Emotional Scaffolding

Processing emotions takes time and energy. Part of the working memory is taken up by analyzing the emotional state of others, environmental stresses, personal feelings, and anxiety. Since working memory is an extremely limited resource, anything that takes up space there without our bidding (against our will) takes away from our ability to think through situations, to problem solve, and to make well-reasoned decisions. Instead of thinking, we are using up the working memory for processing emotions.

Sometimes, emotions are just the right thing to focus on — to pay attention to. How does this painting makes me feel? Do I like this person? This music feels good… But if you are taking a math test, focusing on how much you really hate test-taking takes away from your ability to take the test. It is very common for individuals to “get” the subject matter, but fail the test. Some people are good at dealing with anxieties and some have trouble controlling their attention controls away from fretting. That’s one of the reason some educators are talking about doing away with summative assessments (final exams) in favor of continuous assessment (assessment as part of learning) — the on-going observation of students’ work tell us more about what they really know and what they are capable of than performance on one massive test.

But what if you had to function during stress? (Think nuclear power plant accident.) What if anxiety was part of the job? (Think repainting the Golden Gate Bridge or directing air traffic.) Or what if you simply had more trouble controlling paying attention to emotions (perhaps because your personally was more emotion-oriented)? How can we as designers accommodate a more restricted working memory as a result of emotional processing?

Emotional Scaffolding

Just like cognitive scaffolding is used to assist product use by providing contextual actions, for example, emotional scaffolding can support individuals and improve performance by providing emotional support. Many product designers use humor as a way to relieve tension and free up working memory from the grasp of anxiety. Humor is a legitimate emotional scaffold. There are others.

Color and Lighting. Interior designers, architects, and fashion designers know how to use color and lighting to effectively create the desired mood. Dramatic lighting can focus attention on a particular object (like a painting). Lights can signal emergency (red flashes). Bright colors can lift emotions and make people feel better despite somber circumstances.

Consider this little example of color use in hospitals and doctors’ offices. There was a time when doctors and nurses wore white — color meant to signify cleanliness and sterile conditions. But patients quickly learned to associate white with anxiety. Babies cried when people dressed in white walked into the room! White equaled pain! So now nurses rotate the colors and patterns they wear — Disney characters on bright backgrounds replaced starched white uniforms. Kids no longer could learn the Pavlovian Response of white = pain. The anxiety level was reduced for patients. Lower patient anxiety and stress meant medical personnel didn’t have to deal with emotional outbursts as much during treatment. More working memory all around of important tasks like saving lives and following prescriptions.

Music and Sound. Just as color and light set the mood, so do music and sound create an emotional atmosphere. In the movies, music signals the emotions we should be feeling in advance of the unfolding story. In effect, music sets expectations for the audience of the experience they are about to have. Play any scene without music, and the loss of information is very profound.

And it’s not just music. Think of the sound the dentist drill makes. Feeling anxious? Just this buzzing sound can reduce our cognitive capacity. No wonder that sound can be used as a torture weapon. But sound can also act as an emotional scaffold. White noise is commonly used to reduce environmental distractions. The sound of a heart beat helps calm babies and lulls them to sleep.

Surprise. A strong emotional reaction can aide memory. Storytellers (movie-makers, song writers, authors) use surprise to make a plot point more memorable. You walk into a museum, turn a corner, and a giant T-rex fills your view. You jump. You laugh. You will remember the visit and the experience of wandering through this exhibit almost in direct proportion to how high your heart rate went up at the sight of the ancient bones. Surprise is emotional. It trigers the amygdala, which in turn makes a strong emotional memory of the event. Want to make something stick with your user group? Surprise them.

Museum Visit Surprise

Pre-visualization. What makes most people anxious is the unknown. By setting user expectations, designers can ease this anxiety and again free up space in working memory for the task at hand.

So here’s to using emotional scaffolds to help our users!