Talking with Marco van Hout about 'emotion-driven design’

During our research about architecting happiness we discovered Marco van Hout's work. Marco is an expert in understanding, measuring and designing emotional impact in the context of products, services and interaction. He is also a co-founder of SusaGroup, an internationally renowned company known for the development and implementation of emotion measurement tools (SusaTools) and innovation and design methods for optimising the user experience and emotional impact. 

Knowing that creators seek to make an impact on user happiness, we asked Marco about happiness and emotional design. We have learned 3 things that every creator should know.

Emotional design can help you design for Happiness

What is emotional design

In the early 2000s, the design field started to focus on emotional impact. At the time, I was working on a project in Madrid and my friend Javier Cañada told me about 'Kansei Engineering' (applied interaction design) in Japan. I started to research and got in touch with Peter Desmet from Delft University (co-founder of the Institute of Positive Design)... and from there I got passionate about this topic like yourselves! Before, you had usability and ergonomics... a lot of things that touched experience, but it was never called this way. Emotional design existed even before people talked about user experience. There was some overlap in that period.
I like the topic because it's very specific. You could say that user experience is 'experiencing something related to a system', where the system is the product or the service. Experience is a very broad topic, when you say something like 'we experience the world around us continuously'. How can you pin-point something within that experience? That's what makes it hard.
And that's why I like the focus in user experience to say that there is a system, and there is a user, and everything that happens between them is the user experience. Then it becomes easier to focus.

Happiness is a broad topic

It's the same with happiness, it's also a broad topic. I think that happiness hasn't been covered yet in that area. It's really hard to say there is specific happiness between a product and a user. Happiness is a container for a lot of positive feelings, and that's a big challenge. Even in the early period, there were people talking about happiness and well-being, but they were afraid to use those words, because it was too big. 

Emotional Design is a first step when working for happiness

The relationship between happiness and emotional design is that at some point you look at emotion-driven design and notice that it's not enough. There is more to it. Emotion is focused on specific interactions or relationships. That relationship is necessary to actually evoke emotion.
With happiness you go beyond that relationship. There is not always a relationship between you and the object/system. It's more hedonic (pleasurable) in that sense. At the Institute of Positive Design of Delft University, they are trying to link positive psychology with happiness through emotions and feelings. There is a lot of room still to explore. 
For the last 4 years, positive psychology has been integrated into the design field in some parts of the world. I think that looks very promising.
We could say that emotional design is beginning to look for happiness, and positive psychology is the linking bit in between. I hope positive psychology will help us to make it more tangible, because right now we haven't been able to do it yet.

Happiness is a journey. By designing small moments of happiness, you can impact long term happiness

Long term

In emotion-driven design, it's better to look at the short term. However, if you look at the product, it has an impact in the long term because it has some characteristics that will not change. Even though you can change the interactivity a bit, in the long term the product is like a person. The personality of the product works like the personality of a person. For example: if a person complains, he's having a bad day; but when the person complains day after day, you see him as a negative person. With products it's the same. If you look at the personality of a product, it will evoke emotion many times; the product can evoke emotions of joy or sadness. If a product makes you feel sad once, then a second time and a third time, you will start saying: 'that's a depressing product'. 
So, like with a person, a product doesn't have the tendency to change a lot. You give personality characteristics to a product, and it's in that sense that you have impact on emotions in a longer term. The long term is affected, but it's hard to design for it.

Long term happiness = a good journey

If you look at well-being, understood as sustained good feeling over the time, there is a chain of things that need to work to feel good for a long period of time. The same goes for happiness. It's like a journey. You need to give to the users the right feeling continuously in order to make them feel happy. It's like a relationship: you don't have to always give the right feeling, but enough times so the other person evaluates you as a good partner. Because the more times you argue, the more you associate negative emotions with the relationship, and you are less happy about it. Again, it's the same for a product or service. A product needs to give the person the feeling that there is a positive sequence, to make users feel that the product is understanding them and that it's making them feel good. And that's the hard part, you have to actually understand the person that you are designing for, because if you don't understand the person, how do you know when is the right moment to give him or her the good feeling?  

The right moment

I ran a workshop in Bogota: the moment message and emotion workshop. We focused on the moments and the message that was perceived in the moment. It was interesting to see the moments and the right feelings in the right moment. We called that "moment appropriate values". In design, in the right moment, appropriate value is communicated for that person, so the person evaluated it as meaningful (something that makes sense). If you are able to do that in your product, you build a relationship. 

The more human a product behaves, the easier it is to build a relationship. 

Right now we are at a point where products can evolve in the relationship with users. Let's look at the Apple smart watch. Now apps learn about you, evolve with you. It's an exciting moment to design digital products that can change depending on the situation.
Now we have new possibilities to integrate digital and physical to facilitate this human touch. When a product can, somehow, touch the physical world and at the same time give you a verbal feedback, it makes it more human. And the more human it feels, the better we feel about it, or the more we can relate to it. Why? We are programmed to evaluate products or services in a way that we think it should feel human to us. And at the same time, not too human, so we can see that it's a product. In robotics they call this the "Uncanny Valley", make it human, but not so human that you feel scared about it.
It's happening with the Internet of Things too, where they learn from robotics. In the Internet of Things, the tendency is also to make things look and feel more human. But there is also a challenge there, about adding this human touch. I'm wondering how will it affect us if it's too human. I think we don't know yet. 
I'm also very critical about this quantified-self phenomenon at the moment. When there are all kinds of metrics about yourself, about how you are, about your behaviour and how you feel... I'm wondering how this will affect us and everybody around us. For example: How it will affect us that people can see our data, or that you can see others' data... data about things that you don't want to share, like feelings. Sharing our feelings is something that we do very consciously, especially in some types of environments like work. What would happen if your boss could see how you are feeling?  
Everybody talks about the opportunities of this new reality, but nobody talks about the effects on our feelings, our happiness and our well-being. 


We ended up very excited after this conversation, and we wanted to keep exploring how we can specifically design for happiness. Marco has offered to create a special innovation workshop, the Happiness Jam about Meaningful metrics for a moment to moment life next April 30. Would you like to join us? 


Beginners or general outlook on the topic:

Norman, D. (2004). Emotional Design. 
Adams, E.; van Gorp, T. (2012). Design for Emotion. Morgan Kaufmann.
Walter, A. (2011). Designing for Emotion. A book a part.
Enriching (2012). Design & Emotion Society
Sahwney, R. (2010) Predictable Magic. FT Press.
Jordan, P. (2007) Designing Pleasurable Products.

More advanced or academic

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow.
Cialdini, R. (2006) Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion
Fog, B. (2003). Persuasive Technology 
Hassenzahl, M. (2010). Experience Design. 

The Uncanny Valley