Understanding Emotional Experience: The Meanings of Comfort

The idea of "comfort" is essential in many user experiences, but how do people think about comfort in their everyday lives? More importantly, how might these conceptions help us to better understand future technologies? As I conducted these interviews, the guiding framework was, broadly speaking, “The Internet of Things” as well as an opportunity to understand notions of comfort across a range of physical spaces. Ultimately, I came to understand that notions of comfort are always associated with notions of home. 

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Based on a series of interviews about comfort, two important patterns began to emerge. The two major themes that I noticed in the responses are: 

(1) the idea of comfort as relating to other people, and
(2) the idea of comfort as relating to objects or things

These two broad categories divided most of the responses, although in some cases there was an overlap. These two different perspectives provide a lens with which to consider how comfort plays a role in good user experiences, as well as what design guidelines might emerge when thinking about the Internet of Things as it might exist in the home. 

Comfort as a connection to other people

The following are quotes from  participants:

“I guess the last time I really experienced comfort was when I was home over the holidays and I was staying in my childhood bedroom, with my childhood things, books and my old desk and bed and everything. And spending time with my family, which is always a comfortable place for me. The house was warm and there is a fireplace and all that. Very picturesque (laughs) and I have a lot of siblings too. I have 3 brothers and 2 sisters, so when we’re all together in the house it’s very comforting.” —Josh, undergrad, ~20
“On Thursday last week I went to lunch with 2 nurse friends, both retired, who I had not seen for some time. We met at a restaurant and over salad and coffee talked for 4 hours without one moment of “ not sure what to say next” or “wish I was somewhere else” It felt very connected.”—Beth, Nurse, ~60
“I had food poisoning last Sunday right before flying. I was uncomfortable the entire flight. I was nauseated, light-headed, feverish, and worried that I would get sick on the plane. I felt comforted when my friend picked me up and took me home. He stopped at the store on the way so I could get provisions like chicken broth and ginger ale, and then made sure I had everything I needed before I crawled into bed to sleep” —Donny, graduate student, ~30

Comfort as a connection to objects and things

The following are quotes from participants:

“The last time I felt really comfortable was last weekend when I slept in. I usually wake up really early (like 5am) to go to the gym. But I always take Sundays off, so I stayed in bed until almost 10 and even though I was awake by 9, I just laid in bed for an hour, and it was really cozy and warm and soft. It was very relaxing and I felt comfortable.  ” —Natalie, profession unknown, ~35

“A recent experience when I felt comfortable was last weekend when I spent the entire day watching Star Wars movies back to back for the entire day. I didn’t talk to anyone, or even leave my house (and practically never left my couch) and it was really nice. I had a really busy week and I just needed a day off, so I basically turned my phone off and hibernated for the entire day. It was pretty wonderful.”
—Elliott, graduate student, ~25


“Reading a book listening to music, drinking a cup of coffee with some chocolate melting in my mouth.”—Greg, Librarian, ~50

“I recently had a hectic day in this cold city and when I got home, I got under some blankets and watched a movie with no noises or intrusions from outside my apartment. I was comfortable.”—Adam, Software Developer, ~30


In order to further narrow these two broad categories, it’s worth noting some of the specific words that interviewees used when defining comfort and sharing their stories. As I reviewed the transcripts, I highlighted relevant words that emerged naturally from study, and then divided them into four categories—sensory experience, escape, tangible, emotions. The goal of this categorization was to find patterns and discover potential implications for future technologies. This chart illustrates the specific word choices, and if a word was used by more than one interviewee (or more than once by a single interviewee) I included it in the chart multiple times. Some words fit into multiple categories.

The key takeaway from this is that nearly every participant mentioned things that occur at home. Whether connecting with friends or family, or reading a book on the couch, almost everyone seemed to gravitate towards some notion of comfort at home. This shapes my design guidelines, as I have focused them around this idea of home, and what role comfort plays in personal space.  


Designs must be accessible and easy to use.
No one wants to deal with complex technology, or challenging situations, when they are seeking comfort. Users want simple situations—bundled up in bed, reading a book, enjoying Mac N’ Cheese—these are situations that do not require a lot of complex machinery, tools, or steps to accomplish. There should be few hurdles on the road to comfort.  

Designs must account for tangibility and physical space.
Nearly every response included a reference to physical space or sensory experience. This is an important design consideration because much of our technology actually removes us from our physical space. Although these things may provide social connection, we cannot wrap ourselves in Facebook, or cuddle up with Twitter. We must have tangible spaces—living rooms, bedrooms, couches, chairs, beds, and blankets—in which we can feel comfort in the most physical of ways. A networked home might be able to adjust itself depending on what kind of physical space a user is in the mood for. Lighting, the softness of a bed or chair, music, heat and temperature control, are all things that can be automatically adjusted to influence a person’s physical space.  

Designs must provide connectivity.
Most respondents, in one way or another, commented on the need for connection when seeking comfort. For some, this meant connecting to other people, for others this meant connecting to objects and things. For example, a quick and easy way to get in touch with a friend might be helpful, or, in the case where one interviewee said he was sick and his friend had to take him to the store to get provisions like chicken soup—what if there was way for these items to simply show up by the time he got home? A networked home would be able to provide these things.

The ability to disconnect.
Despite the need to connect, many of the responses pointed to a concerted desire to disconnect from technology. There must be a simple way to shut it all down. When someone wants to sit quietly and read, they don’t necessarily need access to other kinds of technology, and in fact a completely networked house might provide too many distractions. There must be a way to disconnect from the system when a user wants to spend a moment free of disruption, sound, contact, or interaction with other people.