Emotion & Design: The Emotional Experience Design Framework


The last 40 years have seen a revolution in our thinking of experiences, consumers, and design.

From the 1980s an increasing current has shifted from the paradigm of ‘consumers as agents seeking to maximise utility’ to a more global perspective where consumers are not as interested in maximising benefits but instead “seek hedonistic gratification within a given social context.” Consumption here provokes sensations and emotions that do much more than merely respond to an individual’s own needs, as they also touch upon the consumer’s search for identity.

The industry has responded to this new paradigm with the rise of new marketing frameworks. Experiential marketing focuses on designing ‘experiences’, taking into consideration the whole spectrum of interactions between an user and a product or service. This includes how the user gets to hear about the product all the way to how he or she disposes of it.

Experiential Marketing takes into consideration that an experience develops over time. Our experiences are composed of a series of events, and we have began to question how we can optimize our path through the individual events.

Narratives are a fundamental way by which we structure and make sense of our lives. It is unsurprising, then, that experiences can be created around a story and that “Servicescapes created around a story are built on narrative techniques and dramaturgy”

The notion that we are purely rational creatures has been dispelled definitively by behavioural economics and, over the last decades, we have seen an increased awareness of the role emotions play in our decision making and perception. However, the way we have been designing the spaces we inhabit, the products we use, and the services we deliver has only taken emotions into partial consideration.

Having come to this realization, I set to understand how we could create a framework to take emotions into account when designing services, products, and generally experiences. Little did I know the mess I was getting into.

Emotions are a blurry subject. Many researchers across fields use the term but rarely define what they mean by it. The result is contradictory statements and frameworks that can’t be used outside their narrow field.

It took me several months to make sense of the information, and several more to adapt the framework into something myself and others could actually use.

The result is something I called The Emotional Design Framework. What follows is my own synthesis of different research papers and many conversations and trials through which the model evolved into its current shape.

The Emotional Design Framework has been successfully used in projects ranging from company websites to health services, from restaurant meals to virtual reality.

By writing these lines, I hope the Emotional Design framework can be of further use to design better and more meaningful experiences.

Sources discussion and disclaimer:

The concern of the Emotional Design Framework is the creation of an experience. The model and the subsequent definitions do not intend to replace the research in cognitive theory, neuroscience or philosophy, but instead aims to offer a practical tool for design work.

As previously mentioned, the definition of emotion varies across disciplines and “A unified theory or model of emotional states currently does not exist”*1

*1http://emotion-research.net/projects/humaine/earl/proposal> (accessed 16/09/2016)

So, after a review of literature, I used a mixed model (combining basic emotional theories and dimensional emotional theories ) for understanding emotions. The framework is based in the conclusions of the following two meta-analysis:

Vytal and Hamann (2009), ‘Neuroimaging Support for Discrete Neural Correlates of Basic Emotions: A Voxel-based Metaanalysis’


Kreibig et al. (2010), ‘Autonomic Activity in Emotion: A Review’

Understanding Emotions: Key Concepts

Perceptions, stimulus and sensations:

When going about our daily lives, we are affected by our surroundings. The ‘things’ present in reality such as sounds, light, solid materials, etc. are the building blocks that we use and modify to designing an experience. For example, by adding music, benches, or a screen with images.

We generally refer to this’ things’ as Stimuli when our bodies and our brain react to them. Concretely, Stimuli are “the stimulation of a sensory receptor which produces neural impulses.”

Allow me to clarify. You have probably heard the expression “ when a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there, does it makes a sound?”. For our purpose, if no one hears the tree falling, the sound is an ‘object’. On the contrary, if someone hears it, we are talking about a ‘Stimuli’.

When our bodies sense stimuli, they translate it into electric impulses that travel to the brain through the nervous system and are in turn translated into abstract representations such as sound, visual images, odor, taste, pain, etc. These abstract representations are called Sensations.

When all the sensations are put together by the brain, the result is an even more abstract form that constitutes our perception of reality.


