Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Evocative Balance: Designing for Interactional Empowerment

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Evocative Balance: Designing for Interactional Empowerment

Article excerpt


Camilla is a 42-year-old single woman living in a suburb of Stockholm from where she commutes to her work in the city centre. She has recently separated from her husband, a life-changing event, causing practical problems as well as emotional distress. Camilla has come to question more than one aspect of her everyday life choices. In this difficult situation, she feels a need to engage more deeply in reflecting on her life and her emotional reactions, perhaps even make some small changes to her life. At this point, she happens to come in contact with the system Affective Health, which makes use of biosensors to reflect some of her bodily emotional reactions over time back to her in a mobile app. The visual representations of the emotional bio-data on the phone are designed to trigger recollections of what she has experienced recently, but at the same time provide openings for her to start thinking and interpreting what she sees in new ways.

The system offers enough cues for her to connect sensed emotional reactions to specific situations and reflect upon them, thus helping her towards a more mindful approach when thinking about or interacting with her ex-husband. She looks back at a situation that occurred recently (see Figure 1) where she was sitting on the subway train talking to a friend:

[..] and here it was quite interesting, because I walked to the subway, that you can see here. It was right about here we started to talk about these very emotional heavy things [referring to her relationship with her ex-husband] and then all of a sudden I became very red. I became like this a couple of times. It is typical for this emotionally engaging stuff. And then when we kind of ended it, I became very blue again, and I managed to let go of the whole thing!

[Figure omitted, see PDF]

Figure 1. Affective Health interface: The continuous measurements of skin conductance, pulse and movement are presented in a spiral form with the most recent data in the middle and history spiralling outwards. The resulting visual representation is legible to the user in the sense of recalling specific situations and forming the basis for interpretations.

The key to this design is the use of colour and shape elements forming a whole, a Gestalt that represents Camilla's recent bodily-emotional experiences in a way that is conducive to recollection, but open enough to accommodate individual interpretation. Our aim is to help users reflect on their everyday experiences and perhaps deal with issues and discover possibilities in their lives. What the vignette shows is how Camilla's interaction with the system strikes a dynamic balance between familiarity and openness. The interaction is evocative in the dual sense that it evokes the recent event of talking about her past relationship and it evokes interpretations, perhaps the formation of new intentions about letting go of the whole thing.

The system that Camilla uses in the vignette--Affective Health--is one of our design experiments within affective interaction where we have devoted significant effort to users' ability to reflect, express themselves and engage in profound meaning-making. We call this overall direction Interactional Empowerment and have found repeatedly that the balance between evoking the familiar and evoking the new is an experiential quality that plays a key role in determining the success of our designs.

Affective interaction is a relatively new field (Boehner, DePaula, Dourish, & Sengers, 2005, 2007; Höök, Ståhl, Sundström, & Laaksolaahti, 2008) that has recently spawned a wave of explorative research. In a typical affective interaction system, users express themselves in various ways, sometimes using gestures or bio-sensors picking up on the physical, corporeal side of emotional experience. This input is then transformed into expressions or interactions where users interpret, make sense of and sometimes re-shape what the system picked up as part of the system functionality. …

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