Emotion in Design: why it’s critical and how to harness it

Taylor Seamans
Feb 11, 2019 · 5 min read

As humans, we are emotionally complex. As we move about our everyday lives, we do much more than just objectively perceive the world around us. Instead, nearly everything we are perceiving is accompanied by an emotional response. When I hear my alarm in the morning, I don’t just hear a series of sounds but, additionally, I feel alert or maybe even sad (if it’s an early morning). Or, when I see the checklist of requirements turn green as I create an ever-so complicated password, I don’t just see green text. Rather, I feel satisfied, like I’ve done something correct and it’s being acknowledged.

The joint relationship between perception and emotion is critical to design. It’s easy, when designing, to think about what the user is seeing or hearing. However, the thing that is easier to overlook is what the user is feeling because of what they see or hear. This emotional response can have a huge effect on a user’s relationship with your product.

To build an engaging product is to encourage the user to form a relationship with it, one where there is positive emotional regard and intrigue. I’ll explain a little about emotion and memory below, then I’ll relate it back to tangible elements to consider in your designs.

1. Emotion and the Lizard Brain

Emotion doesn’t know time or context, and this can be a designer’s greatest opportunity to connect with their user. What do I mean? Imagine being a kid and watching a scary movie. You go to your room afterwards, and it’s dark. Suddenly, your heart is beating faster and your body feels tense. A week later, you think of the movie again, and again you’re tense and scared even though you’re telling yourself, “It was just a movie.”

The interesting tension between cognition and emotion is this: We can reason the logic of a situation to control our emotional responses, but the initial emotional feelings we have are in most ways automatic. In context of the above example, you can reason with yourself that there is no true danger because it was just a movie, but that doesn’t mean the initial feeling of fear was any less authentic than if you’d truly been in danger. Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, sums this up nicely by saying:

“Cognition makes sense of the world; emotion assigns value.”

This automatic and instinctual response is often referred to as being controlled by the “lizard brain”, referencing the most primitive pieces of our cognition that handle fight or flight emotional responses. When it comes to assessing a situation, the lizard brain wants to know: is this situation good and safe or should I get out of it? Do I feel comfortable, happy, excited or am I tense? In design, it’s important to be aware of how the lizard brain may respond to various aspects of your product, but more importantly, the ways your design decisions can influence this response.

2. Memory and Free Association

Now, while the specifics of memory on a neurological level are still fairly unknown, there are discussions that our memories can be activated in a network of “free associations”. What this means is that we have a web of memories that are connected based on related features. Through this, seemingly distant concepts can become connected to each other. For example, seeing a pineapple in the grocery store might remind you of Hawaii which then reminds you of a past vacation with family, and suddenly you’re feeling nostalgic for that relaxing time. See the figure below for what this web of free associations looks like.

Free Association in memory: How distant concepts become related.

Essentially, this associative network allows us to connect various memories effortlessly. Since we are social beings seeking to find how we fit in an environment, the concepts we associate tend to connect neutral stimuli we come across to emotionally relevant memories about ourselves.

In the example of the pineapple in the grocery store (an otherwise neutral item), you end up thinking about a pleasant memory from the past. Consequently, you would likely have a positive regard towards pineapple.

The exact same effect occurs between people and products: products and their features (images, colors, etc.) can influence the emotional regard we feel towards them. I’ll explain more in the next section.

3. Designing with Emotion and Free Association in Mind

What does all of what was said above mean for design? Most simply, you should always create products and interfaces with the lizard brain and free association in mind.

Designers can harness this understanding of emotion and free association to create and optimize the emotional experience a user has with their product.

If a user has to read the instruction manual to begin to understand how to use a product, we would say this is poor design. In the same way, if a user has to read deep into the copy on a website to get a feeling for a company, then designers have missed out on a critical opportunity to reach their user. What a website or product “says”, and in turn makes the user feel, comes down to much more than the words on the pages.

The visuals, fonts, layout, accent colors, and more are all opportunities for designers to cause an automatic, emotional impression on the user.

Here are a couple questions you could ask yourself as a quick check about how emotion is being considered in your design:

  • How do we want users to feel when they come across our product? Are we, for example, using images that will help establish that?
  • What is the visual tone we want to create? Do the colors of our links, buttons, etc. support that?

For websites and digital interfaces specifically, every click to a new page is like opening up a closed door where the user doesn’t know what is behind it. Maybe they have a sense of the content based on the link title, but the exact layout and visual identity of the page likely remains more unknown.

Because the lizard brain reacts so automatically, every click to a new page is another point that an automatic emotional response will occur. These junctions are critical to consider when designing. As the designer, what do you want the user to feel when they open this new page? This concept can be high-level or even abstract (energized, motivated to purchase, calm, etc.). Once you have that in mind, consider the concrete steps you can take to influence this feeling: images, fonts, layout, etc.

As a designer, your goals should be 1) to frame, on a high-level, the emotional experience you want your users to have when interacting with your product and 2) to structure the visual and interactive elements of your product around this. For people to choose your product or service, you need to create an experience where they form a positive, emotional relationship with it.

When you understand the lizard brain and how to design with it in mind, you will create products that make a lasting, more emotional relationship with your users.

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