Sensing warmth vs. perceiving being near the fire

Sensing the sound vs. perceiving music playing

Sensing a taste vs. perceiving it is beef

The process of interpreting the world to create our perception of reality is complex:

  • Certain stimuli can be took weak to be perceived (absolute threshold. ex. ultraviolet light), too similar to be perceived (difference threshold. ex. Lifting 10kg vs. lifting 10.01kg), or we can get accustomed to stimuli and stop perceiving them (sensory adaptation. ex. you stop smelling the perfume you are wearing after a few seconds but others still can).
  • In some occasions, we rely more on context to decide what something is, but in other occasions we rely more on the individual features. This is called Bottom-up or Top-down processing.
  • Natural settings use more bottoms-up processing, while pictures depicting humans use more tops-down processing.

From <http://psychlopedia.wikispaces.com/Sensation+%26+Perception>

From <http://allpsych.com/psychology101/sensation_perception/#.VSpaX_nF-PM>

From <https://www.boundless.com/psychology/textbooks/boundless-psychology-textbook/sensation-and-perception-5/the-basics-of-perception-39/introducing-the-perception-process-167-12702/issues/new/>


Emotions are complex responses to perceptions. They work by generating (mostly temporal) physical and chemical changes in our bodies and brains to adapt and better respond to our surroundings.

Emotions have two main range of expressions:


  • Related to the cortex of the brain
  • Related to conscious thoughts and dispositions (affection, interest, clam, impulsive, doubtful, reserved, bored, etc)


  • Related to the amygdala in the brain
  • Triggers a set of physiological changes (e.g. Heart rate changes, release of body, chemicals such as adrenaline, facial expressions)

Psychological and physiological expressions have a two ways relationship with emotions. Amy Cuddy has been researching this extensively and has a great talk on the subject. Her research shows that our emotions lead us to undertake certain behaviours, but that undertaking a certain behaviour is by itself also capable of changing our emotions.

Emotions can be understood as ‘modes’. Different ‘modes’ allow us to prioritize what we pay attention to and facilitate acting in ways that will be most beneficial for us. For example, when being faced by a tiger, fear help us forget the tasty apples in the corner and instead optimizes our mind and body to flee or fight.

The relationship between perception and emotions is also two ways. We derive emotions (e.g. fear) from perceptions (e.g. perceiving the tiger), and perceptions (e.g. “no apples”) are in turn affected by emotions.

To classify the complexity that entails an emotion, we use a matrix of”Dimensional Descriptions” (more info here).

Dimensional descriptions capture two essential properties of emotional states: Arousal (active/passive) and Valence (negative/positive). As such, our matrix looks like this:

Emotions in Time:

We don’t perceive time as a continuum. Instead, as previously mentioned, we rationalize our lives as stories, and cluster different memories into chapters or smaller events.

To incorporate this complexity into our framework, we divide our experience designs into emotional events: temporal events where a particular set of emotions is experienced as a result of the stimuli perceived during the period.

When we group the independent emotions into an event, we end up with an overall “valence” or tendency (positive or negative) for that event. We refer to emotional events with a marked valence tendency simply as positive emotional events or negative emotional events.

The Emotional Path:

As our users go through an experience, following the sequence of (emotional) events that compose it, we say that they are going through an ‘Emotional Path’.

Stories follow a particular pattern who has remained relatively constant thru the ages (ancient times to current date), across all mediums (movies, opera, oral tradition, etc) and across cultures (from east to west, north to south, including indigenous cultures around the world) and across different genders (fairy tales, dramas, tragedies, comedies, etc)*.

*A recent paper by a group of researchers identified 6 emotional arcs for stories.

For example, this is how the emotional path of a classic hero story looks like:

Designing the Experience:

The design of experiences works in several layers:

  • Defining an intention (what is the reason for us designing this experience, what do we want to achieve).
  • The emotional path we take users through that best helps us achieve the intention.
  • The emotional events that compose the emotional path.
  • The individual stimuli to generate the emotional events in the user.

To manage the complexity of layers, it is essential to use a fast cycle, iterative process. We recommend following the Creative Design Thinking Method to maximize both efficiency and quality.

Further work:

The Emotional Design Framework in its current shape is designed for linear experiences, where the user is ‘forced’ to follow a predetermined path. A model for nonlinear experiences is yet to be developed.

I hope you have found these lines useful. This text is currently a work in progress and any comments are welcomed!

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