Teen Audiences

Multimedia Design with an Eye toward Emotions: Why Emotional Design is Central to Creating Better Learning Environments

Are you ever aware of your emotions while learning new information? Have you ever noticed or wondered why it seems easier to learn new information when you’re in a good mood compared to when you’re in a bad mood?

Emotions are thought to be important for learning in any context, but particularly in the context of multimedia environments. In fact, emotional design of multimedia environments aim to evoke emotions for better learning by tapping into emotional and motivational processes. Specifically, individuals who are highly engaged and motivated to complete an educational activity are also more likely to learn from it. This suggests that that the joy learners experience from interacting with a digital learning environment, likely influences a learner’s feelings about the experience, even outside of the digital environment. Thus, highly emotional contexts may be better support for learning. 

One type of learning context that is highly engaging and motivating is game-based learning environments. The research team at the CREATE Lab of New York University examined emotions in game-based digital learning environments. They examined how color, shape, expression, and dimensionality of game characters could be used to induce emotions in a digital game-based learning environment among adolescent learners. After being shown a pair of game characters, participants reported their emotions by selecting the character that best matched the target emotion word (e.g., happy or sad). It was found that the game character’s facial expression (e.g., smiling, neutral, frowning) affected participants’ choices the most. By contrast, dimensionality (e.g., 2D or 3D visual appearance) appeared to affect participants' the most in immersive virtual reality settings. The color of the character (e.g., warm or grayscale pigments) and the shape of the character (e.g., round or square)  influenced decisions to a lesser extent. These findings demonstrate how visual features of a game character could influence how a user feels. More importantly, the findings may suggest that in order to make users feel positively and to promote their learning, designers only need to change a very specific and simple aspect of the digital game environment: character expressions.

In another study, researchers at the CREATE Lab examined whether playing a version of  game-based training with emotional design was associated with improvements in cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is defined as the ability to flexibly shift between different mental sets and is often measured by how well an individual can learn a new rule for sorting objects by the object’s shape, color, etc. The results indicated that older adolescents improved most on mental set shifting when they played the emotionally designed version (e.g., expressive game characters, warm colors, responsive features) of the game compared with those who played a neutral-looking version (e.g., non-expressive game characters, neutral and grayscale pigments, non-responsive features) of the same game. Taken together, these findings highlight the possibilities for educators and developers to consciously and strategically integrate foundations of emotional design into digital environments to improve learning outcomes. 

There are many possibilities for incorporating elements of emotional design into digital learning environments. While research in this area points to fruitful opportunities, there is evidence that emotional design is associated with increased enjoyment, engagement, and performance. By better applying principles of emotional design to multimedia, we can improve learning outcomes. Both developers and consumers could benefit from understanding emotional design, and how it can be used to sustain engagement for optimal learning through moderate use in digital learning environments that possess educational rigor.

Actionable insights for content creators: 

  • Begin with the user in mind. What appeals to the target audience? Considering what personalization, choice, themes, etc. might appeal to the idealized user is important. Particularly for children and adolescents, consciously designing such that the product is not only attractive but also developmentally appropriate is crucial. 

  • Align emotional design choices with the goals of learning. To understand this recommendation, it may be helpful to understand the distinction between game mechanics and learning mechanics. Game mechanics refer to the methods employed by users that invoke interaction within a game state. Learning mechanics, by contrast, refer to the methods users engage in while performing a learning task within the game. Incorporating emotional design that is not connected with task-specific learning objectives may confuse the user and detract from the effectiveness of task engagement. Ultimately, if integrated properly, emotional design can serve to bypass this confusion and improve associated outcomes.

  • Test, evaluate, and design. In the course of designing or evaluating a multimedia learning environment, it is important to understand the users’ actual experience with it. Sometimes “idealized users” (i.e., those imagined by game designers or researchers) don’t reflect the interests and needs of the real users or the target population. Thus, determining how a real life user would interact within the learning environment and using this information to re-design and adjust the environment accordingly can help enhance the users’ learning. 

  • Check your emotions when evaluating “educational” learning environments. Not all multimedia digital learning environments are designed for learning, even the ones carrying the label “educational.” These labels are often not applied with any clear or rigorous standards for accountability. A recent developmental science policy report indicated children are spending a considerable amount of time immersed in digital media, and the long-term consequences for development are still not entirely understood. While we may not fully understand the developmental consequences, it should be recognized that emotional design can also lead users down a garden path of intense engagement without substantive learning, even though it contains so many positive applications.

Teresa M. Ober & Maya C. Rose

The Graduate Center CUNY