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How Brain Training Game Designers at Lumosity Are Leveraging the Foundations of Emotional Design

Keaton Robbins | September 6, 2017

A young woman, with long, dark hair sits in a gray sweater and tights. She is smiling as she looks down at the smartphone in her hand. Behind her, blurred in the background is a train that appears to be leaving the station. There are also blurred buildings in the background. A man, also blurry, walks towards the foreground on the sidewalk to the right.

How Emotional Design Principles Can Help You Create Educational Games and Course Content that Appeals to All Learners

If the best content is said to be crafted specifically for each audience, then it could be assumed that the worst content attempts to speak to everyone at once. But are there any exceptions to these rules?

In this article

  1. How Emotional Design Principles Can Help You Create Educational Games and Course Content that Appeals to All Learners
  2. What is Emotional Design?
  3. The Three Levels of Emotional Design Perception: Visceral, Behavioral and Reflective
  4. 1. Visceral Level
  5. 2. Behavioral Level
  6. 3. Reflective Level
  7. The Four Pleasures Intertwine with Emotional Design
  8. 1. Physio-Pleasure
  9. 2. Ideo-Pleasure
  10. 3. Psycho-Pleasure
  11. 4. Socio-Pleasure
  12. How Emotional Design and the Four Pleasures Come Together at Lumosity in Designing Gaming Content
  13. Using Emotional Cues to Know When Your Design is Effective
  14. How to Keep Emotional Design in Mind as You’re Creating Educational Material
  15. Tap into ‘Universal Truths,’ and Create Engaging Learning Materials with Emotional Design

Anyone who has ever leveraged the foundations of emotional design, might say ‘yes!

Take the example of Lumosity: As a leading brain training company with more than 85 million users in 180 countries, Lumosity knows a thing or two about how to engage learners. At this highly-decorated company (hello Webby Awards!), scientists and designers come together to create an unparalleled learning experience that is both entertaining and informative.

In her Sound Stories podcast interview, Lumosity’s Creative Director, Erika Lutz talks extensively about how she and her team employ the principles of emotional design when creating their award-winning brain-training games.

“Emotions are universal,” says Erika. “[At] the heart of creating any human-centered experience, is [the] ability to connect at a really raw level. We feel for things that really appeal to us that we can create an emotional connection with.”

What is Emotional Design?

Emotional design is a concept outlined by Don Norman in his book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things.  According to Norman, research on emotion and cognition demonstrate that a product’s aesthetics can be incredibly important when it comes to prompting people to form emotional connections with what they are ‘using,’ and/or what they own.

Essentially, ‘things’ that are both usable and pleasurable, are poised for success over other ‘things,’ that may be simply functional, but not enjoyable in the least. In the world of e-learning, or educational gaming, this means that content that is both informative and entertaining, will always trump content that simply delivers on the stated course objectives.

“The thing that makes the most sense for me, and what I talk about with our team [at Lumosity], is that good design relies on as many senses as possible,” Erika says. “It’s like we’re conducting a symphony of that’s made up of these sensations, based on the way something looks, moves, and sounds.”

“If you think about the way that something moves, behaves and sounds in tandem with the way that it looks, you can create a whole visceral effect with it,” she adds. “We rarely experience anything in the real world with just one of our senses in isolation, so leaving out all the others feels false. Each one is able to contribute to a different part of the experience; it’s all part of the same story that we’re able to understand from all of [our] senses.”

The Three Levels of Emotional Design Perception: Visceral, Behavioral and Reflective

When it comes to how emotional design comes to life, “There are three dimensions that Don Norman talks about in his book, and those play into the four pleasures,” specifies Erika. “[Essentially], it all has to do with the way we interact with the world.”

Here are the three levels of emotional design that come into play when people interact with media and products:

1. Visceral Level

This relates to the gut reaction to what is being seen or experienced and has an immediate emotional impact. Visceral reactions tend to be subconscious, and also deeply tied to our first impression, which ultimately influences our ongoing perception of the ‘thing.’

2. Behavioral Level

This level is concerned with the function and usability of the product. This is the ‘truth’ of the way that something really is that’s experienced when we’re interacting with it with our physical senses, and not just how we perceive it might be. The behavioral level is linked to the feeling of the user being in control, because they understand how to use something.

