XXI.1 January - February 2014
Page: 40
Digital Citation

Designing people


As HCI progresses from information design to experience design, from inelegant artifacts to ambient intelligence, we must strive to understand the interaction of technology with the body, affect, and social cognition. A major current task of experience design is to identify the relevant parameters for particular types of experiences, such as those based on communicating closeness. This means better understanding certain codes or metaphors (e.g., “We are one”) that tap the everyday background knowledge and experiences of people [1]. As design expands from visuals to interactions to experiences, the craft of HCI is an increasingly complicated and important one; the field’s practitioners should be conscious of, and conscientious about, this evolution.


The goals of experience design in the current marketplace generally revolve around ease, enjoyment, entertainment, and (occasionally) education. Technology design and development is of course largely driven by the anticipated return on investment, which then leads to products that appeal to the largest number of buyers (rather than people) while also supporting the dominant cultural paradigm.

Take, for example, the Virtuix Omni (virtuix.com), a virtual reality treadmill now available on Kickstarter. While the website states that “applications of natural movement in virtual reality stretch far beyond gaming,” judging from the current applications and demos, its raison d’être is to provide an immersive experience as a first-person shooter. While arguments may be made that this benefits neither the individual nor society, and counter-arguments may be made that it’s just for fun (for cryin’ out loud), I propose that it diverts attention from the true potential of experience design.

Two recent news stories come to mind that illustrate how the application of experience design could have a positive, even life-saving, effect on individual lives. One appeared on the front page of the July 21, 2013 Des Moines Register and chronicled how a state-run juvenile home confined teenage girls to small isolation cells for months at a time. The home acknowledged that it relies too heavily on the use of seclusion as a method of behavioral control—a method that creates severe risks such as serious injury and death. The home has also tried to control behavior with denial of classroom instruction, in apparent violation of the law.

These children are foster kids, not criminals, who were isolated due to their exhibiting self-harming behavior and/or verbal aggression. These children, in dire need of therapy, are instead subjected to conditions that worsen their problems; existing disabilities are exacerbated and new disabilities are created by the “experience” of isolation. If their disabilities were physical, such a deviation in treatment, resulting in negative outcomes, would be unthinkable. But rather than medical procedures, per se, they need certain experiences to move toward healing. Certainly HCI and experience design have something to offer.

The other story appeared in the June 24, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, about Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist monk who has achieved some positive outcomes in confronting Japan’s suicide culture. Occasionally he takes groups of suicidal people to popular suicide spots; at other times he conducts death workshops for the suicidal. His techniques include imagining one’s impending death and entering the world of the dead. He has struggled with the overwhelming number of people who come to him for help. It is likely that such life-changing experiences can be made available to more people with the use of technology.



Experience Design for Positive Outcomes

Let’s look at some examples of designing experiences to produce therapeutic outcomes with the use of haptics. Touch is essential to our well-being, and medical science is consequently developing therapies to incorporate haptics into the treatment of conditions such as autism spectrum and mood, anxiety, and borderline disorders [2]. For example, autistic patients often respond positively to application of weighted vests and blankets, which prevent or ameliorate crisis states or panic attacks.

Additionally, a number of computer-mediated therapies are showing promise in the treatment of mental problems because of such therapies’ capacity to enrich patient-therapist collaboration. In this vein, prototype haptic devices such as Touch Me and Squeeze Me are based on existing touch therapy protocols and the availability of robust haptic technologies [2]. Such devices may augment patient-therapist connection but are not meant to replace human touch, instead offering patients some of the benefits of touch “on a personalized basis without the risks associated with direct touch” [2]. Also, some sensory-defensive patients can be overwhelmed by human contact, and thus such devices can be an important alternative. These developments in HCI suggest the pairing of a haptic device with a computer mediation or video intervention, a situation with which I experimented for my thesis, “Synchronous Haptic Experience and Self-Other Boundaries in Human Computer Interaction.”

Embodying Metaphors in Experience Design

Earlier I mentioned that metaphors like “We are one” draw on the everyday knowledge and experiences of people. For my thesis I sought to take this metaphoric “overlap” between self and other (which is well covered in the literature) and test it experimentally. My study was based on evidence that many metaphors are grounded in bodily experiences, and that consequently the ways in which we conceptualize, reason about, or visualize our experiences are influenced by the sensorimotor domain [3].

Indeed, numerous studies have demonstrated that simple body-based manipulations, such as facial expression, posture, or movement, can causally influence the processing of emotional information [4]. With regard to the social world as well, our cognitive representations are not amodal but rather fundamentally connected with actions that our bodies perform, and these actions consequently inform our concepts, language, and thinking.

For example, in their study of synchrony and cooperation, Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath [5] had participants walk in step in the experimental condition and walk normally in the control condition. They then asked the question: “How connected did you feel with the other participants during the walk?” Participants in the synchronous condition reported feeling more connected with their counterparts than those in the asynchronous condition.

My experiment examined a passive rather than active synchronous event: the difference between participants sharing versus not sharing a haptic experience with an actor in a video (see Figure 1). The haptic device was a Brookstone neck and shoulder massager. Each of the 48 participants was assigned to one of four conditions: either wearing or not wearing the device while watching the actor in the video as she conveyed that the device was making her either energized or calm. Among the measures was an interpersonal closeness scale. One of my hypotheses was that participants who shared the haptic experience with the actor would feel greater interpersonal closeness with her.

In fact, the most notable result of my study occurred in the condition in which participants shared the haptic experience with the actor while watching her convey energy. Participants rated their feelings of interpersonal closeness to the actor both before and after the video, reporting a significant increase. Interestingly, in this condition there was also a statistically significant increase in participants reporting a feeling of calmness.

Returning to the intervention of weighted vests and blankets discussed earlier, perhaps modifying such an intervention with an HCI element like a shared haptic experience, as in my experiment, would make this intervention more effective. Results of my study suggest that a shared haptic experience with an energetic person in a video (which perhaps may be generalized to an avatar or a virtual agent) increases feelings of interpersonal closeness while also increasing feelings of calmness. If an increase in interpersonal closeness (or perhaps empathy) as well as calmness were goals of a given therapy, then such shared haptic experience would be an appropriate piece of the interaction design for a novel HCI-based therapy. With regard to an intervention involving a therapist, there may be benefits to the patient-therapist connection if the patient were to observe the therapist (real or virtual) simultaneously experiencing the haptic intervention.

HCI: In Sickness and in Health, Till Death do US Part

“Behavior changes as a function of experience”—William Uttal stated this in reference to tests of learning, but it is also true in a much broader sense [6]. That is, as we move through our days, we morph as a function of what those days contain—what we do, what we see, and the interactions and the experiences we have. Human development is a cradle-to-grave process. As technological design becomes more ubiquitous and more sophisticated, experience designers must take their jobs with increasing seriousness. Not only are we designing experiences, but we are also designing outcomes, shaping behaviors as well as the people doing the behaving.

Ease, enjoyment, entertainment, education—these are all outcomes with mass appeal. But understanding how sensorimotor experiences affect emotion and cognition, and how metaphors may be put to use in designing experiences, is a deeper piece of the puzzle. Experience design also has the potential to offer outcomes to users that are life-changing and life-affirming. HCI practitioners increasingly have opportunities to elevate their craft and create positive change.

We are not just designing human-computer interactions but also designing society as a whole: What kind of society do we want? Currently there are plenty of opportunities for privileged gamers to be first-person shooters. But we can also think about designing interactions for people who need particular experiences to improve their lives. While the examples I provided relate to individuals in need of particular experiences to move from illness to wellness, it is also wise to look at the needs of society in relation to the products and games and experiences our field offers to the masses. How might our society be described as sick or well? As HCI practitioners, we are doing more than responding to the dominant cultural paradigm: We are also shaping it.


1. Streitz, N., Magerkurth, C., Prante, T., and Rocker, C. From information design to experience design: Smart artefacts and the disappearing computer. Interactions 12, 4 (2005), 21–25. doi:10.1145/1070960.1070979

2. Vaucelle, C., Bonanni, L., and Ishii, H. Design of haptic interfaces for therapy. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2009, 467–470.

3. Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books, 1999.

4. Winkielman, P., Niedenthal, P.M., and Oberman, L.M. Embodied perspective on emotion-cognition interactions. In Mirror Neuron Systems. J.A. Pineda, ed. Humana Press, 2009, 235–257. doi:10.1007/978-1-59745-479-7

5. Wiltermuth, S.S. and Heath, C. Synchrony and cooperation. Psychological Science 20, 1 (2009), 1–5. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02253.x

6. Uttal, W.R. The Immeasurable Mind: The Real Science of Psychology. Prometheus Books, 2007.


Norene Kelly is a Ph.D. student in human-computer interaction at Iowa State University. She recently taught Models and Theories in HCI and has a wide range of interests in the field, all of which share a focus on “the human.” nbkelly@iastate.edu


F1Figure 1. Actor in video in thesis experiment.


The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2014 ACM, Inc.

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