Theory of Change: Emotion-Centered Design

Impacting change in people’s behavior is often a central factor for institutions, organizations, and companies dedicated to caring for people.

Finding out what people do (e.g. people buy this product over another or people act this or that way) or what people think (e.g. people believe or believe in this or that) and changing that is common practice — you conduct interviews, distribute surveys for quantitative data, do field observations, and test user-experience.

However there’s the more complicated, underlying issue of understanding how people feel (e.g. they feel trust or they feel fear). You might have less access to how people honestly feel and why, but it yields much higher-quality information in terms of developing your project’s value and collecting meaningful insights.

Emotion-Centered Design | Theory of Change

The diagram above illustrates a simplified Theory of Change for practicing Emotion-Centered Design. A theory of change shows what conditions are necessary–the pre-conditions–for achieving something. It outlines the cause and effect. In this case, the goal of Emotion-Centered Design is to provide people with emotionally supportive experiences. Specifically, to have people make effective, lasting, and meaningful changes in their behavior. Working backwards from there, we’ve pointed to six conditions. They include the inputs that are necessary (what needs to be invested), the outcomes, and the intended impact.

The conditions necessary for companies, institutions, and organizations to support people’s emotional-wellbeing:

1. Invest in Emotion-Centered Design.

  • Find value in Emotion-Centered Design
  • Invest in a full understanding of the emotional landscape

Do the heavy lifting, and do it early. It is essential to front-load your efforts towards understanding your stakeholders’ emotional experience. Leaving it to the end — the production stage of an app, a gadget, a service, making tweaks at the final stage of building a curriculum, a program, an experience — limits the depth and significance of how people are affected by the final product. Is it that folks aren’t motivated by their work, or is it that they feel exhausted? Why is that? Is it that they don’t ‘want’ to buy a product, or do they not trust it? How might you address that? Achieving Emotion-Centered Design’s intended impact first requires you to acknowledge that emotions, psychology, power, culture, personal life are all fundamental factors involved in your work. It requires an investment of adequate time and resources to exploring just that.

2. Make moves confidently.

  • Make fully-informed strategic decisions

Since you’ve now invested in understanding people’s emotions, each decision you make from this point forward is naturally informed by core principles. Once you have a clear sense of the emotional underpinnings, it opens the floodgates to understand the rest of the chain of events and patterns in your project–both above and below the surface. It requires you to trust your new understanding of people’s emotions, and to treat that complex information at the regard you might with straight-forward quantitative data about what people do or think. In an hour-long team meeting, this might look like a more balanced conversation where you talk about numbers just as much time discussing critically about people’s emotional needs. In an implementation plan, it might look like weaving in exercises and conversations about people’s inner wellbeing.

3. Get high-quality yield.

  • Build an emotionally-resonant final product
  • People feel cared for and trust final product
  • People make effective, lasting, and meaningful changes in behavior

By covering all your bases from the beginning, the new alternative you implement is more sustainable and resonant. It results in not only a circumstance that offers people to change what they see, think, and do, but comes full-circle and affects how people feel. They’ll experience a more holistic, honest, and transparent interaction with your work. This means it’s more sustainable. Beyond a pitch, tagline, or ad, they will feel the value you offer. This needs careful testing and iterating on the final product itself based on patterns revealed to you about people’s emotional experiences with it. And it requires you to be transparent about that with people.

For case studies of Emotion-Centered change at three different scales, see: