On the Design of Emotion: Applied to Vehicle & Mobility Systems


It is within our genetic make-up to seek-out others, to form relationships. And these relationships are a give and take. We seek-out interaction, get to know each other and over time, anticipate responses and expect and appreciate a deeper level of acknowledgement, recognition and overall understanding as our relationship builds.

And over the last few decades, it has been proven that some of our social inclinations and expectations are transferred to the products and services that we interact with. And conversely, when a familiar interaction happens during an interaction with a product or service, then we begin to interact with it in a more socially appropriate way. If that interaction grows in its social appropriateness, then we become friends and confidants. And if our relationship doesn’t progress as we expect it to or the product communicate traits or acts in a way that we do not expect it to, then you better look out.

“My car, Gertrude, is one of the crew. She is one of the girls when we go out on Friday night.” “I would marry this car if I could. I just love it that much.”

Consumer Sentiment towards their vehicle - an Infinity SUV, 2018

A positive example of this is when you name your car and sometimes have a conversation with him/her/it. A negative example of this is Clippy the Microsoft paperclip. For those of us old enough to have experienced it, it spoke to us PC users in a repetitive, contextually irrelevant and non-social way. As a result, we unleashed a scorn and hatred on Clippy “that was usually reserved for jilted lovers and mortal enemies” as Byron Reeves, a noted Stanford Professor, once put it.

In this new era of conversation as input and interactive personalities, we do not yet know the effect that it will have on our psyche, our relationships and our lifestyles.    

Will our house or our car be just another character that we communicate with?

How will having a digital assistant in your life change how you live?

Will your interaction remain part-time and contextual (or) will a new friendship evolve?

Is Amazon Alexa our future best friend and/or most productive and trusted coworker?

Or will my (virtual) Memoji assist my real (analogue) self? Me, myself and I

What we know is that these interactions do have an effect on us – they make us feel good or bad. So, maybe as the contributors (or maybe even the Designers) of these intelligent products and systems, it is useful to consider the ingredients and variables that contribute to an interactive personality? A prevalent product or service mandate these day is that “it must create an emotion connection” with our customers. Emotional connections can be achieved via many means, but for simplicity sake, I will consider those ingredients and attributes in the context of transportation and mobility services.

Let’s start with the essentials.

Usefulness and Ease of Use / Accommodation of my Stuff

We have certain minimal expectations of our vehicles and certain activities that we do regularly in our cars and trucks. Feeling in control, having a place for my stuff, and being able to safely move about freely on the roadways (and sometimes off) are basic expectations. We want to also occasionally move other people around and sometimes transport goods. We also want to listen to music, navigate to new places and occasionally make phone calls. All of these activities can be accomplished in modern vehicle with relative ease and understanding.

And it appears that we are now privy to a greater sense of awareness of our vehicle and our overall journey. We know more about what is happening in and immediately around our vehicle and we know more about what is happening between us and our journey endpoint. And soon we will also be able to drive hands-free – at least for a short amount of time. Attention is still required but some drivers of newer vehicles are starting to trust that the vehicle will “intervene” if needed. Some personal pause, consideration, repetition and learning may be required, but a new type of human expectation is forming. Some drivers have been pulled-over by law enforcement because they were asleep while their Tesla was in Autopilot.

Aesthetics / The Look & Feel

Every visible element contributes to a feeling and certain shapes and proportions have an intrinsic appeal. The shape of a baby’s face or that of a person that you find “attractive” – both have a consistent pattern of caring and yearning. These feelings are triggered by generations of instinctual evolution.

The Golden Mean and Fibonacci Sequence are two proportional relationships that humans viscerally respond to. They are dimensions, proportions and patterns that we find in nature and in ourselves. Our comfort with these ratios and sequences is a consequence of evolutionary familiarity.

We can control the flow of lines and physical curves so that the eye follows into some perfect resolve. Figure ground, spatial tension and Gestalt theory are some of the proven principles that we use to control perception as we absorb patterns and shapes. We have a natural tendency to connect things, complete a shape in our mind and look for similarities that imply meaning. These principles have been extended to the shape of a cruise ship or a skyscraper as well as the shape of a character of a font. In our vehicles, we see the trend of a heavy Serif font implying performance versus the flowing elegance and tradition of a San Serif font communicating luxury. These design decisions are not arbitrary.

Made up of pixels, colors, animations, dimension, movement, states of meaning and cinematic effect, contemporary digital electronic dash boards of vehicles are starting to flourish. Companies like Imaginary Forces and Prologue Films have made an art of creating a feeling of suspense, action, horror, excitement and more via the combination of visuals, movement and sounds – particularly in movie trailers. These techniques are now finding their way into driver cockpit dashboards and other digital screens.

Lighting & Patterns

Blinking lights have meaning today (like turning and warning) and soon they will define a more complex form of communication between the vehicle and the driver. The idea that “I (your vehicle) sense your presence and I am Welcoming you to me” is becoming mainstream requirement. Approach lighting that includes parking lights subtly turning on, door handle wells illuminating and even the projection of a lighted “welcome mat” make you feel as if the vehicle is coming to life and anticipating your arrival as you approach. And as you open the door, the interior space is filled with ambient light, particular controls are illuminated to focus your attention and you are greeted by a “Welcome screen” or animation across one or more in-vehicle displays.

