Loud and Clear - June 1, 2017
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Can Delight Prompt In-Person Conversation?

By April Maclaga

We all likely have had the experience of being passionately engrossed in conversation with someone when that someone suddenly breaks eye contact… to look at their phone. (um…sure, it’s ok to ignore me…)

We find it very difficult to resist the call of our networks, which lure us with promises of mysteries and excitement that are designed to be hard to resist.

We find it very difficult to resist the call of our networks, which lure us with promises of mysteries and excitement that are designed to be hard to resist. Networked technologies put us in touch with entertainment, information, and individuals that are not in our shared space. Enticing forms, sounds, and imagery compel us to maintain a persistent state of connection. While these connected technologies can bring people together, they also have the potential to disrupt our in-the-moment experiences. Connected technologies can distract us from those physically around us and inhibit in-person interactions—the very interactions that uniquely lead to opportunities for self-reflection, understanding, and empathy. Empathy helps individuals establish and maintain personal relationships (Turkle, 2015). Studies in a range of research disciplines—including sociology, psychology, and strategic communications—have found that merely the presence of networked technologies can reduce the potential for empathy during conversation (Misra, 2016; Przybylski and Weinstein, 2013; Drago, 2015).

As designers of the technology we use, we can design interactions to be more human-centric and to honor the experiences we find valuable. My study focuses on encouraging interactions that facilitate face-to-face encounters, with the aim of increasing the potential for empathy. While some research has shown that the presence of technology can reduce the potential for empathy during in-person conversation, my research looks at ways that technological interventions and affordances might prompt and facilitate empathy between people working toward similar goals. My hypothesis proposes that technological interactions in a physical space can be designed to support in-person conversation and connection, offering opportunity for building empathy.

Older adults (seniors ages 65 and older) are an audience who can benefit from empathy-building relationships through face-to-face interaction. Factors such as retirement, changes in physical abilities, and personal loss can lead to isolation and loneliness among seniors (Chen, 2015). Friendships can help counteract these conditions by providing emotional support to help relieve stress and provide cognitive, social, and physical benefits (Suttie, 2014). To investigate ways in which technology can encourage face-to-face interactions, I have situated my investigation within scenarios that address older adults who are co-located in a fitness environment. This environment provides an atmosphere for achieving common goals (maintaining health, socializing) and a location where the same people may potentially see one another repeatedly, but may not engage in meaningful interactions.

One element I am considering in my study is the value of delight to facilitate connections and increase the enjoyment and fun in the designed experience. Where can delight be created in an experience? To investigate this, I created a journey map representing a typical scenario in the physical space and identified interaction points along the path to explore (Figure A). For example, what if something delightful occurs at the water fountain that could cause people to talk to each other?

Figure A: Journey map through the existing space, identifying potential points of interaction and scale of technology effective in the space.

According to Rowe, designs need to be pleasurable in addition to being functional and reliable. He identifies surface and deep levels of delight (2014). Surface level delight uses techniques such as attractive interfaces, animation, and sound to create pleasurable experiences. However, surface level delight runs the risk of becoming a novelty factor that can fade over time. Deeper delight seeks to make an interface disappear to the user so that the user can get into their flow and be productive. Other theorists chime in on delight to deconstruct it differently, but all come to the conclusion that deep delight helps a user become better and points to the importance of knowing the users (Rowe, 2014).

In my studies, I am exploring delight through motion detection, responsive technology, and discovery. I am considering moments of serendipitous encounters and uncontrolled interactions to elicit delightful moments. What happens when two people cross simultaneously and discover they have something or someone in common (Figure B)? Might this information be enough to spark a conversation between people? Possibly. But how would a system know this information?

Figure B: Two people discover they know the same person in passing.

What if there is an autonomous being that roams the space, gathers biometric and spatial information about the people and their activities, then publicizes it (Figure C)? The notion of something unexpected appearing suddenly can certainly be delightful and break through barriers to communication, but does it encourage talking with others? Maybe. My research showed that personifying this particular being led to more interaction with an interface than with other people, although the intention was good. The omniscient, uninhibited nature of a free-spirited being certainly would have a lot to share (gossip-style), but could it be interesting enough to get people talking?

Figure C: You’ve been spotted! A social visitor has come to visit (and gossip).

My goal is to get people to talk, and if I want to reach people on a deeper level of delight, then perhaps the interface is not the focus, but instead fades into the background. In my investigations, something that emerged was the need for delightful moments to be permanently possible, but only to occur at serendipitous moments that somehow were determined by… us. This led me to shift the focus from profile or biometric data to gestures. Not only does this free up the potential for delight to occur anywhere, delight becomes the direct result of actions we take (Figure D).

Figure D: The system detects a level of connection and boldly prompts the viewers.

We are all capable of initiating conversations with another and, in so doing, may discover a delightful element that ultimately leads to a meaningful connection. Sometimes we just need a little prompting.

April Maclaga (MGD ‘17) has a background in computer science and a passion for organizing things. Her interests at the College of Design center around designing for experiences and interactions. She has presented projects to SAS, Citrix, SECCA, IEI, and at Duke and NCSU workshops. During her time at the College of Design, April worked as a TA to support undergraduate courses and was nominated for the Graduate School Award of Teaching Excellence for Mentorship in 2017. April was a winner in the 12th Annual Graduate Student Research Symposium in the category of Design, earning 3rd Place with her thesis research poster. When not working on design projects, she enjoys playing games and spending time with her husband, two boys, and their cats.


Chen, Nina. “Friendship is Important to Older Adults.”, September 22, 2015, http://missourifamilies.org/features/agingarticles/agingfeature11.htm.

Drago, Emily. “The Effect of Technology on Face-to-Face Communication.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, vol. 6, no. 1, 2015, pp. 13-19.

Misra, Shalini, et al. “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of in-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices.” Environment & Behavior, vol. 48, no. 2, 2016, pp. 275-298, ProQuest Technology Research Professional, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1761116248, doi:10.1177/0013916514539755.

Przybylski, Andrew K., and Netta Weinstein. “Can You Connect with Me Now? how the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol. 30, no. 3, 2013, pp. 237-246, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0265407512453827, doi:10.1177/0265407512453827.

Rowe, Ben. “Is there a Formula for Delight?”, September 23, 2014, http://uxmastery.com/formula-delight/.

Stein, Sylvia. “Seniors & Communication: A Plethora of Opportunity Areas.”, Dec 12, 2013, https://www.techenhancedlife.com/articles/seniors-communication-plethora-opportunity-areas.

Suttie, Jill. “How Social Connections Keep Seniors Healthy.”, Mar 14, 2014, http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_social_connections_keep_seniors_healthy.

Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Books, New York, 2015.

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