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Challenges of Designing HCI for Negative Emotions

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  • Center for Democracy and Technology

Abstract and Figures

Emotions that are perceived as “negative” are inherent to the human experience. Yet not much work in the field of HCI has looked into the role of these emotions in interaction with technology. As technology is becoming more social, personal and emotional by mediating our relationships and generating new social entities (such as conversational agents and robots), it is valuable to consider how it can support people’s negative emotions and behaviors. Research in Psychology shows that interacting with negative emotions correctly can benefit well-being, yet the boundary between helpful and harmful is delicate. This workshop paper looks at the opportunities of designing for negative affect, and the challenge of “causing no harm” that arises in an attempt to do so.
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Challenges of Designing HCI
for Negative Emotions
Michal Luria
Human-Computer Interaction
Institute
Carnegie Mellon University
mluria@cs.cmu.edu
Amit Zoran
School of Computer Science and
Engineering
Hebrew University
zoran@cs.huji.ac.il
Jodi Forlizzi
Human-Computer Interaction
Institute
Carnegie Mellon University
forlizzi@cs.cmu.edu
Abstract
Emotions that are perceived as “negative” are inherent in
the human experience. Yet not much work in the field of
HCI has looked into the role of these emotions in interac-
tion with technology. As technology is becoming more so-
cial, personal and emotional by mediating our relationships
and generating new social entities (such as conversational
agents and robots), it is valuable to consider how it can sup-
port people’s negative emotions and behaviors. Research
in Psychology shows that interacting with negative emo-
tions correctly can benefit well-being, yet the boundary be-
tween helpful and harmful is delicate. This workshop paper
looks at the opportunities of designing for negative affect,
and the challenge of “causing no harm” that arises in an
attempt to do so.
CCS Concepts
Human-centered computing Interaction design the-
ory, concepts and paradigms; User centered design;
Interaction design process and methods;
Author Keywords
HCI; negative emotions; affect; catharsis;
cathartic objects; destruction
Introduction & Theoretical Background
Negative emotions and behaviors are an inevitable aspect
of people’s lives. Although people tend to avoid them due to
their unpleasantness, research in Psychology has recently
shown that correctly engaging in negative expressions,
such as anger, sadness or shame, can be important for our
social relationships and for our own mental health [11].
As technology is becoming more personal and more so-
cial, it is critical to take into account how it might integrate
negative emotions in interaction. Instead of attempting to
immediately improve them or ignoring them altogether, in-
teraction designers might consider embracing them in the
interactions they design.
Technology is often designed to support positive emotions,
yet it is not very common to encounter technology that
helps people engage with emotions of sadness, anger or
loneliness (as opposed to resolving them). This could be
explained in part by the fact that happiness is frequently
perceived as an important value to aspire to [9]. In addition,
people tend to feel aversion towards negative emotions and
believe that “bad” emotions are bad for you [5, 3].
Thus, it is not surprising that the design of technology re-
flects similar values and proposes to bring people together,
make people happier, or help them be more productive and
efficient. This is especially true for technology designed by
industry. In addition to the natural human tendency to avoid
negative emotions, they can undermine economic goals,
which makes them even less desirable.
Aversion towards negative emotions is not ubiquitous, how-
ever. The philosophy of Wabi-Sabi accepts that nothing is
even perfect, permanent or complete, and sees the beauty
in broken things [7]. Buddhists engage in the destruction of
sand mandalas to emphasize the transience of life [2]. More
recently established rituals, such as the burning ritual at the
culmination of the Burning Man festival, also illustrate the
acceptance of destructive urges.
As technology gains a central role in shaping everyday life
and is becoming increasingly social, perhaps there is a de-
sign space for interaction with social and personal negative
emotions. However, due to its sensitivity, this space also
introduces new challenges for HCI designers.
Designing Negative Emotion Interactions
Designing for negative affect includes two significant chal-
lenges: (1) selecting a negative emotion and creating ap-
propriate prototypes, and (2) engaging participants in inter-
actions that are intended to surface this negative emotion.
These challenges raise an ethical question—can designers
and researchers explore and understand interactions in this
design space while making sure they do not cause harm?
Challenge 1: Designing for Negative Emotions
The designer must consider several aspects of negative
affect when choosing a specific topic for design. Nega-
tive expressions of emotion range from more destructive
ones, such as anger, to ones that are simply unpleasant,
like embarrassment. Each emotion has its own spectrum of
severity. For instance, anger can be empowering, but can
also be dangerous [6]. The boundary between constructive
and destructive designs can be very delicate, and is likely
to vary from one person to another. Designers can build on
research in psychology to design artifacts as responsibly
as possible. Still, there is relatively little knowledge on the
topic, and even less about how to design for it.
Challenge 2: Evaluating Negative Emotions
Once the prototype is complete, it is common for designers
to evaluate the effectiveness of their design. Yet design-
ing for negative affect implies negative user emotions will
(a) Object 1 (b) Object 2 (c) Object 3 (d) Object 4
