Embracing the power of emotional design

I am scared of water. 

It’s an irrational fear deeply embedded in my mind that I struggle even taking a dip in the swimming pool (forget about doing it in a lake or a sea). 

But something happened which helped me overcome my vulnerability. Okay, just a bit. 

I was reading a book at Zuma Beach in Los Angeles. Just about then, a young boy came up to me and asked me why am I reading when it’s the perfect temperature for a swim. I told him that I don’t know how to swim and that I am scared of water. 

He was taken aback. He threw me a little “why a full-grown human is scared of getting into harmless water, duh!” look and smiled at me saying that his father can help. 

I didn’t want him to judge me for not trying so I agreed to accept his help. Long story short, her father offered me his hand and leg fins and taught me how to swim without freaking out. 

Surprisingly, I did float well (and didn’t die). How? Because of the incredible swimming gear. 

I came back home, hopeful about finally overcoming my fear of water. So, I ordered swim fins for myself. Sadly, when I used it, I was utterly disappointed. It didn’t fit me and kept slipping off underwater. I tried hard to remember the brand name of the gear which that stranger in LA had, but wasn’t successful. As a result, now I’m back to my miserable life where I’m afraid of water. 

That’s the power of Design, y’all!

Have you ever experienced something similar? When the physical design of an object made you fall in love with it? Something that made you joyous and comfortable when you used it? I’m sure you must have. 

How about experiencing the same thing in digital design? Have you ever used any mobile/web app that made you happy after you’ve accomplished your tasks without encountering any hiccups? Was ‘emotion’ a part of your user experience?

“The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.”

the definition of User Experience by Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen

But, most of the designers don’t pay much attention to the second part of the definition, i.e. make products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.

This is where emotional design comes into the picture.

How emotions and design are related?

The word experience in User Experience implies the emotions that users go through when they use a product. Depending on a lot of factors, they can be happy, satisfied, frustrated, overjoyed, or disappointed by the experience. User can also feel two or more emotions while using an app.

For example- consider that you use a news reader app. In the app, you read a piece of news about how designers can help deal with climate change. It inspires you and makes you feel happy about the impact you can make. But, on the other hand, you feel frustrated because there is no way for you to bookmark it or share it with your friends.

Any feelings- good or bad– is an emotion. And quite obviously, a product/digital app becomes people’s favorite when the users feel joy in using it. Therefore, it’s only logical that designers must keep this aspect in mind while designing interfaces.

What is Emotional Design?

How do you select the clothes you wear? Is good fitting a criteria or they must look good on you? I guess both. 

How do you choose which car to buy? By its engine’s efficiency or should it just look pretty? Again, both!

It’s basic human nature to get attracted to beautiful things. We all prefer beautiful and functional over just functional. 

Therefore, Emotional Design is about creating aesthetically pleasing and functional connections between users and the product, so that they love using the product and come back to using it again and again.

Does that mean that inclusion of Emotional design is the reason why one product is more successful than another (in the same domain)?

Yes. Absolutely.

But only when you don’t compromise with the product’s overall experience and usability. The product must provide value to its end users. It needs to be functional, reliable, and usable. Once you have achieved that, only then you must think about adding the cherry on the cake– designing for user’s emotional journey. 

It’s almost like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs– where functional aspects take precedence. But in order to seek fulfillment, one must consider the emotional aspect too.

Comparison with Maslow's pyramid

How to design emotional interfaces?

In Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things, Don Norman has talked about the three aspects, or levels, of the emotional system- the visceral, behavioral and reflective levels. The three levels are interlinked together and help create an overall emotional experience that humans feel. I highly recommend reading this book.

Emotional DesignSource

Here are some ways in which you can implement emotional design-

For inducing visceral emotions

Visceral emotions are the ones that make you feel “Love at first sight”. When something is visceral, you feel it in your guts, rather than in your mind. It might be irrational (or even wrong!), but it helps you form a quick first emotional bond with the product that you’re using.

For inducing visceral reactions, you need to pay attention to how the app appears to the users in the first few minutes of interaction. If it’s a cool, fun, and attractive, your users will be hooked. 

One way to implement it is by excelling at designing a great onboarding. When users are exploring the application for the first time, delight them with animations and engaging copywriting, which ultimately helps them fulfill their purpose of using the application. 

Here’s an example of inducing visceral emotions in on-boarding concept of Neo Kids.

Designed by Minh Pham

For inducing Behavioral emotions

Behavioral emotions appear when the users find pleasure in doing what they’re doing. It also depends on the usability and effectiveness of use. If the product is designed well and it also works well, users will feel a sense of empowerment using it. They’ll feel inclined to use the product again and again. However, if the experience is broken, it will induce negative emotions in users.

See the example below-


The screenshot is from the Duolingo app. The mascot is fun and friendly, the app functions really well. Moreover, the language is colloquial and the experience is similar to learning in a classroom.

Another example is as shown below. Which design do you think induces more behavioral emotions in users? In which version, users are more likely to click on video to know more about the organization?

Image 1

Behavioral emotions


Image 2

Example of Behavioral emotions

For inducing Reflective emotions

At reflective level, humans feel the full force of thought and emotions. It’s at this level that we become aware of what we value and what we don’t. Reflective emotions are conscious emotions (unlike visceral and behavioral) and it helps users understand, interpret and make thoughtful judgments.

One of the most common examples of reflective emotions is saving the brand packaging of a product even after unwrapping. This shows that you were really invested in the brand story that the advertisers of that brand targeted at you. 

On the web application side, one great example is how LinkedIn has changed their “Like” feature to a series of emotions- Like, Celebrate, Love, Insightful, Curious. This additional step makes the user stop and think about how they really felt upon seeing and reading a particular post.


However, one important thing to consider here is that reflective emotions are most susceptible to changes. They vary for different people, belonging to different cultures. They vary with the experience or educational level of an individual. And, they may also override the other two- visceral and behavioral. 

Therefore, it’s important to maintain a balance between all the three factors into consideration. Just ‘love at first sight’ wouldn’t suffice.


There is no golden rule of designing products that elicit a strong emotional connection among all users. The reason is because human emotional state is constantly changing and a lot depends on our surrounding environment and other factors. 

Therefore, as designers, our focus should lie on crafting usable and engaging products which also look aesthetically pleasing. 

In the end, I would just like to quote Tinker Hatfield, a shoe designer, at Nike-

“A basic design is always functional but a great one will also say something.”

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