The “quantified self” movement offers many doodads for tracking, analyzing, and visualizing your physical activity. But what about your mental activity, your inner life, your ups and downs and joys and blues and everything in between? Until now, the only way to log that kind of stuff was in a journal. But if you have an iPhone, you can install an app called Expereal and start digitally moodtracking right now.
The comparison to health gadgets isn’t accidental: Expereal’s creator, Jonathan Cohen, tells Co.Design that he explicitly built the app “to serve as an emotional-mental complement to the ‘quantified self’ tools like Fitbit and Nike Fuelband and Jawbone UP.” His main inspiration was Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which identified a curious cognitive bias we all share: We tend to remember only the emotional content of how something ended, rather than what we were feeling as we were actually experiencing it.
A personal example: My wife and I took our eight-month-old on a trip to the Bahamas earlier this year. A lot of it sucked (duh: eight-month-olds don’t like long flights, unfamiliar food, or sunburn). But by the last day or two of the trip, we had our routine down and were actually enjoying ourselves. Presto: Thanks to my cognitive bias, I remember the whole thing as a “good” vacation.
If I had been using Expereal during that vacation, I could have logged the “reality” of my feelings as they happened. I’d have rated each moment I chose to log on a scale of 1 to 10, visualized as a gorgeous watercolored inkblot that blooms onscreen (the higher the rating, the bigger the blot). I could’ve added tags and descriptions to each of these moments to give them additional context. At the end of the vacation, I could’ve generated a lovely data visualization of my true experience, showing my average mood and also comparing its numerical value to those of other Expereal users.
But what value would that have brought me? I’m not entirely sure. Neither is Cohen, to his credit: “Does reviewing this analysis lead to improved self-understanding? And does improved self-understanding lead to a better life? Honestly, I hope so, but I just don’t know yet. Personally, I have found value in periodically asking myself how my life is going, and seeing the number and associated tags–perhaps merely as a moment of self-care amidst quotidian chaos.”
Here’s the trouble: feelings aren’t calories–they’re multidimensional, they don’t map to linear numerical data very well, and there’s no such thing as an “ideal” range or zone to aim for by tracking them. As such, the analogy to the quantified-self movement, and of Expereal as a “Fitbit for your mental/emotional life,” feels mismatched at best. We’re not robots. Feelings can’t be quantified.
But Cohen designed this app because he was sincerely curious to see if it would help people, not to encourage constant, neurotic self-consciousness. And he designed the hell out of it: from the handprinted logo by Ricardo Santos to the warm, humanist art direction of the app itself (the typography and color palette, says Cohen, were inspired by the work of graphic designer Reid Miles, famous for designing album covers for Miles Davis). The user experience of Expereal is pretty spot on: It feels like journaling rather than data-logging.
In fact, if you think of Expereal as a different, more visual, more pointillistic kind of journaling–rather than as an emotional version of a pedometer–Cohen’s vision makes a bit more sense. We all know what Socrates said about the unexamined life. Why shouldn’t our devices help us find new ways to reflect on our experiences and find meaning in them? Expereal may not be perfect, but its designer’s intentions are in the right place.