Mapping the Space of Emotional Biosensing Designs and Charting New Directions

Emotional biosensing is on the rise in daily life: Technologies use data and algorithms to claim to know how people feel and suggest what they should be doing about it. Prevalent approaches to emotional biosensing are too limited, focusing on the individual, optimization, and normative categorization.

My research helps explore critical alternatives for emotional biosensing design. As a design researcher, I survey and map the landscape of emotional biosensing technologies, and synthesize critical alternative design directions for this space. I work through conceptual moves and apply them to emotional biosensing, drawing from design theories on materiality, performativity, biopolitics, and affect. I call for humility in knowledge claims with emotional biosensing and prioritizing care and affirmation over self-improvement. Biosensing designs need to critically question and generatively re-imagine the role of data in configuring sensing, feeling, ‘the good life’, and everyday experience.

From left: Spire Stone monitors breathing to detect states of calm, tension, and focus. The Feel wristband claims to be the world's first emotion sensor and mental health advisor. Oura ring helps track sleep and activity for wellness and productivity.


Biosensing technologies track many aspects of daily life, including emotions, in sometimes unexpected ways. For example, video surveillance can be used to ‘detect’ percentages of joy, contempt, or anger, ‘hostile intent’ threats at airports, or heartrate. Heartrate can be linked to stress or future involvement in violent crime. Mobile phone and Instagram data can be linked to depression diagnoses. Abilify, a medication for depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia, tracks whether patients ingest it to ensure compliance.

It is difficult to know or manage how we will be categorized from the seemingly innocuous data we give off by appearing on surveillance cameras or using a mobile phone, or how these correlative categorizations might masquerade as authoritative predictive insights.

For those of us not (yet) categorized as ‘crazy’ or ‘criminal’, or those deemed ‘healthy’, consumer products urge self-improvement via data-driven behavioral modifications. Microsoft Band promised, “This device can know me better than I know myself, and can help me be a better human”, with “actionable insights” to help “live healthier and achieve more ”. Wristband sensor Feel claimed to be the “world's first emotion sensor and well-being advisor”. Wearable breath monitor Spire offered to help “gift wrap peace of mind this Christmas”, reducing stress and improving mindfulness. Some of these products have shifted focus or been discontinued, but they represent a prevalent narrative of data-assisted self-improvement. Certainly we all need help emotionally sometimes, and these technologies may help some people. Yet, these devices illustrate a prevalent approach to emotional biosensing that is far too limited.

Emotional biosensing technologies promote a particular normative vision of ‘the good life’ limited by a focus on individual wellness, self-improvement, and workplace productivity. While there is positive potential here, these limitations point to opportunities for broadening the design space with emotional biosensing.

Contributing conceptual reworkings

Materiality of data: I sketch how a broad shift from abstract representationalism to sociomaterial performativity opens critical alternatives for emotional biosensing. Rather than treating data as something immaterial to be represented, attending to the materiality of data sensing and display opens new possibilities for interpretation and experience. (This section draws from Vallgårda, Dourish, Mazmanian, Giaccardi, Karana...)

From representation to performativity: Treating sensing/display not as passive representations but as active performances or responses offers opportunities for social meaning making and experiential, expressive displays. Emotional biosensing designs should treat affect, feeling, and emotion as embodied, dynamic, and fluid rather than abstract, static, discrete categories. (Höök, Wilde, Schiphorst, Klooster, Verbeek...)

Affect-as-interaction: Continuing this performative shift, reframing affect from a kind of abstract information to affect as socially enacted in interaction adds sociocultural nuance to emotional biosensing. We call for humility in the emotional knowledge claims made by design, leaving more open to human interpretation, adaptation, and contestation. (Boehner et al.)

From inter-action to intra-action: Shifting further to posthumanist performativity, we outline how agential realism can help emotional biosensing designs attend to how materials shape meaning-making and prompt reflexivity about which materials, people, or categories are assumed to be separate. (Barad)

Biopolitics: Attending to biopolitics calls for embracing a diversity of voices and ways of knowing with emotional biosensing. We suggest designs with intentionally reduced authority are worth exploring, and that emotional biosensing designs can leverage negative affect as a resource of building community, support, and collective action. (Lorde, Noble, Imhotep, Hirsch et al., Deleuze, Foucault...)

Affect/desire: Reframing affect and desire as pre-individual, we call for emotional biosensing designers to critically reflect on the desires our designs legitimize, and on the societal structures that make those desires seem appropriate. We argue that emotional biosensing designs should prioritize care, affirmation, respect, and recognition over self-improvement. Designs can encourage peopel to trust themselves to be ‘emotionally good/safe enough’ with room to explore and change rather than only seek self-improvement according to predefined norms. More broadly, designs should explore a wide range of desires with emotional biosensing. (Ahmed, Lacan, Deleuze & Guattari, Massumi...)

For full citations please refer to the paper itself.

Biodata as Material

In collaboration with Vasiliki Tsaknaki, Tom Jenkins, Laurens Boer, Sarah Homewood, and Pedro Sanches, we hosted a workshop on challenges and opportunities for designing with biodata as material. This workshop explored four thematic areas of biodata designs:

Making sense of biodata by considering a holistic perspective including body, mind, and emotions

Feminist perspectives of biodata that consider bodily transitions, a plurality of bodies and bodily experiences, and differing bodily temporalities

Non-anthropocentric perspectives with biodata, to more broadly consider other organisms and non-human material agencies

Health and affective contexts of working with data produced by our bodies


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Challenges and Opportunities for Designing with Biodata as Material. 2020. Vasiliki Tsaknaki, Tom Jenkins, Laurens Boer, Sarah Homewood, Noura Howell, Pedro Sanches. Proceedings of the 11th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction: Shaping Experiences, Shaping Society. url , pdf

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Emotional Biosensing: Exploring Critical Alternatives. 2018. Noura Howell, John Chuang, Abigail De Kosnik, Greg Niemeyer, Kimiko Ryokai. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction. url , pdf

2018 - present