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hen have we, in the history of humanity, not talked about love? This famed feeling has been materialized in a number of ways, from being sculpted in ancient civilizations, to being written into heart wrenching poems, and built into artificial intelligence in memory of loved ones (Replika [1]). As the magic potion to all of our ailments, it seems we have chosen to live our entire lifespans actively searching for love as the Minotaur of Greek mythology desperately sought for the exit of his intricate labyrinth. As designer myself, I can’t help but wonder: is it possible to rein in these powerful feelings to design for the greater good? There is no denying the effects of design in our emotions and behavior and it should not come as a surprise that we strive for users to fall in love with our products, services, experiences or brands. So we work to engage them as we would new partners in the honeymoon phase of a budding relationship. However, life has taught us love isn’t just a happy-go-lucky feeling, embellished with white roses and butterflies in the stomach: there are risks involved. We must approach it carefully, as the dangers of a broken heart have proved, on occasion, to be greater than their positive counterparts.

What is love? (Oh baby, don’t hurt me)

So, can you design for love? To answer this question, we must first take on the task of deciphering what love really is. The ancient Greeks used eros, agape, and philia to refer to it: eros as the “‘love of desire,’ a response to certain features of your object of love; agape as the unconditional love which is freely given; and finally philia, in contrast with eros, is a more passive and friendly love. In a biological sense, it’s defined as a biochemical reaction in the brain, triggered by the thought or presence of our loved ones. On the other side of the spectrum, if you asked me, I would probably describe it as the involuntary smile that results from thinking of or locking eyes with the object of my affection.

Each definition mentioned before, corresponds in some way to a type or level of affection any of us have felt once in our lifetime like the fervent desire for someone’s company described as eros, the release of oxytocin when you meet up with a friend after a long time, or how a simple attachment to ice cream bathed in melted chocolate triggers a smile. Yet all in all they are manifestations of love represented by either a behavior, an expression or physiological response [2], sparked by the interaction with an object, a person or an experience.

Intrigued by what triggers love, particularly in product and experience design, I endeavored to answer this question by reminiscing about my own experiences.

Is this love (is this love, is this love) that I’m feeling?

For you to get a better idea of what I mean, I will appeal to you with a personal anecdote. A friend of mine who came to live briefly in my city, once mentioned to me how he missed playing the keyboard, as he couldn’t bring his with him. Hearing this, I organized an outing to the busiest music and instrument district to search for this Midi keyboard. Having never heard of it before and fascinated by this magical instrument, we tried store after store to inquire about it. After the fifth store, having only found a poor substitute and acknowledging defeat we went out to look for an ATM so we could pay. Along the way, I glanced at another storefront we had walked past before and nudged him to enter, in hopes of finding the treasured item. We went in, asked about the instrument, and were enthusiastically told they had one in store. For the briefest moment, I watched, in slow motion, a manifestation of love for this product in my friend’s body language at hearing the news. He turned around to face me, his eyes widened and he gave me the biggest smile: A-ha! We’d found it.

Experiencing love

These physiologic and emotional manifestations of love can be attributed to three types of experience between user and product defined by Pieter Desmet and Paul Hekkert: aesthetic experience, experience of meaning, and emotional experience. Let us explore each of these levels of interaction as they apply to my story.

Aesthetic Experience: This level of interaction refers to how we experience through our senses. This corresponds to elements of the Midi keyboard like the smooth white plastic of the keys, the rugged texture of the knobs, the smell of cardboard when you open the box or the sound of tapping your fingers on each note. At this point, the object is not linked directly to an emotional manifestation and it has not been attributed any significance.

Experience of Meaning: This level refers to the associations we make based on our own experiences.That’s why this one is more vulnerable to individual and cultural differences than the aesthetic experience. At this point, the interaction starts getting more complex. For my friend, his memories and experiences in his homecountry in Northern Europe with a keyboard had assigned meaning to the object we found. It appealed to his carefree personality and minimalistic way of life and evoked feelings of safety and peace whenever he played it. The aesthetic experience gains relevance and meaning when separate sensory experiences are bound by an association to past experiences.

Emotional Experience: Last but not least, the emotional experience is the manifestation of a group of positive or negative emotions according to significance the person attributed to the product, service or experience[3]. In our story, the widening of the eyes and creeping big smile are clear manifestations of surprise and attachment that signal that the Midi keyboard has made a positive contribution to his life: perhaps it helped him get closer to others, to express untold feelings or satisfy his creative needs. We can only reach this level of experience when our interaction elicits strong emotions in us. It’s an automatic and unconscious interpretation of what we experience that signals whether it’s either beneficial or harmful to our well-being.

And thus, emotions can be regarded as a mechanism to signal whether a product, service, brand or experience is favorable to us or not. And when we refer to favorable, we must look beyond the Darwinian definition that favorability leads us to survival and instead at how the elements of the environment we are immersed in help us achieve a greater purpose. It’s not a love at first sight experience “…but one that evolves over first impression, usage, and ownership.”[4]

Rather, love is born when the user is lured to move through all the stages of interaction and so it’s our job as designers to uncover each layer (aesthetics, past interactions, significance, etc.) in order to recreate experiences worth falling in love with while being careful not to break anyone’s heart even after engaging with them. Surely, the company that made the keyboard didn’t design it having my friend in mind or the emotional attachment that developed thanks to the connections he made upon personal experiences. Nevertheless, their act of love could turn bittersweet if, for example, they secretly recorded their users’ music without their knowledge (like some companies that overhear conversations), my friend finds out that the company is involved in some environmental scandal (therefore loses the benefits of the experience of meaning), or it some of it’s keys stopped working after a very short time of usage. The “love” for an object grows as the user moves through the stages of interaction. Therefore, our responsability lies way beyond the design of the product, experience or service for the present use, and should invest more into the future engagement to further the emotional connections with our users.

Love as a purpose

I’m sure that even throughout my writing, you’ve had to interact with my own definitions and feelings of love, as I can’t distance myself from the emotion while conveying my thoughts. Love is an experience to be reckoned with both personally and professionally. And even after getting through this first approach to tackling the challenge of designing for love, I’m still left with unanswered questions and posed with new ones to be explored. How is love sparked by individual experiences different from those experienced in a group of people? How can we continue to nurture this newborn relationship to avoid falling out of love in the future? Or what is the role of our own emotions in the process of design? Yet one thing is clear: it’s an inevitable part of the human experience and cannot be ignored in our creative work. Who knows? Your true action of love might last enough to be talked about for millennia to come.

Edited by Lina Fajardo

References

[1] https://replika.ai/

[2] Emotional Design; Application of a Research-Based Design Approach P. M. A. Desmet & R. Porcelijn & M. B. van Dijk, 2007

[3] Desmet, P. M. A., & Hekkert, P. (2007). Framework of Product Experience. International Journal of Design, 1(1), 13–23.

[4] Emotional Design; Application of a Research-Based Design Approach P. M. A. Desmet & R. Porcelijn & M. B. van Dijk, 2007

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