in Artificial Intelligence, Thoughts

Can software influence your emotions?

By the end of this article I want to convince you that your emotions can be influenced by software. To do that I’d like you to imagine a progress bar. Yes, the humble loading bar or progress-done indicator as it is also known. They have many variations. Some even have fancy animations so they feel like they finish sooner but its essence has been a mainstay of the user interface for 40 years or more. They are so ubiquitous, you can’t escape them.

So what actually is a progress bar for? At first glance, this seems easy to answer. Progress bars are designed to see the progress of a task… or are they?

Emotional aids


There’s an interesting TED short by Daniel Engber that talks about how the progress bar keeps you sane. It’s a great little short to watch that is very thought-provoking. In essence, progress bars started out as something that gave you a progress update on a task inside a computer but in 1985 a graduate student named Brad Myers started to study this and came to a surprising discovery. It didn’t really matter if the progress bar reported back accurate information, just the bar’s presence on-screen made people feel better during long-running tasks.

While Brad imagined different ways this could be put to use such as to help you relax or plan your time better it highlights an interesting insight that’s perhaps easier to understand with some basic human psychology. People felt better because the progress bar removed anxiety about how long the task was going to take.

Software causing anxiety

Yes, I know that might seem like an odd thing to say but think about it. Anxiety is a strong human emotion. It’s a state of worry or fear that is designed to leave your body in a state of readiness. If you think about when you might experience anxiety it’s likely to be when you’re in situations of uncertainty such as waiting before sitting an exam. Its purpose is to keep you in a state of preparedness because you don’t know what will happen – you don’t need full “fight or flight mode” but you can’t relax either. You’re not in control, you need to be alert.

So not knowing when something will be done can induce anxiety, even if only mildly. Without the progress bar, there’s uncertainty and you need to be prepared for what happens when your task finishes. How many times have you clicked a button on a badly coded app and wondered if it’s doing something? Maybe you’ve got some feedback that something was happening but then you have no idea how long it will take and you needed to shut your laptop down to catch a train or go to bed. The app was controlling you, not the other way round. By seeing a progress bar, it removes the anxiety and lets you make decisions based on how much time you have left.

Daniel Engber continues his talk about manipulating progress bars to “dull the pain of waiting”, touching on the boredom point but I believe there is another profound insight. Boredom and anxiety are emotions and yet the software-induced or remedied these emotional states in people through simple presentation changes. It might seem obvious now but human emotions or “states” are affected by software.


Still not convinced? If the emotional impact of computers in the ’80s and ’90s was about getting frustrated at download progress bars, then the 2000s and 2010s was about expressing yourself on blogs and social media – getting validation based on views, hits and likes. Many people will admit feeling a bit sad when they shared a moment that’s really important to them on social media and then they only got a handful of likes – for some it feels like disapproval of the social group. Just ask any Instagram-obsessed 20-something! However, the reality is an algorithm probably determined the impact the message would have and whether to show it and so your friends might not have even seen it.

When Facebook conducted an experiment on the algorithm used in their news feed to see if they could influence human emotions in 2014 it led to outrage. People were being experimented on without permission but it confirmed what we already know. It was the same data just presented differently which ultimately showed that human emotional states can be affected by software.

Psychological sales tricks

We’ve all experienced the “hard sell”. Advertisers often use more subtle techniques. A friend of mine working in advertising once told me a really simple trick to improve in-app purchase sales using some proven sales psychology. By putting a really big number at the top of the payment options such as the number of users who had purchased the in-app purchase and ensuring it is greater than the cost of the in-app purchase, it would improve sales.

Apparently, there are two principles at work here. As a customer the first is social proof – you know that other people have purchased this product, so it must be good (think about the time you walked past the restaurant with no-one in it vs. the one that’s half full). The second principle is more subtle. When seeing a large number and then a small number, the small number seems smaller in comparison to the larger number or more responsible in terms of price. £100 seems like a large sum of money yet compare that to the income of Google and it looks paltry. Note that much of this happens at a subconscious level.

Emotional software

Marketers and advertisers are using these techniques to make you feel a particular way to get the sale, however, what if we used these techniques not to get a sale but improve the emotional relationship with our software? Apple is really great at this, for many people using a Mac or an iPhone invokes very positive emotions. It’s clear though that Apple has put great emphasis on making its products easy to use as opposed to making them communicate their value or other attributes.

As a simple example, downloading a 128GB file is no different than downloading a 128KB file. If the connection was fast enough and they both downloaded in half a second, I wouldn’t realise that one was hugely larger than the other. Both files have the same icon at the same size. That makes them easy to use but it doesn’t help me gauge their size.

Peeling back the curtain

Equally, Siri is obviously doing some incredible calculations and computer science magic behind the scenes except when it responds to my questions I never see any of this. It’s avatar just bops around before telling me it didn’t understand – from the perspective of making the software easy Apple have achieved their goal, however, I can’t see it’s thinking and so I have no empathy for how close it might have come to understanding me – empathy that might have motivated me to keep trying. In this instance, I have no emotional relationship with Siri except confusion and pain.

In comparison, something like Microsoft Disk Defragmenter from the 90’s showed a fragmentation graph that moved disk sector by sector and surprising had a sense of achievement and complexity about it – something that just wouldn’t have been captured from showing a simple spinner. It’s this “peeling back of the curtain” that really helps with the emotional impact.

Mental Fingerprint

Finally, humans have evolved to feel a particular way from visual imagery. Now let’s look at the Mac Finder. Currently, folder icons appear as empty Foolscap folders. If they contain files, perhaps the icon should show that too? If they contain hundreds of files then imagine what the icon would look like if it was stuffed full of files? I often browse folders looking for recent files. If files that were older actually appeared older – perhaps with dog-eared corners or even faded-away icons, not only would this help visually identify them it would help craft a subtle emotional story.

It might not seem like it but a hard drive full of lonely looking empty folders would have a subtle emotional impact. In many ways, these subtle emotional cues help us locate objects in the real world – from remembering the drinks bar with the cool cocktail glasses, though to the lonely sock in the cupboard, all the way through to that spooky tree you walked past on the way home. These are all fingerprints used to help mentally identify and locate objects in the physical space. If you still don’t believe me, I’m willing to bet you remember exactly where you were when 9/11 happened, if you’re old enough that is.

Powerful Tools

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you we should improve software by designing it with the emotional impact in mind. Emotions can be powerful tools if leveraged correctly and responsibly. I believe as software designers we should consider the following questions:

  • Does the user value the data you’re presenting to them?
  • How could you better communicate the amount of work that is being done?
  • What human emotions could you influence to communicate your point better?
  • If you could personify aspects of your software what kind of people would they be? What personality would they have? Would you be afraid of them or feel empathy for them?

Much of this involves changing how the software presents itself to induce or influence the user’s emotional state. At some level we’re already doing this – delete buttons are big scary red buttons, completing an action gets a big satisfying green tick pop up. However, there are many other ideas that can be harnessed to enhance the user’s emotional journey.

Write a Comment