3. Reflective Level

This is the value that a user attributes to something after repeated usage. It’s a dimension that’s controlled by the super ego. Compared to the visceral first impression, this is the way that we value something after we reflect back on what it means to us, or what it represents about us.

If you want to learn more, there’s also a great article from Interaction Design that goes into depth about the three levels of emotional design.

The Four Pleasures Intertwine with Emotional Design

At Lumosity, the three levels of emotional design don’t operate in isolation. They are intertwined with what is known as the ‘four pleasures,’ which were outlined by Canadian-born, Anthropologist, Professor Lionel Tiger, from Rutgers University, New Jersey.

1. Physio-Pleasure

At a visceral level, our physical senses take over our first impressions. Therefore, the physio-pleasure is all about innate sensuality: the way that things look, sound, taste, smell and feel against our skin. For instance, the way an Apple iPhone feels in your hand, the coolness of the screen on your fingertips as you tap or swipe while playing a game, etc.

Also, when many people experience the same interactions with a product, it can create a universal or shared experience. As an example, many people have experienced what it’s like to  hold a cold can of cola on a hot day. Just the thought of it may conjure memories of feeling the cold condensation on the exterior of the can, and the sweet taste of the cola intermingled with the feel of the bubbles on your tongue.

2. Ideo-Pleasure

The idea pleasure is linked to the good feelings we get in relation to the ‘idea’ of something. This taps into our ideas about our own identity and how that object relates to our idea of ourselves.

“So for example, if we choose to buy a biodegradable trash bag, that relates to our idea of being environmentally responsible,” says Erika. “So it’s what we choose to affiliate ourselves with and the object we choose to represent us.”

3. Psycho-Pleasure

The psycho-pleasure relates to the feeling we get from cognitive accomplishment. For instance, when we accomplish something that we’ve worked really hard for, it usually comes with a boost of happiness or pleasure.

4. Socio-Pleasure

As one may deduce, the socio-pleasure describes the pleasure we get from interacting with other people, and the happiness we feel when we’re connected to a community.

According to Erika, one product that plays on the influence of socio-pleasure is a Kit Kat bar.

“[It’s] a candy bar that’s designed to share with other people,” she specifies, adding that even though most people opt to eat the whole bar themselves, the design was intended for sharing.

Another example could be Pokemon Go.

“Sometimes the social element is a talking point in and of itself,” Erika says. “Pokemon Go lets us play together, but it also worked really well because everyone also loved to talk about it.”

View this SlideShare on the Four Pleasures, to learn more.

How Emotional Design and the Four Pleasures Come Together at Lumosity in Designing Gaming Content

“We can use [emotional design and the four pleasures] and take into account the whole emotional experience of being humans,” says Erika

Take for example, the Lumosity game, Playing Koi.

A screenshot of the Lumosity Game called Playing Koishows an illustrated pond full of fish, where one had just been fed.
A screenshot of the Lumosity game ‘Playing Koi’

“I often times, when I’m working on some kind of a design that has an ambient feel and most of ours do, I put on a soundtrack to match the feeling that I’m going for,” Erika says. “Playing Koi is a mobile game I worked on a couple years ago, and in that game there’s a pond full of fish that need to be fed. All the fish are identical and they swim through the reeds and the lily pads, and there are other animals that swim through the pond as well. You can only feed one fish at a time and then you need to wait several times between the feedings.”

“From a cognitive perspective, it’s a game that trains divided attention, which is a task that requires you to simultaneous pay attention to multiple tasks all at once. From a behavioral perspective it’s a game about cultivating focused patience, and having to wait is not a pleasurable experience in itself, but you can lean on the payoff and the gratification that you get from the waiting.”

“[From] an emotional perspective, we went for a very total experience,” she says. “Knowing that this game was all about playing with our acute sensation of the passage of time in a natural setting, and it was also very much about water, I put on a soundtrack of ambient water sounds that had a rhythm to it, so I could listen to it over and over again. And that really played into the game where your sense of time slows down. There is no clock and you need to rely on all of your other ambient senses. So it’s less of a linear narrative and more of a collection of moments.”

