Design and emotion (or One BHAG to rule them all)

May 5th, 2010

Last week I got a tweet from a friend with the following wording:

The fact that you can put the BBC player’s volume right up to 11 still makes me smile every time.1

The tweet immediately caught my eyes as a perfect example of many of the things I’ve been reading about lately concerning emotion and design.

There’s a lot more to this ‘gimmick’ than the ‘buzz’ created around the brand (and the backlinks) when users discuss this feature.

In his book Designing Pleasurable Products: An Introduction to the New Human Factors Patrick Jordan proposes a hierarchy of consumer needs, based on the idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that contains three layers. Starting with Functionality (at the most basic level the product needs the functionality to help the user reach her goal) through Usability (help the user reach her goal easily) and ending in Pleasure.

Building on the idea of a hierarchy of needs Jordan argues that once we’ve gotten used to usable products we’ll soon want something more. “…products that are not merely tools but ‘living objects’ that people can relate to; products that bring not only functional benefits but also emotional ones.

Essentially, what BBC have managed to create (albeit small) is what Jordan would call a pleasurable interaction2. And on top of that it seems a safe (and easy) bet for BBC to make. No need to justify the ‘feature’ with an NPV and the politics of getting it through a product council. Just make it go to 11. Users who get the reference get a pleasurable moment of interaction and for users who don’t there’s no negative impact.

There’s an increasing interest in the HCI community in the correlation between emotion and perceived usability, sometimes referred to as emotional usability3. It’s possible that the positive emotions evoked in the user will actually make her forgive shortcomings in the product4. I think the iPhone is a perfect example of this. An old blog post on the Creating Passionate Users blog entitled iPhone and the Dog Ears User Experience Model gives a couple of examples of how the designers of the iPhone have managed to infuse emotion into the product.

Other justifications aside, if we as Interaction Designers can make a user smile everytime she uses a product, that’s a hell of a goal to reach for. One BHAG to rule them all.


  1. For readers unfamiliar with the excellent heavy metal band bio mocumentary Spinal Tap, the tweet is referring to a scene in which one of the band members is showing off his custom amplifier:
  2. Jordan sets up a framework of four pleasures to consider when designing products. The pleasurable interaction I describe here would fall under the psycho-pleasure heading that includes “emotional reactions engendered through experiencing the product”.
  3. See the Emotional usability post on Morten Müller’s Look on the bright side blog for an excellent overview on emotional usability
  4. Aarron Walter talks about this in his An Event Apart 2010 talk “Emotional Interface Design”

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