Motivating engagement through aesthetics and joy

have a growing hunch about the relationship between intrinsic motivation, engagement, aesthetic interest, and joy. In the past month, I’ve presented my work at several conferences, where I’ve had the opportunity to discuss my ideas about aesthetic and artistic visualization of residential resource use with diverse audiences (people in business, marketing, graphics, visualization, computer science, and human-computer interaction). My essential argument is that ambient and artistic visualization techniques reduce the attention required of residents while increasing aesthetic interest and maintaining coherence with the home. For certain coarse-grained data, they represent an engaging alternative to traditional feedback techniques. Moreover, in contrast to these traditional techniques (numbers and graphs) they seem to engage people who are otherwise uninterested in thinking about resource consumption.

Nuage Vert
Power-Aware Cord

Compare an ambient indicator of time-of-use energy billing — which could be as simple as a glowing LED — to a chart on your computer providing the same information. Which requires more attention? Which integrates into the home more unobtrusively? Which most clearly distills the complexity of the data into a manageable piece of information? This simple example helps to situate ambient and artistic visualization in the spectrum of feedback approaches for residential resource use feedback. For a more in-depth treatment, including related work upon which these ideas are based, see my proposal at the Graphics Interface poster proceedings.

Two themes have emerged from these conversations. First, the examples I’ve given of ambient and artistic visualization have drawn curiosity and spontaneous expressions of enjoyment. Nobody ooh’s and aah’s when I show the Kill-A-Watt or Google PowerMeter. However, people across audiences express delight and curiosity when I show examples of ambient and artistic feedback. From fascination with the Power-Aware Cord to wonder at the Nuage Vert green cloud project, these visualizations tend to evoke joyful expressions of interest, and a desire to know more about what they communicate.

The second theme is that these kinds of feedback seem to sidestep people’s hardwired interrogation of the data itself in order to encourage engagement with the ideas behind the visualization. As Ingrid Fetell puts it, “I think it’s because our emotions react to aesthetics before they process content. Even when the aesthetics and content are dissonant, the aesthetics guide our reactions, I guess because in most circumstances, aesthetics are an accurate shortcut to understanding content.” Unfortunately, lots of misleading infographics and unnecessarily prettified visualizations take advantage of this shortcut. However, when aesthetic appeal is considered as an essential element of information visualization, as opposed to visual icing, the results will be more engaging and can promote emotional engagement with the data more readily than traditional techniques. For a subject as personal as the relationship between resource use and behaviour, triggering an emotional response may be the best way to promote awareness and self-reflection, and create the space needed for change. This is specifically the case when operating within the artistic/ambient/casual InfoVis paradigm that I’ve been exploring.

The first major prototype I’ve built in this area is the Ambient Canvas, which was deployed in West House. This display uses strings of LEDs mounted behind the kitchen backsplash to convey feedback on residential resource use through shifting patterns and varying intensities of light. It is not designed for precise feedback on resource use data, but rather to increase awareness of resource flows at a more generalized level: not 13.4 kWh of energy used, but 2/3 of your daily average.

Ambient Canvas

The Ambient Canvas in West House. I collaborated with Rob MacKenzie and Chris Brandson to design and build the display, with supervision from Dr. Lyn Bartram.

Ambient Canvas Example Configuration

The Ambient Canvas can be configured to provide feedback on energy use. First, a baseline of typical use is established using collected sensor data. Then, as residents go about their daily activities, the LED strings light up and fill the Canvas to indicate cumulative use against the baseline. The intent is to enable residents to gain awareness of their energy use and adjust their activities over time, continually ‘competing’ against their own self-adjusting baseline of use.

I’ve been asked what design guidelines I’ve used when prototyping these kinds of visualizations, and how I’ve “operationalized my aesthetic criteria.” That, of course, is a tricky question to answer. To the first, I emphasized the use of colour, motion, and light. These seem to be a common and effective element in expressing data through ambient and artistic means. To the second, I believe that’s another thesis topic in its own right! However, this question has prompted me to look at my own aesthetic assumptions more critically. Intuition plays a great role in art and design, and certain people to seem to have a natural aesthetic sensibility to draw upon when approaching creative problems. Nevertheless, attempting to isolate and explore some of the variables in this aesthetic toolkit is a worthwhile endeavour. Ingrid Fetell is attempting to do just this with her project, Aesthetics of Joy:

Aesthetics of Joy explores the intersection between design and positive emotion. The project draws on insights from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to explain the universal, hardwired triggers of joy, and suggest ways that designers can evoke these in their work. These “aesthetics of joy” can be applied to the design of objects, spaces, and experiences to enhance our emotional health and well-being and create more moments of spontaneous delight in the world.

As is obvious if you’ve read this far, Fetell’s efforts are significantly influencing my conception of these ideas. She further explores this concept as it relates to behaviour change, with reference to the psychological relationship between our rational and emotional minds:

“Lately I’ve been reading the book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, about the psychology of behavior change. In the book, the authors reference a construct developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explain the way our rational and emotional sides deal with each other. The emotional brain is like an elephant while the rational brain sits on top like its rider. The rider (our rational side) provides direction, while the elephant (emotion) provides the motivation and force that gets us to act. The rider looks like the boss, sitting up on top of the elephant, reins in hand. But the elephant is so massive that unless it goes along voluntarily, it’s hard for the rider to get his way.”

Pragmatic information visualization techniques clearly target the rider in this metaphor. This is appropriate and effective for the tasks which pragmatic InfoVis is good at. But when attempting to change people’s minds about how they use resources in their own home, the rider isn’t the only one who needs convincing. We need to persuade the elephant.

So my hunch boils down to this. Beautiful, engaging, aesthetically informed visualization of resource use in the home taps into positive emotional responses, lending intrinsic motivation (in the form of curiosity and delight) to residents’ efforts to change their behaviour. This approach avoids several obstacles to traditional feedback mechanisms, which can be time-consuming, intimidating to those who do not access the world numerically, and depressing to those who do not wish to think about resource consumption. Ambient and artistic visualization can speak to something joyful rather than something mundane, and can therefore open a communication pathway to an underserved audience for residential resource use feedback.