Smiling Trashcan

Friendly Trash Can

This is a great example of affective design. For the unfamiliar, affective design is the integration of emotional considerations into user experience design. It can go in two directions:

  • Using biometrics or facial recognition to model the user’s emotional state and to customize the UX accordingly. For example we know that users who are angry have narrower scope of attention so we can provide more salient cues for peripheral indicators.
  • Using design techniques that intentionally induce a particular emotion in a user to evoke a behavior associated with that emotion. For example we can use design patterns that are associated with anger if we want to narrow the user’s attentional scope.

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Which brings me to today’s example. The Economist had an interesting piece in the science and technology section that described some new innovations in home automation. There is one idea (with two examples) that I thought was a clever use of affective computing. I call it the Friendly Trash Can, although the products are not named in the article.

The secret of success, they believe, is not just to devise furnishings that will do what they are told, but to give them personalities, convincing their owners that communication with them is a two-way process

The first one was designed by Wendy Ju and David Sirkin at Stanford. It is a trash can designed for fast food restaurants where diners often leave their trash on the table (present company excluded of course). The trash can moves around the restaurant like a Roomba. Except instead of taking the trash itself, which is beyond its programming ability, it does a little wiggle dance next to your table. Since it is clearly a trash can, there is no question what it is asking you to do. And the dance is cute – which evokes a desire to be helpful. This is similar to the way we can’t refuse the request of a cute child (although admittedly not as strong of an urge). It is not annoying if it’s cute. This is the definition of affective design. And it works.

The second example, designed by Francesco Mondada of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, does the same thing but at home. It is a toybox that approaches toys on the floor, does a wiggle dance and flashes some lights, encouraging kids to pick up the toy and put it away. Again, if it wasn’t cute and friendly, it would soon get annoying, kind of like a nagging nanny. But with affective computing, it seems to work.

Your Turn

The first time I heard about design approaches like these I was skeptical. Perhaps I am a cynic, but they all seemed annoying. But the data shows that they can work if they are done effectively. It is not easy to walk the line between annoying and engaging, but it seems like it can be done.

Have you ever been approached by a dancing trash can? How do you think you would react?

Or do you use affective computing techniques in your own work?

Please share your stories.

Image Credit:the chive

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