“In the game you can’t watch every single fish to track which one you’ve fed, you have to relax and tap into all of your other senses to help you play the game. You’re watching the way that they move throughout the water, you’re hearing the sounds as you move from daylight into night, you see the other pond animals shift. You can see the fish take on different experiences as the moonlight reflects on them. So the sounds of hearing the drips and the ripples and the sound of the wind on the water is very much a part of the experience and the vibe that you’re creating.”

Using Emotional Cues to Know When Your Design is Effective

In order to assess whether or not their products are connecting with audiences, Erika and her Lumosity colleagues engage in a lot of research, and one of the many methods they use is focus groups.

“We’re absolutely watching their emotional connection to what they’re doing,” Erika says in relation to how they monitor the groups. “I’m looking very much at behavior things. What does their body language tell me? What is their face doing? When they’re looking at the design, where are they looking? When they frown, what made them frown? It’s really the art of studying how people are behaving when they’re interacting with your design. It’s really just a very human-to-human experience of watching the way they’re using it, and the emotions they’re expressing, even when they don’t know that they are.”

Interestingly, learning how a product that you’ve worked on connects with an audience can be gratifying in itself.

“It’s such an emotional payoff for me to see that moment of somebody reacting to something that was built with a lot of thought and intention,” Erika admits. “And maybe all they see for this game is fish that they have to feed, but if they enjoy it and they have this body experience, then that’s enough.”

How to Keep Emotional Design in Mind as You’re Creating Educational Material

“I think that the very first thing that someone can do is to be aware of your own emotional landscape,” Erika says. “Be aware of the kinds of things that you’re doing, as you’re feeling different things, and start paying attention to what other people do – the micro-behaviors that they do – as they’re feeling things. The first thing you can do is study that [because] to be able to emulate anything, you need to study it first.”

“And then the next thing is to know your audience,” she says, reiterating the classic advice. “Know who it is that you’re designing for and what you’re trying to draw out of them and test that. You can’t run on your assumptions; Everyone has a slightly different reaction. You have to keep testing your own assumptions of the way that other people will perceive you and what you’ve put out into the world.”

According to Erika, even as you start to formulate your approach and design your materials, it’s not too early to engaging your audience, either.

“You need to seek out who it is that you’re trying to reach. You can start interviewing individuals, who are representative of that group. That’s something that’s very easy to do with ‘man on the street,’ or I prefer to call it ‘person on the street testing,’ where you approach a stranger and you start talking to them about it.”

“You can also use a survey,” she advised, adding, “That’s another way of getting a very low cost poll, so understanding where people’s motivations and their behaviors and their backgrounds are that might cause them to understand something, or behave in a certain way.”

“Those are the two, easiest things that you can start with.”

Tap into ‘Universal Truths,’ and Create Engaging Learning Materials with Emotional Design

By using emotional design principles and the four pleasures to underpin their interactive material, Lumosity is leveraging basic human senses and levels of perception, to create content that is incredibly engaging.

In essence, when it comes to creating great games, they’ve tapped into ‘universal truths,’ that can be played up, no matter the audience.

Listen in to the Sound Stories podcast Episode 21, Exploring Emotional Design, featuring Erika Lutz, to learn more.

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  • Avatar for Dr Michael Pilon
    Dr Michael Pilon
    September 6, 2017, 9:18 pm

    Kevin Roberts former CEO of advertising giant Saatchi and Saatchi says that emotion not information is the key to good advertising. I agree. I have been an advertising fan since grade 9 ( Long ago 🙂 And I still think of ads that hit home and others that annoy. In 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII Bell Canada had an ad where a young man was walking on a beach with a cell phone. He called his grandfather, behind the G’father was a photo of a man in uniform. The young man said he was in France. His granddad said , “are the girls still as pretty in Paris ?” The boy replied “yes but that is not why I called, I am on the beach in Normandy and I want to jsut thank you for what you did” The grand father looked at his photo and almost cried. Not a word of advertising then in the right hand lower corner “Bell mobility, you can use it around the world”. Man 12 years later and I still remember that ad.