How Technology Can Create and Leverage Emotions: Insights for Marketing

Clifford Nass - How technology can create and leverage emotions: Insights for marketingStanford University professor Clifford Nass died on November 2, 2013. Earlier this year, he shared his pioneering research on human-technology interactions with the MSI community.

In 2002, a car company developed a system to monitor and warn drivers about their driving performance. It seemed like a great idea, but a simulation of a driver using the system produced a spiral of criticism, anger, and worsening performance that ended with him smashing into another car. Clearly, the monitoring system had said the wrong thing.

“People respond to technology with the same social rules and expectations they use in human interactions,” explains Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, who spoke at MSI’s Feb. 19-20, 2013 conference, Beyond the Product: Designing Customer Experiences. As director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab at Stanford University, Nass has studied human-computer interactions in hundreds of experimental and real-world settings.

In the Handbook of Human-Computer Interaction, Nass and coauthor Scott Brave reviewed the “psychology and technology” of emotion to uncover the concepts most relevant to the design and assessment of interactive systems. For marketers operating in a digital environment, it is full of relevant insights:

  • One of the most important effects of emotion is that it captures attention. This can be used advantageously, as when a beep alerts a user, or it can be distracting, as when a user experiences frustration that impedes their progress. An interface that can detect emotional states can regulate negative ones—encouraging users to work on a different task or to take a break, for example.
  • One of the most common interface design mistakes is to leave the user in a state of uncertainty, since users tend to fear the worst. Providing users with immediate feedback reduces uncertainty.
  • In an anomalous situation (file error, inability to recognize input, crash), the Web interface would do better to blame itself—and apologize—than to lead the user to surmise that he/she or fate is to blame for the error.
  • Emotion in interfaces can be contagious. “For example, a character that exhibits excitement when an online product appears can make users feel more excited.”
  • Emotion can be biased by memories and past experiences: an interface that proved frustrating in the past may elicit frustration even before the user begins working with it.
  • Sentiments—overall likes and dislikes—will also influence a user’s emotion. An app that users like can do no wrong, while a disliked app elicits anger no matter what. Sentiments aren’t necessarily created by direct experience—they may be based on stereotypes or generalizations—and they can persist indefinitely, leading to a propensity to seek or avoid a particular object or situation.
  • The “residual activation” (excitement) of a reaction can cause an overly intense response to the next stimuli. “For example, people who have just hit the purchase button on their shopping cart can become particularly angry if they are presented with multiple pages before they can complete their transaction. The arousal of buying increases their frustration with the post-purchase process.”

Technology interfaces have come a long way since the socially inept car monitoring system developed in 2002. Computers and other technologies have become more likeable, effective and persuasive. “Indeed,” Nass wrote recently, “we may be reaching the point at which our technologies are actually more socially effective than our colleagues.”

Related links

Conference presentation

How Websites Can Create and Leverage Emotions: A Simple Yet Powerful Model 
Clifford Nass, Stanford University (2013)

Conference summaries

Beyond the Product: Designing Customer Experiences
Iñigo Gallo and Jolie Matthews (2013)

Marketing Communication in a Digital World
Shubhranshu Singh and Randy Stein (2012)


Paradoxes of Technology: Consumer Cognizance, Emotions, and Coping Strategies
David Glen Mick and Susan Fournier (1998)


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