The Emotional Life of Objects

In the Kicker Studio office, the stereo amp that’s hooked up to our AirPort Express doesn’t like soft music. If you stream a quiet album, it stops working. You need to turn up the volume to get it to start playing again.

Now, I realize that this is probably just a technical issue, but the effect is that it gives this cheap amp the veneer of intelligence and personality. It completely changes how I think about it. The soft music issue was an annoyance until I started anthropomorphizing the amp and assigning it traits that it really doesn’t have. Now I just know it likes loud music instead of thinking it’s just a broken piece of crap.

Mental models of how things work are partially shaped by failure. When something doesn’t work, we try to figure out why. But if we can’t find an answer, it just becomes frustrating…unless we can attribute it to a personality quirk, just like we do with people. “Oh, that’s just Steve being Steve.” We’re much more forgiving if we can attribute problems to personality. You might not like the personality, but it allows you to finish the mental model in a way you otherwise can’t.

A personality implies a point of view, likes and dislikes. In short: emotion. And emotional objects simply have more resonance than those that don’t. Of course, just like I do with the fairly emotionless/utilitarian piece of plastic that is the Kicker amp, humans can attribute emotional attributes to objects anyway. But deliberately setting about to provide an emotional experience, a point of view, a voice, can be a powerful tool for designers to wield.

As we start creating the demon-haunted world by filling spaces with objects that talk to us and tell us about themselves, perhaps we should have them tell us their feelings as well.