Figure 1: Cathartic Objects. Four objects that were designed for interactive expression of negative emotion through slow, reflective, forceful or
verbal cathartic interactions.
be involved, which might be enough to evoke the concern
of academic institutional review boards. It is not very com-
mon for HCI researchers to promote negative emotions,
and therefore it is unlikely to be approved for human-subject
research. Even if approved, the researcher risks harming
participants, or being denounced by the HCI research com-
munity for attempting to explore negative affect.
Case Study: Cathartic Objects
Cathartic Objects explores the notion of interactive proto-
types to support cathartic needs and behaviors. The orig-
inal theory of catharsis argued that venting negative emo-
tions can have a positive effect on one’s mental state, as
opposed to “bottling it up inside” [1]. Although findings that
confirm or refute this theory have been inconclusive, the
idea of catharsis persists in people’s beliefs in both histori-
cal and modern day expressions. Recent studies have also
shown that venting can improve perceptions of fairness [8]
and can help relieve physical pain [12]. Building on previ-
ous research and through an iterative design process, we
designed four prototypes for catharsis that enable physical
and vocal expression of negative affect (see Fig. 1).
Object 1 senses when it is poked with a sharp object. It re-
sponds in side-to-side gestures that signal it has absorbed
the pain. When too many objects are inserted, it continues
shaking until everything is removed, to encourage comple-
tion of a catharsis cycle.
Object 2 allows the user to verbally express frustration
through cursing. The object recognizes cursing words, “ab-
sorbs” them, and “re-purposes” them as light energy.
Object 3 is a doll-like prototype that laughs in an irritating
way when it senses the user is angry. Its goal is to encour-
age the user to physical express their emotional state using
the doll. As the user hits the soft prototype against some-
thing, it stops laughing and re-evaluates the user’s need for
additional catharsis.
Object 4 allows the user to create a personalized message,
and then to destroy it. The user inscribes a ceramic tile and
inserts it into the object to destroy with a hammer. As a re-
sult, the tile breaks and triggers a sequence of expressive
light and sound, but is kept inside the object. The object
allows the user to address a specific source of frustration
without doing harm, and to use the artifact to document and
reflect on their cathartic action.
Challenge 1: Designing for Catharsis
The first challenge was to research the topic of catharsis
and to accordingly design artifacts that would be appropri-
ate for that goal. We designed four Cathartic Objects that
allow a variety of emotional expressions—verbal, physi-
cal (forceful and gentle) and reflective—and that react in
sound, light and movement. Although we drew on theoret-
ical background, we also had to make design judgments
about the implementation, as frequently necessary in a de-
sign process [4]. For example, what seem to be the bound-
aries of interaction that allow catharsis to be beneficial, and
not harmful. Or, what is the set of diverse prototypes that
would support nuanced needs of venting. Due to the sen-
sitivity of the topic, the iterative design process was not in-
formed by pilots, but constrained to our own experiences.
Challenge 2: Evaluating Catharsis
In the case of this project, it was not possible to simply tran-
sition to a standard evaluation process. Participants would
be required to engage in negative emotions, and the ben-
efits from doing so cannot be promised. Thus, it is unlikely
that Cathartic Objects can be evaluated in a human-subject
study due to expected barriers in approval, recruitment, and
ethical implications. The methodology planned for evalua-
tion of this work is therefore an auto-ethnographical study.
One of the researchers will critically engage with the proto-
types over an extended period of time, and would then an-
alyze and report on their personal experiences [10]. While
this method may not be ideal, it might be the safest way to
do so given the sensitivity of the research topic.
Conclusion
Negative emotions are a complex subject for most peo-
ple, and as a result, a complex topic of research. Although
psychologists show that negative affect is critical for well-
being, the fact that people commonly believe it is best to
avoid it [3] makes it difficult to research in the field of HCI.
By defining the challenges and applying them to the case-
study of Cathartic Objects, we learn that designers might
be able to rely on literature and on their own judgment to
sensibly design for negative emotions. However, evaluating
the design still carries risks, and perhaps remains limited to
auto-ethnographical research for the time being.
Acknowledgments
This project was supported in part by funding from the
Carnegie Mellon University Frank-Ratchye Fund For Art
@ the Frontier.
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Listening to negative emotions: How culture constrains what we hear. The positive side of negative emotions
  • N Ye Chentsova-Dutton
  • A G Senft
  • Ryder
YE Chentsova-Dutton, N Senft, and AG Ryder. 2014. Listening to negative emotions: How culture constrains what we hear. The positive side of negative emotions. New York: Guilford Press. Google Scholar (2014).
What should we expect from research through design
  • William Gaver
William Gaver. 2012. What should we expect from research through design?. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems. ACM, 937-946.
Anger is a positive emotion
  • Ursula Hess
Ursula Hess. 2014. Anger is a positive emotion. New York: Guilford Press.
Wabi sabi: The Japanese art of impermanence
  • Andrew Juniper
Andrew Juniper. 2011. Wabi sabi: The Japanese art of impermanence. Tuttle Publishing.
Gaining empathy for non-routine mobile device use through autoethnography
  • Aisling Ann
  • O' Kane
  • Yvonne Rogers
  • Ann E Blandford
Aisling Ann O'Kane, Yvonne Rogers, and Ann E Blandford. 2014. Gaining empathy for non-routine mobile device use through autoethnography. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 987-990.