Emotional Intelligence in Design

How Design Grows Up

We’re on a journey together, you and me. We’ve come a long way, but design for the web is still in its adolescence. In the early aughts we learned to build websites without tables, then we learned to use data to make decisions. Emotion never played a role in driving page views, purchases or video plays. We just needed to get people from point A to point B. People live their entire lives online now, we’re embarking on a new frontier as designers; we’re designing frameworks for people to exist online — a lot like they do offline.

I first started to notice the disconnect between design and how people actually live after my mom died. Every Mother’s Day my inbox filled with messages suggesting gifts for my dead mom. It used to sting, especially when I worked at a greeting card company and all 10 of my test accounts would be bombarded with reminders she was gone. I felt utterly alone in those moments, but somewhere a marketer was watching open rates and conversions go up and to the right. They weren’t thinking about me, and it’s not personal, they’re making something for the majority of people — people whose moms don’t happen to be dead. Almost a decade later I’m pretty used to it, but I know even the most benign design can be loaded with risk.

To verify my identity, this site asked if I knew my dead mom.

When I worked in travel we ran the risk of sending people promotions based on trips they had booked for funerals. When I worked in insurance people most commonly accessed their policy documents after experiencing an accident. In one user test a woman was shown her credit score in an effort to provide more helpful context about how her auto policy rate was calculated. Confronted with this number she broke down in tears, the score triggered memories of a terrible hospitalization that had caused her family financial crisis. Even filing your taxes can be anxiety inducing if you’re down to the wire and can’t make sense of the software. People completing seemingly straightforward tasks do so in a variety of contexts and life circumstances. Humanity can be sad, complicated and messy. We don’t stop being human when we go online.
Sometimes even when you’re trying to make something with the best intentions, something can go terribly wrong. Sometimes the very tools you create to protect people cause harm. What can we do?

For years designers have approached software as though it were neutral: here’s a set of options, now complete a task. In reality, people interact with software like it’s a human. As designers, we can shift our approach to thinking about how people might feel using our products much like we would think about having a conversation with another person. The ability to handle relationships and be aware of emotions is called emotional intelligence, and it’s what’s often missing in software design today.

Emotional intelligence is defined with five characteristics:

  1. Self awareness
  2. Self regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. People skills

Self Awareness

The difficult thing about “know thyself” as it applies to software, is that software doesn’t have feelings. Ultimately what’s expressed to a person using software is either explicit from a designer when we have opinions and try to persuade, or implicitly from how the interaction makes the person feel.
For example, on Facebook, we want to be respectful guardians of people’s data, so in ad settings we want people to declare intent about how they want to be advertised to. This is in contrast to presenting an array of every possible option which a person may never take action on. We ask how you want to see ads: “Do you want to see ads based on your behavior?” This is how we designed empowerment: we gave people the tools to make an informed choice, by not muddying the message with all of the more granular options within that choice.

Standing on top of mountains reminds me how small I am

It’s easy for designers to be aware of our opinions and design interactions that support the outcomes we want. Being aware of how non-choices affect an experience is much more challenging. Emotions spread. Humans mirror. If a people perceive an interface as expressing an emotion, they are likely to also feel that emotion. Whether designers intend to or not, we’re building relationships. Imagine the relationship you might have with a piece of government software as if it were a person. How do we act and feel in relationships? Things can escalate quickly. An interaction could be just the latest in a series of slights, it’s like the app just left a wet towel on the floor or forgot to take out the trash. You’re screaming in your head “I can’t believe it’s doing this to me!” Maybe it’s preventing you from doing something really important, like renewing your license. This has a real effect on our bodies. A universal trigger for anger is a sense of endangerment, which can be signaled not just with physical threat, but more often symbolic threats: being treated unjustly, or being insulted and demeaned. This creates an energy surge in our body which lasts several minutes, but the effects of which can last much longer.

Self Regulation

The risk with the neutrality of software is that we may be able to understand every possible logical outcome in a situation (though often we don’t) but we’re unable to assign values to those outcomes. This is especially true with binary systems: a person completes a task or they don’t. This sounds neutral, when in fact the consequences of not completing the task could range from inconvenient to devastating. This lack of awareness is where we get into trouble and sometimes unintentionally do harm. Reason without feeling is blind.

Intensity can’t be quantified.

