• February 6, 2009
  • By Melanie Polkosky Human Factors Psychologist & Consultant - IBM/Center for Multimedia Arts (University of Memphis)
  • Interact

Politically Speaking...and Reacting

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Donald Norman, the great cognitive psychologist, writes about the various levels of cognitive processing that occur when we interact with technology. Our most automatic and immediate reactions are affective, visceral ones that have been part of our evolutionary birthright to determine fight or flee. Our later-emerging cognitions are the problem-solving, analytic, reasoning abilities to make sense of an interaction. I recently had an experience that dramatically highlighted the differences between these two complementary systems.  

During a sunny October day, I found myself in my parents’ living room in the swing state of Pennsylvania. The phone rang. Tripping over my daughter in a fast commando crawl, I stumbled into the kitchen to yank the phone from its station over an ancient microwave. A man’s voice I didn’t recognize was talking fast, not waiting for me to say anything back, and I juggled the phone while I shushed Grandpa and my 2-year-old, who were playing trains. Pause, intense listening, followed by confusion. Then I caught two words:  “Bill Ayers.” Who?  Do I know Bill? I barely heard some more: “Pentagon…killed Americans...leftist agenda.” 

“You guys! Be quiet, I can’t hear this call!” More confusion. What is he talking about? Who is this? And then, “…This call was paid for by McCain/Palin 2008.” Momentary realization, disgust, and then I bang the phone down. What a jarring interruption to my peaceful, play-filled afternoon. “I just got robocalled!” I announced when I stomped back to my family, who didn’t hear me over the clanging of the new  black train engine.

In the weeks since, that robocall has been hogging my brain space. I hear the guy’s angry voice and his tumble of loaded words that didn’t really make sense. It didn’t make a difference in how I voted; my vote was decided long before the robocall. Instead, what stuck with me was my anger—anger at being interrupted, anger at that angry guy’s voice, and anger at unsolicited political messaging. Hours afterward, I felt decidedly unsettled without quite being able to put my finger on why. My affective reaction was unreservedly negative. I suppose if I were an ancient cavewoman, I’d have fled the scene.

And yet my higher cognitions went on a completely different tangent. Why yes, I said to myself, there must be a lesson in here somewhere, a kernel of uncovered truth. I’ve endlessly pondered why that guy sounded so stressed out. Did he want me to feel indignant? 

Why was my emotional reaction so strong? I’ve mentally rewritten the script about 20 times, tweaking the wording, recrafting the message, and targeting the tone to be presidential, confident, and upbeat. I’ve imagined a recording session, with Sen. McCain, of course, to give the call a personal edge. “I’m terribly sorry, sir. Would you mind just stressing ‘vote’ there instead? Yes, yes, that’s much better. Thank you, sir. And please say it directly to your daughter, sir.  I want the voters to hear the smile in your voice.” And what about background music? Something to lift my spirits and make me feel the patriotism of voting in this historic election.  

In my mind’s eye, I see the TV commentators’ surprise at our candidate’s innovative use of technology. Chris Wallace would applaud Sen. McCain instead of grilling him into defensiveness, and Anderson Cooper would utter, “Yeah, pretty cool.” Even my favorite political debater-friend Wendy would widen her eyes and say in a whisper, “I can’t believe you helped McCain win. What are ya doing, Mel?”  

Ah, all in a day’s work for a voice interaction designer, my dear. We wield enormous power, don’t ya know?

Snap back to reality. I wanted to see what all of my mental fuss was about, so I decided to YouTube the robocall. This little exercise demonstrated yet another important aspect of technology interaction: We remember the emotional reaction it creates, not the details of the experience. I was surprised to find out that this call lasted only about 30 seconds. Thirty? That’s it?  It felt like an eternity. The guy didn’t really sound too terribly angry (maybe just irritated and emphatic), although he did talk fast. The script wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as horrible as it might have been. It seems the call, combined with the interruption in my life, was what left the bitter taste in my mouth. Too bad for McCain. Methinks robocalls just reinforced the pundits’ assertions that his campaign imploded at the end. 

President Obama, I wish you grand success in your new term. Don’t forget, we designers are out here to help you use technology wisely. We wield enormous power, don’t ya know? 

Melanie Polkosky, Ph.D., is a social-cognitive psychologist and speech language pathologist who has researched and designed speech, graphic, and multimedia user experiences for more than 12 years. She is currently a human factors psychologist and senior consultant at IBM. She can be reached at polkosky@comcast.net.

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