How Emotion Design built a billion-dollar business

Jonas Kurzweg
Mar 23, 2018 · 6 min read

“People put a Harley Davidson logo on their body to say something about who they are.

People put that tattoo on, not to say they own a motorcycle, they put the tattoo there to tell you something about themselves.

What you have the ability to do, as designers, is to create those symbols and allow people to use those things to say something about who they are.”
– Simon Sinek

If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand design.

Experience trumps product. Emotion elicits experiences and it’s a common trait between us humans.

The decisions we make — we like to think it’s based on rational thinking and logic, but in fact, it’s derived from intangibles like feelings and emotions.

It’s not a bad trait and certainly shouldn’t be considered as an appendix from our ancestors.

On the contrary, more advanced creatures are more emotional than primitives, with humans being the most emotional of all — which helps us make decisions fast.

In the following we will look into two ways of building emotion:

  • Building emotion for a product from a cognitive level
  • Building emotion through personality

Emotion Design: From a cognitive level

In his book, “Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things”, Donald Norman identifies three levels of visual design that can be used to build emotion in products.

He also explains how we relate to a visual element and how to create something that is more appealing, effective and well-received.

  • Visceral level: This is the first instinctive reaction to the design. The visceral level deals with the initial impact of looks, touch, and feel. Personality and cultural values have an influence on it, but a good visceral design leaves you with a good feeling about the product and want to interact with the design again. Take a look at the design of HipChat vs Slack.
Source: Andrew Wilkinson
  • Slack’s $2.8 Billion Dollar Secret Sauce:
    While one feels soulless, the other seems personal, delightful and fun. I will let you guess which one is which. Another reason to invest more in attractiveness is, and as Norman suggests in the book, attractive things work better because the user is more inclined to explore the product.
  • Behavioral level: This level relates to the functional, performance and physical feel of a product that fulfills the user’s actual need. Stewart Butterfield (founder of Slack) and their team, whilst working on their previous startup that didn’t work out, built a team messenger for themselves, having companies like Rdio as beta testers. They were solving their own problem but also receiving constant feedback and iteration, making Slack fully functional.
  • Reflective level: The reflective design is about message, culture, self-image, long-term customer experience. It determines a person’s overall impression of a product. For example: We all worry about our self-image and avoid things because ‘it wouldn’t be right’ or buy things to support a cause. These are reflective decisions. Some people reflect with Hummer while others with Prius and others with Tesla, Apple or Android etc. This is the “highest” level of the emotional-visual thought and if this system fails, the user’s appeal is about to collapse as well.

Building emotion through personality

“When choosing a product, humans only care about: Does it work, and is it interesting? The world already is full of things that do work. Most of them are boring.


Everyone cares and talks about your product?

You win.”
- AVC: Fred Wilson Blog

When we build a product, we are putting a part of ourselves out there and users on the end want to feel this.

They want to feel that there is a person on the other side and not a machine.

Hence, the product needs personality. Below we list out a few examples for ways to build personality in a product.

  • Tone of voice: “You look nice today”. This is one of the many ways Slack greets you when you open the app. Now, that’s a huge leap in how we experience product: from serious, formal and bland in the 90’s and early 2000 to now, where the product creates a bond, as if there is someone on the other side.
  • Faces for your product: We like products with a personality.
    The personality can be assistive (Slackbot of Slack), humorous (Monkey of MailChimp), nerdy (as in Google).
    We even see and draw faces with shapes.
  • Categorization: Create categories to personalize for each user (assuming your product has multiple personas) and show that you have given individual attention to each user.
  • Attention to detail: Of course fun is one side, but the product and functionality shouldn’t be sloppy. Pay particular attention to the details.
    For example, when you are posting in slack to all members, it notifies you and asks you if you are sure about doing it, of course in a humorous and human-like way.
  • Humor : Happiness increases our thought process which leads us to find solutions to problems. On the other hand, when you are frustrated, it leads you to reject the solution. Slack induces humor in numerous ways. You can select the style of emojis you prefer — (Apple, Google, Twitter, Emoji One), or even integrate with giphy.

“Experience-driven” over “data-driven”

We have moved on from the point where our basic needs are met. It’s no longer sufficient to create products that are merely functional, a product needs to deliver experiences. However, as product owners, we spend so much time on analytics and very little time on understanding users. After all, being “data-driven” is trendy.

The ‘graphs and charts’ approach leads to valuing numbers over people — from whom the numbers are collected.
Hence, in the midst of quantitative analysis tools that allow you to measure numbers, we at UXCam deliver tools for qualitative analysis, allowing you to see how users are using your app and understand where they are struggling. Check it out.

Emotions elicit experiences and experiences turn a soulless corporation into a helpful friend. Apple, Slack, Mailchimp are a handful of companies riding this wave, generating profitability and high engagement. It should be clear to us now that designing products to connect emotionally with the user builds experiences and drives engagement, growth and revenue. In fact, in the book “Emotional Design”, Norman argues that the emotional side of product design is more critical to product success than it’s practical elements.

Remember, experience trumps product !!!

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