Autonomy now ushers in an additional level of complexity and meaning. Companies are now experimenting with various external visible light patterns and lit words and symbols on the outside of the vehicle that communicate things like “I am at a standstill” and “I am waiting for you to cross” and “I am autonomous” and “you my passenger?” The function and means of lighting are evolving which results in broader and deeper meanings being conveyed.

Sound & Voice

It is often said in the film industry that “Sound is half of the story.” It sparks our feelings and holds our memories. Sound is also the visceral extension of a brand.

Should you use electronic derived sounds that may imply “digital machines” or familiar sounds from nature and our surroundings? What are the status sounds of a silently moving (or at least very quiet) electrical vehicle? In the past, the chime and auditory signals or sonic vocabulary of a vehicle was its “voice” to us. Now that voice is evolving into a new character (or virtual person) in our lives. Should it be male, female or some new gender neutral culturally specific persona? Should an avatar be smooth, simple in shape and from the future (or) distinct, unique and full of distinguishing character details?

Hopefully, companies will continue to hypothesize and learn from diverse prototyping, iteration and actual customer interaction, customer service feedback and more. An example of this learning happened at BMW when the company released their first instructional voice navigation system in the 5-Series. They quickly realized, and obviously unexpected to them, that many male German drivers would not take directions from a woman (voice). No matter how functionally accurate or confident it might have been, these men proclaimed that “it just didn’t work”. These emotional disagreements touch a deep-seated nerve and rationality is damned.


The Design of an Intentional Personality / Your Intelligent Assistant

Whether intentional or not, these visual and auditory signals combine to start to form a product or a service’s personality. The idea that your company is fun or playful and witty, or erudite and scholarly, or assistive and supportive, or is accelerated and fast-paced in everything that it does – should be communicated via this personality. And context matters. One shortcut to this connection is the creation and triggering of Easter Eggs – usually being nostalgic, recognizing holidays, seasons or special days. They are the low-friction surprise of something clever and unexpected.

Currently, Design universities and creative consulting shops that house experts in color, lighting, sound, form and animation all on one campus or within one building may be the place to go to explore these emerging and evolving experimental personalities. I dare say that the sensitivity of the new generation of UX Designers that grew-up digital and have spent their whole careers working on multi-disciplinary and multi-sensory design teams are better equipped to solve these intelligent interaction problems than the software giants that are creating and cross-pollinating them today. This is my hypothesis that will play-out in the coming years.

The Design of Algorithms, Machine Learning & Embracing Imperfection

To-date, the technological world and the age of machines and smart systems only moves in one direction – faster, more powerful and more intelligent. As we chase that path, remember that the algorithm is only as good as its input and we are the ones creating the input. Our objects are evolving more complex stories, but in the end, the algorithm is a reflection of you. The bot is you. Fortunately, User Experience Designers in training now have the chance to take courses like “Algorithm Design & Analysis” and “Data Structures & Algorithms” to better understand the choices available and their cause and effect. In the end, we should all be encouraged to be responsible, be considerate, be intentional and be kind.

You must be a triangle. Cause your the only thing here. You are so beautiful that you know what I mean.”

Neural network created pick-up lines

Relationships have an imperfection. They are forgiving and they evolve over time. They mature and they age with us. And sometimes they go away. Machines also have flaws and make mistakes. They are over confident, they have no humility, they do not ask for help and they have no loyalty. And if you are like me, these are the opposite characteristics of some of my favorite people. The architects of our ready-to-use machine learning APIs still have some work to do.


The Branding of Robot Taxis

Soon many of us that live in large and medium sized cities may decide not to own a personal vehicle any more. We will realize the economic benefits and convenience of ride sharing and will take the full-time plunge. No more worrying about insurance, storage and care, fuel, maintenance and more.

Just as Web-based social networking companies (or) connected home systems (or) connected gaming consoles (or) work-out equipment have assumed unique brand personality traits, so too will the emerging landscape of “robot taxis”. From grocery delivery to daily personal transport, they will support many activities and tasks and our dependency and frequency of interaction will be high. The design of small versatile spaces will emerge and we’ll experience an accelerated shift in the way that we interact with complex machines. And fortunately, the very nature of their development will usher in new levels of safety, convenience, affordability, personal fulfillment, trust and sustainability.

But what will make the difference and cause you to hail one over the others? This is a billion-dollar question that many User Experience professionals will solve in time. Like any other product category in its infancy, reliability, convenience and cost will be the biggest initial influences. But as these markets mature, you may realize that this car is always brighter and cleaner than the others (or) this one provides more flexibility of configuration and accommodation (or) this car is easier to “connect to” and access my stuff. Likewise though, these physical creature comforts, affordances and technological maturities may also evolve quickly.

Given the scale and importance of movement in our world, this may be the platform where we come to expect “the most intelligence” and an ever-evolving learning dialogue with a smart system. We will co-navigate through space and time. Most likely, it will be the unscripted contextual system activities that will accelerate our trust – things like pre-ordering a coffee for me prior to pick-up (and) adjusting my schedule and rerouting me accordingly (and) reminding me to make an important call (and) coordinating a rendezvous with an old friend that happens to be in-town. Just like an old friend, these are the relationships and services that I will want around.


Product, Service & Emotional Systems Design Consulting & Collaboration - for the Automotive & Mobility industries