorrows

For Emojiary, this means encouraging users to reflect on how they’re feeling. In their qualitative research, which involved a lot of listening, talking to people in their living rooms and at their kitchen tables and hearing their stories, Lee and his team found that even this simple exercise made people feel guilty. “We heard that emotions were perceived as self-­indulgent,” said Lee. “People would say, ‘Me spending time thinking about what I’m feeling, that just seems so luxurious.’”

In a culture that too often privileges analyzing Pew studies over blue feelings, and numbers to the point of numbness, emojis have emerged as a kind of pictorial protest. From Emoji-only chat apps and social networks to the bootleg Emoji Beyonce “Drunk In Love” music videos, it’s clear these 2.0-era hieroglyphics strike a chord with people, and according to a New York magazine’s reporter’s anecdotal research, they’re popular not just among teens and tweens, but moms and dads too. They give us the nuances we have in IRL communication with body language that are often lost in text-only talk.

Lee noted that during beta testing and surveys, users found traditional journaling much more daunting than expressing themselves with emojis. (Britain’s National Health Service recently began promoting similar, emotion-recording apps .) It makes sense that for the emotionally- stunted or ­shamed–and for most modern humans, really–smiley faces and cartoons of shrimp tempura can sometimes seem like an easier way to engage with complex feelings than translating them into words.

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Albert Lee of All Tomorrows

Historically, a culture of self­-reflection has been restricted to a certain class. “Therapy’s extremely expensive,” notes Lee. And although Emojiary is not a clinical tool, it can be a helpful habit. And thanks to a small group of angel investors, Emojiary doesn’t cost a cent. “Technology gives us the ability to provide tools that are supportive to as broad a population as possible,” says Lee.

Free downloads aside, the end goal of a lot of emotional design is still profit. For all the warm fuzzy feels, it can still make you cold hard cash. Walter points to Apple as the best illustration of a company that’s been wildly successful with its designs that are very human and encourage users to see themselves in their products. The pulsing light on their laptops and desktops, for example, is designed to mimic the breathing rate of an average human at rest.

“I feel like there’s a great opportunity for designers right now to think about the emotional context and design something that makes the user feel like they are interacting with a human on the other end,” says Walter, “and not just a computer.”

The more worldly benefits of using emotional design can feel really good. “There are a number of companies that are doing that really well and they reap the benefits,” he adds, not needing to name names. “They make a shit-­ton of money.”