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Google Empathy Lab uses 'design feeling' in search of a more human UI

Google Empathy Lab's Danielle Krettek touted the next big thing in UI design at the Wisdom 2.0 event: tech that feels your pain or happiness -- or whatever.

Does the digitally enabled population -- that is, nearly everybody -- need interfaces that feel our pain, our joy or any other human emotion?

Not quite, said Danielle Krettek, founder of the Empathy Research Lab at Google. Empathy from a machine isn't actually possible, she said. But, with the right AI, she said digital assistants should be able to make the "empathic leap" that will make them feel more like a copilot at our side -- not human, but certainly more understanding than a sterile robot. 

To get there, Krettek said she believes businesses need to start to think about design feeling as the next iteration of Design thinking, the now widely used methodology aimed at creating more innovative and "human-centered" design concepts. (See sidebar.)

Design feeling aims to help developers focus on how their designs make users feel, rather than on seeing designs solely as a solution to a problem.

"The mission of the Empathy Lab is to build love into the technology we use," Krettek said. 

Krettek, whose work draws on disciplines ranging from neuroscience and film to indigenous medicine, launched Google's Empathy Lab in 2015. Four years later, the lab's work -- which includes partnering with vulnerability expert Brené Brown and Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on the science of happiness -- is starting to get more attention.

Danielle Krettek, founder, Empathy Research Lab at GoogleDanielle Krettek

As big tech looks for ways to address growing concerns over the dangers lurking in our digital interactions -- everything from phone addiction and privacy issues to election meddling from hostile governments -- the concept of building love into the technology we use doesn't sound so crazy.

Or, at least, it didn't to the crowd at the recent Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, where Krettek was a featured speaker. This year's event was billed as a forum for finding ways to "not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work and useful to the world."

Design thinking vs. design feeling

Krettek listed the differences between design thinking and design feeling.

Design thinking

Design feeling






Care and connection

Data and machine learning

Aligned values, trust and growth

IQ and knowledge

EQ and wisdom





What it does

How it feels

Design feeling approach can reduce frustration

Krettek, who is trained in philosophy and physics, discussed research on three types of user interfaces:

  • one that was "super-informative";
  • one described as neutral; and
  • a third empathetic interface that was less informative, but made more of an emotional connection with users.

She found that 89% of people continued to use the empathetic interface, while only 25% continued to use the super-informative one.

The empathetic interfaces were able to interpret the tone of a person's voice -- or wording -- and respond not just with information, but with an appropriate emotional response. For example, an angry or frustrated question is answered in a calming tone, while an inquisitive tone might evoke a more free-wheeling response from the bot. 

Krettek also did some research looking at how people interacted with their Google Assistant and found that 86% would attempt to make eye contact, 7% would touch it and 29% would use gestures -- in essence, treating the device as they might another human. In fact, one woman used the same gesture she did when talking to her young daughter: putting her hands on her hips.

The tendency by users to interact with their digital agents as they would another human being suggests that building more empathy into these text- and voice-based interfaces would increase engagement, Krettek said. It would also reduce the frustration that arises when a digital agent cannot solve a problem.

Roadblocks to design feeling

But there are many roadblocks to using a design feeling approach, starting with the way most developers think of their customers -- namely, as users. Being able to use a product is different from deriving human pleasure or satisfaction from tech, Krettek said. The user in us "is just a fraction of who we are," she said. "It is not just about cognitive and functional need; this is about the whole human."

Amy Blankson, co-founder, Digital Wellness CollectiveAmy Blankson

Amy Blankson, co-founder of the Digital Wellness Collective and author of The Future of Happiness, said she sees the design feeling movement as a step in the right direction.

"I'm fascinated by Google Empathy Lab's approach to shifting from linear design thinking to a messier version of design feeling. Humans are emotional beings, and yet we expect or allow technology to drive our world using a completely logical framework," Blankson said.

The misalignment often results in disappointment and frustration with the tech we rely on -- "for instance, when a system update triggers in the midst of our creative flow, or when email pours in in the midst of a family crisis because you didn't have time to set an out-of-office alert," she said, adding that she's eager to see the products that will emerge from coding for empathy.

Whether using design feeling to build more empathetic UIs -- and, thus, making our tech use more pleasurable -- would actually give rise to more digital addiction is an open question.

Nina Hersher, executive director, Digital Wellness CollectiveNina Hersher

Digital Wellness Collective Executive Director Nina Hersher acknowledged the potential downside of empathetic UIs. "As interfaces become more engaging, our attention gets shredded and polluted. The cumulative interfaces we interact in this attention economy are so addicting that they can result in loss of productivity, overwhelm or even anxiety," she said.  

Krettek, for one, challenged the business audience to look at the design feeling approach as an AI-powered vehicle for imparting their wisdom: "What kind of precious value would you want to share, and what lessons should we teach that should be coded into technology?" 

Editor's note: For more of Lawton's coverage on the Wisdom 2.0 conference, go to "Confronting big tech's role in digital addiction and digital wellness."

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