Loneliness was declared by World Economic Forum as one of five biggest threats to humans in 2019. This followed up on last year’s project by BBC named ‘The Loneliness Experiment’, which surprisingly reported 16-24 year olds to be loneliest age group.

It seems growth in digital inclusiveness is also fuelling the feeling of loneliness among people. Despite digital being a ubiquitous medium today, and its evolution over the last two decades, digital platforms and products are still found wanting to fulfil the emotional needs of users.

Over the last decade, Facebook and Twitter have evolved to become possibly the biggest repository of human emotions. And Facebook, in spite of expanding its repertoire to let users express their reaction from just liking to Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry, still seems woefully short of providing possibilities for people to express or record the subtle emotions they actually experience.

Native human experience informs that humans express themselves through a plethora of emotions. But it was only in 1980s that a concerted study of emotion was done by Robert Plutchik who came up with Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, which maps 8 base emotions and as many as 56 variants that humans use in their expressions. A more recent study by University of California in 2017 indicates that there are 27 distinct types of emotion. In short, human expression needs a variety and spectrum.

Like design, emotional sophistication needs practice

Digital inclusiveness has meant that humans end up spending a large part of their waking hours interacting with digital interfaces. But this has also led to diminishing of avenues and scenarios for humans to express their emotions. Eventually the less people will use their emotional brushes, the more they will tend to lose their emotional sophistication. In design terms, it is like limiting our design expression to black, blue, red, yellow, green and white.

Just as the understanding of colors and the art of using them evolves from practice and play – so does emotion call for constant interaction before users can understand or master the range of emotions. Not every relative’s death calls for weeping – but it is the strength of the emotional bonding that makes one feel sad, remorseful, despondent, depressed, gloomy, desolate, forlorn and lonely.

Digital transformation is gobbling up human interactions

With technological advancement, human to human contact is decreasing; artificial intelligence and machine learning adds yet another layer of indirection. Even our daily life services support have moved from human interaction to voice interaction over phone, and is now gradually moving to IVR, Chat bots and mobile apps.

Increasingly, the digital transformation of business and growth in digital transactions is happening at the expense of human interaction. And these automated customer transactions come at an emotional cost – direct or indirect. It is all the more reason to have these services designed such that they are infused with the required human touch at each interaction scenario.

These services may be good for business as they are efficient and consistent, but are they good for humans and for their emotional state? We may soon arrive at a time in future, where a person may spend the whole day getting the tasks and jobs done without experiencing any real human interaction. Limiting human interaction amounts to ‘eating or swallowing up the emotions’. Not being allowed to express anger, admiration or satisfaction also means that these emotions start to eat us back and the human slowly become emotionally hardened or stoic.

For products & brands, loneliness is the opportunity

Though still to be researched extensively, there seems to be co-relation between loneliness and the diminishing opportunities for humans to interact in real life and not being able to express their emotions fully. The bottling up of emotions is slowly manifesting as loneliness. But loneliness is also an opportunity and it will pay for products and brands to design their interaction to be emotionally rich and responsible.

The cornerstone of any brand equity, customer relationship or product strategy is emotions. Most of the successful business, brand and product over the last century have been built with emotional fulfillment as the bedrock. As the world of digital moves from digital inclusiveness to digital submersion, it needs to be kept in perspective that it takes an emotionally healthy person to meaningfully engage with a product or brand.

Published on 7 November 2021.

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