What is the cost of a decision that harms a few thousand people compared to a decision that irritates millions? Ellen Pao talks about problems of scale to The Washington Post “If mistakes are made 0.01 percent of the time, that could mean tens of thousands of mistakes.”
So much of an emotional message is nonverbal, and a computer can’t pick up those cues. Designers can’t see people’s expressions or body language, but we can try to understand reactions by paying very careful attention to what people do, particularly in aggregate.
Numbers often don’t mean what we think they do, they tell us the what but not the why. Metrics are a great way to come up with assumptions to be challenged, but don’t say a lot without context. If someone is spending more time in a product, is it because the product is great or because the person can’t find what they need?
A friend of mine used a feature on a professional networking site that scraped her address book for contacts. She didn’t know the service would automatically connect her to every person in her inbox, an inbox that spans a decade. She was suddenly connected to a person she never wanted to speak to again. Somewhere in a data warehouse, the volume of connections on this service appears to be going up, which superficially seems good. However, the quality of those connections is diminishing. How many of these people actually want to be connected? How many are actually going to return to the site because they were connected to someone they exchanged an email with 3 years ago? That number going up isn’t very meaningful.


Designers need their users’ motivations to inform their own. The best way to understand motivation is to change perspective. Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy, and I had to learn the hard way. After college, as one does when adult problems and a desk job catch up to you, I gained a lot of weight — over a hundred pounds, which I later lost. I learned very quickly what it meant to live in a world not designed for me. Things most people take for granted are ordeals: seat belts on airplanes, buying functional workout clothes, or really any clothes. The first time I walked into a store and realized they didn’t carry my size I felt a lot of things. I felt like the store was actively hostile. I felt like the store was rejecting me and was saying another type of body was better than mine.

I walked out feeling like I didn’t deserve to look good.

I do not recommend trying this.
Our perspectives can also be informed by the people we spend time with. If a team is diverse, more perspectives are brought to the table, products have fewer blind spots and designers create more things people actually need. Think about five people you know with wildly different backgrounds and life circumstances, how would they feel using different products?


A little humility can go a long way. Designers are not the users of their products. Right as designers were learning about web standards, popular design offered the wisdom “scratch your own itch.” This works well for solving one specific problem, but ignores all other problems. Designers can’t assume everyone wants what we’re offering. People don’t always use things in the way we expect, only research can tell us what’s really going on.

For a while after my mom died, every birthday and Christmas my Stepdad would get me a Bath & Body Works gift card. His reasoning was that my mom loved Bath & Body Works, so I probably would to. I hate Bath & Body Works. His intentions were sweet and sincere, but every time I got one of those gift cards I felt like he didn’t know me. Every time I design something new I ask myself if I am giving someone Bath & Body Works gift cards.

Risograph print I made following Eric’s talk at Facebook

People Skills

Good content strategy is a great tool for communicating with an intentional tone. What’s the product’s voice? If the design were a person, how should it be perceived? Friend? Teacher? Trusted advisor? Sham-wow spokesperson? What kind of reaction could this voice elicit when someone is experiencing the product in the worst case scenario?
Let’s be honest about priorities. The definition of priority is “a thing that is regarded as more important than another.” By prioritizing one thing, we are inherently deprioritizing something else, do I know what I’m deprioritizing? Eric Meyer says when you call something an edge case, you’re really just defining the limits of what you care about; he calls them stress cases. (He would also like to give credit for paraphrasing Evan Henſleigh.) In December Facebook’s Year in Review product suggested Eric should relive a “great” year, resurfacing a post about his daughter’s death. We invited him to come speak to us candidly about his experiences. Generously, he told us the reason we don’t see planes falling from the sky is because there’s 60 years of air crash data to draw on when designing planes.

This is uncharted territory, and mistakes are going to be made. When designers make mistakes we have to take responsibility to move forward. An honest process has enough time to test assumptions, and to be wrong and iterate on those assumptions. Good research will bring as many new questions as it does answer. Sometimes a product works great in carefully controlled tests, but won’t be stressed until wide release.

Try your best and then try a little harder

Without mindfulness, products might only be rude, but they might also affect someone’s health, their support systems, or their very livelihood. A good friend once told me that to be an adult is to be aware. It’s time for design to become an adult. As product and service design collide, designers are responsible for understanding every ripple of our work.

Nurture the relationships your products are creating as though they were happening in the physical world, and give without expecting anything in return. We have a saying at Facebook, this journey is 1% finished. No one can ever be fully aware, but designers have to be open to growth and the possibility we’re wrong. Less up and to the right, more up and to the heart.

Many thanks to Jonathon Colman, Lisa Sy, Hannah Fletcher and Ed Salvana for their feedback on my drafts.