The Emotional Intelligence of a Smartphone

An image depicting the difficulties I had drawing on my touchscreen. It shows how two horizontal bands were not receiving any kind of input.

This mockup of what drawing was like on my touchscreen shows clearly which parts of the screen don't work.

My phone

I’ve been the owner of an Android phone (HTC Incredible S) for 9 months now, but today I sent it off to get serviced because the touchscreen has been acting up. I first noticed the touchscreen behaving strangely this fall, when horizontal bands of the screen would sometimes be unresponsive. On the right, in a mockup of a drawing app, you can see how poking the screen produced no dots on the band, and so on. This was even more annoying when trying to type, because the bottom band passed right through the home-row (if you can still call it that on a touchscreen) of the keyboard.

Anyway, at first it would just do this for a few minutes every day, but then it started to act up like this consistently. The problems got progressively worse until by mid-January I could never be certain at any given moment that I’d be able to use my phone at all. Furthermore, touch events started happening in the wrong places—I would try to select “Yes” and the screen would select “No”, or taps would become long presses. Sometimes the phone would seem to think I had touched somewhere on the screen when it was sitting a foot away on my desk, and would navigate interfaces on its own.

An iceberg is depicted, with much more mass below the water than above. The top is labelled as IQ and the bottom as EQ.

  I think this is a terrible analogy, because I think EQ is easier to assess on the surface than IQ is. Anyway, I didn't make the image.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (hereafter EI, though often called EQ like IQ) is a term that is used to describe one’s ability to perceive others’ emotions and response appropriately in social situations. As the image here from Psychology Today illustrates, EQ is ascribed a fair amount of importance. The same concept is also embodied in maxims like “It’s not what you know, but who you know”.

What makes a smartphone smart?

So if we were to map the concept of IQ to technology, it could refer to a number of things, but at the forefront is processing power and efficiency/effectiveness of algorithms. Of additional consideration is the ability to learn new things, which is likely where the concept of a smartphone comes from: in addition to built-in phone features like SMS and alarms, smartphones can play games, interact with social networks, and let us draw, to mention just some of the hundreds of thousands of apps out there.

How, then, would we map EI, or EQ? Emotional intelligence, for a computer or smartphone, or any piece of software, is its interface. A piece of software has good EI if it responds the way you expect it to, and even better EI if it anticipates your needs and makes it easy to accomplish your goals. When our technology does this, we adore it, and when it fails to do so, we abhor it.

Can a phone be rude? What about mean?

However, this feeling of dislike can actually go further than just general annoyance or frustration at an inability to properly perform a task using some interface. I realized this rather profoundly with my defective smartphone when I had been trying in vain for probably five minutes to do something really simple like call someone. I was completely unable to navigate the interface because the screen would constantly press other places or simply refuse to push where I wanted. How do you think I felt? I’m actually going to give you space to guess. Think of an adjective that you would expect to most accurately describe my feelings at that point.

Did you say frustrated? Angry? Disgusted? Resentful? Those are all true, but that’s not exactly right. When I couldn’t use the interface, I felt hurt. It sounds odd, but I had an emotional response in my chest that I’ve recognized as the one I feel when someone is being cruel to me (I was bullied a bit when I was younger). It was probably the second time I had this response that I realized how strange that was. After all, at no point in this process had anyone set out to hurt me. Why did I feel like my phone was being mean to me?

After some reflection, I concluded that how I really felt was misunderstood. I was trying to communicate with my phone, via its touchscreen interface (which was designed for human fingers) and it seemed to be completely misunderstanding my instructions and ignoring them or vehemently disobeying them. I had unwittingly personified my phone to a huge extent, so it really hurt when I felt like it was ignoring me while I was going out of my way to communicate with it (eg. turning the phone to put UI elements in different places so I could access them). This would be like asking someone close to you (smartphones are companions) for help and having them plug their ears, sing, and then do something random that might be slightly related to what you were asking. They’d be taunting you.

Moving forward as a designer

When I couldn’t use the interface, I felt hurt.

I’m a designer, a hacker, and an engineering student, so I make things with interfaces. In fact, I’m quite passionate about user experience (UX) and interface design. While my phone’s flaky touchscreen was obviously not intentional, I believe that what I’ve learned here apply into conscious interface design as well. This kind of revelation is less of a “how” than a “why”. That is, prior to these experiences, I had had no idea that interfaces could cause such an emotional impact.

When my smartphone became stupid, it didn’t lose processing power. It simply lost the ability to communicate with me, and that felt far worse than I could have possibly expected. I’m going to remember this every time I design an interface.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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