Prototypes by Jay Yoon
Jun 8, 2022
Marisa LaFalce
In Human Centered Design

Our daily use of smartphones, appliances and social media can create pleasurable moments, but they do not inherently lead to improved well-being. People quickly adapt to the joys of using new technologies and soon find them mundane. Even positive emotions can cause destructive behaviors, such as over-engagement on social media.

Jay Yoon, assistant professor in the Department of Human Centered Design, is examining how positive emotions can be effectively regulated through technology and how technology-mediated positive emotions can contribute to well-being. His work is being supported by a nearly $500,000, five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development Award.

Director of the Cornell Meta Design & Technology Lab, Yoon focuses his research on exploring how products, including services and systems, can be purposefully designed to enrich users’ momentary and long-term experiences. He makes connections between work grounded in human-centered design and positive psychology, specifically addressing the question of how design can contribute to human flourishing. His research has broad applications for human health and well-being and sustainability.

Yoon’s NSF project will investigate how to integrate positive emotion regulation (PER) theory into the design of future technologies. While traditional research assumes a direct impact of technology on user emotions, this project will build on findings that the impact of technology on emotion regulation is indirect, because it is mediated by users’ activities, such as visualizing positive things they did or will do with the technology.

“What is important is what we [as users] do or think about,” Yoon said, “for example, envisioning what we will do on an upcoming vacation or engaging in acts of kindness, gratitude or self-care. These activities have been demonstrated to be more effective in regulating emotion. How can design be the enabler of those experiences?”

The NSF project will investigate positive emotion regulation by:

  • Analyzing the role of everyday technology in reinforcing and prolonging positive emotional experiences.
  • Developing interactive digital and tangible artifact prototypes, including apps.
  • Evaluating prototypes’ effects on well-being.
  • Translating insights into design methods and tools that support the development of PER technologies to promote well-being.

The project will focus on young adults, whose mental health can be impacted by limited emotion regulation skills and challenges to accessing traditional health interventions. Yoon, together with his students, developed three interactive devices that support daily practice of positive emotion regulation (ER): Purpal, LEV, and UnBlock. Purpal (above left) is a self-administered, interactive device that guides critical reflection on possible future positive experiences in the context of consumption by providing adaptive questions associated with users’ purchase intentions. LEV is a small robot that supports a constructive storytelling activity in which users recall an emotional event and reframe it from a particular emotional perspective. Unblock (above right) utilizes ambiguous prompts such as “secret dance,” intended to inspire users to first creatively envision and then perform self-selected positive behaviors during their daily routines such as practicing dance moves during their lunch break. An in-lab experiment with Purpal demonstrated that the PER supported by the prototype was more effective than PER without using it.

“What is noteworthy is that when using the prototype, the increase of positive emotions was higher in those people with low ER ability. We did not see such a pattern in the group without the prototype. In other words, the prototype could help people with lower ER ability to gain more benefits from managing their emotions. The result suggests that when introduced to a user population that needs effective PER (e.g., young adults), the technology’s contribution could be reinforced,” Yoon said. The work has been published at the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction and Design Research Society (in press). The NSF study will determine whether and how young adults benefit from this type of design in the long term.

Yoon said the project will promote STEM education for underserved students through community-engagement programs that encourage students to think critically about how everyday technologies shape their emotions and behavior.

Photo credit: Jay Yoon 
Purpal (left) and Unblock (right) prototypes have demonstrated positive effects in emotion regulation. Yoon’s NSF study will determine whether and how young adults benefit from this type of design in the long term.