Keim, B., (2010). “Sense of Touch Shapes Snap Judgments.” Wired.com.
Visited on October 3, 2010:
Brandon Keim’s article for Wired.com’s science blog provides a brief overview of recent research into the role that tactile sensations play in human interactions. This new area of psychological research, referred to as Embodied Cognition, could potentially have a significant impact on how we understand social and physical interactions. Put simply, the core findings of the research show that our physical responses to our immediate environment, combined with other factors, can directly and measurably influence our decision-making. One of the examples provided involved giving the subject a heavy clipboard to hold during the experiment; when holding the heavy clipboard, the subjects tended to regard their own opinions and problems presented to them as being more weighty and serious in nature. Other examples showed how a tactile interaction with a rough surface prior to an interview could lead to a harsher attitude towards the interviewee. The article itself is somewhat of a stub, so we are left to imagine the further implications of Embodied Cognition ourselves.
What relevance does Embodied Cognition have for product interaction design? After all, it’s not as if touch has previously been ignored by designers. Haptic feedback, for example, has been available in many devices such as cell phones for years now. The crucial idea here for product interaction design is that the items that we interact with physically can directly shape our opinions and social actions in a fundamental way that was not previously understood. The article points out how our brains make connections between touch and various concepts (e.g. “rough” as a physical surface finish and as a metaphor) very early in neurological development. These early associations are then carried with us throughout our lives, coloring our perceptions and influencing our interactions.
In terms of product design, the existence of this relationship means that designers can use touch to influence or guide users in any number of novel ways. For example, in a business setting, an interior designer could give a workstation a stiffer chair in order to encourage the worker to be decisive when making decisions. In educational settings, designers could introduce any number of ways to add touch to the learning environment, which in turn reinforces touch-concept associations later in life. Since as the article pointed out children learn math more easily when using their hands, physical objects and shapes could be introduced to help associate math and geometry with the physical world. There are also ample opportunities for marketing designers to use touch to associate products with positive emotions and experiences, thus encouraging higher sales and a deeper emotional connection with the product in question.
To put it bluntly, if properly harnessed, Embodied Cognition further opens a partially explored area of interaction design. Designers have long been conscious of the role of the physical in product interaction, but this research indicates that the concrete impacts of touch on our thought processes go much deeper then previously known.