Negative emotions for positive experiences

Since the late 1990s, designers and design researchers have begun to investigate how products elicit emotions in users and how they could use emotions to improve the user experience of products. It seems evident that designers should aim to maximize positive user emotions and minimize negative user emotions. However, if we look at some examples of enjoyable human experiences, we quickly realize that this assumption is not always true. People who ride rollercoasters, play challenging video games, or listen to downbeat music are experiencing fear, frustration, and sadness, respectively, but are also enjoying themselves. In my PhD-project I have focused on such experiences – named ‘rich experiences’ – and investigated how these can be systematically designed into consumer products and services.

The project resulted in several deliverables. It produced a theoretical framework that explains the phenomenon of rich experience, the contribution of negative emotion in this experience and the conditions under which negative emotions can be enjoyed. To support this framework, I created a negative emotion database of indepth information, videos, and illustrations for 36 distinct emotions. The framework and the database are resources for a a design approach that guides designers in creating rich experiences for any user product or service. This approach was followed in several design case studies with in total sixty design students and a professional designer, who used the approach to design dozens of products and services. Lastly, I applied the approach in a research- through-design approach and created a wearable prototype that motivate runners.

PhD Exploration

Steven Fokkinga
Pieter Desmet (Promotor)
Paul Hekkert (Promotor)

The designed product was ‘Run for your life’, a device intended to be worn by runners, which tracks their progress and evokes fear emotions to motivate them to run longer and faster. Through visual, auditory and tactile feedback, it gives the runner the impression that she is being chased by something. A versatile prototype was built that could run a number of different scenarios and feedback modes. With this prototype, eleven amateur runners were recruited to use the prototype in a total of 26 runs and were afterwards interviewed about their experiences. The prototype was optimized between sessions based on the results. This process yielded insights on the design process of this particular product, as well as on the development of rich experience products in general. One main insight was that there were roughly three ways to elicit (fear) emotions in the user-product interaction: through hard-wired stimuli (e.g., loud bangs), by association (e.g., viciously barking dogs), and through socalled ‘appraisal components’ (e.g., the predictability of the pursuer). Secondly, the study showed that the effects of different aspects of the design on the user experience (e.g., the effects of the sound, images, and behavior of the pursuer) can only be described and predicted in relation to one another. The chapter describes a way to make these relations explicit. The third main insight was that the effectiveness of the product depended a great deal on the running styles and preferences of the participants. Three participants found that the prototype did not fit their running style. Three other participants mainly wanted to increase their running performance, and liked how the prototype helped them do that. Lastly, four participants mainly wanted to have a better running experience and found that the prototype made running more exciting. 

This innovative project broke new ground in our assumptions of what constitutes a good user experience. I employed both design and research methods to explore how this principle applied to the interactions between users and technology. Because the project had an exploratory nature, I was able to use a lot of different methods: phenomenological research, theoretical frameworking, case studies with designers, stimulus validation, research-through-design, and prototype testing. Thus, the activities in this project gives a broad overview of the different types of research that can be employed in the design engineering domain.