Emotional Design / UX Design

Designing for elicit emotion.

How to create an emotional connection with users through our products or services so that they chose, buy, follow and even feel in love with us.

Adrián Nicolás Oller
22 min readApr 20, 2021
Image of a glass of Cola with thousand of bubbles as a representation of the amount of emotions that could elicits.

Before to start. This article is based on the Interaction Design Foundation course: Emotional Design — How to Make Products People Will Love. I highly recommend it to you in case you want to have a better understanding of the relationship between people and things they use in their everyday lives and how those things are designed to elicit certain emotional responses.

Now, let’s begin!

1. What do we mean by ‘emotion’? 🤔

Picture of Inside Out, the Pixar movie about emotions.
Picture of Inside Out, the Pixar movie about emotions.

For most of us, Emotion is a word we use without ever really considering exactly what it means. This is primarily because emotion is about feeling — something that isn’t easily encapsulated or captured with words.

What we refer to as emotion is essentially a psychophysiological response, whether to external stimuli or as a result of mental processes that implicate a distinct feeling state.

What are emotions good for?

On an average day we experience a wide range of emotions as interact with our environment, such as happiness, anger, frustration or disappointment. These emotions help us choose which goals to pursue, as they act as a barometer for determining the possibility of success when we take a particular approach to a problem.

While Happiness, encourages the individual to continue down a particular goal path, as this emotion is likely experienced as a result of a successful approach, negative emotions are thought to perform various functions essentially for maintaining physical and mental well-being. Anxiety ensures we are in a sufficiently high state of physical arousal to deal with the threat and anger is the result of an unsuccessful action or one that has been obstructed, which might lead to the individual ceasing their activity and attempting an alternative approach to their problem. This has the benefit of conserving physical and cognitive resources for other attempts at solving a problem, rather than continuing to expend these precious resources by following an already unsuccessful goal path.

Design and emotions

Our emotional state is constantly shifting as a result of a variety of stimulus. These changes are mediated by our cognition (how we interpret information) and our disposition, which tends to color how one feels about everything in life (e.g. depression).

We said that what we refer to as ‘emotions’ are psychophysiological changes and products, in particular, induce those changes that create on us a wide range of emotional responses.

Every bit of software that we use (such as a website) is a tool, a means to pursue a goal so it’s not difficult to understand why emotional responses to software can assist us to determine whether we are able to achieve our goals with it, or whether we should look for another bit of software (another website perhaps) that might be more suitable, therefore the role of designers is to understand how we are affected by the products they design, and how they can be developed to (on a small scale) improve the associated user experience, and (on a much grander scale) improve our lives.

2. How products affect us? 😍 😭

Human emotions can generally be divided into two groups: positive and negative. However, over the course of our lives we experience a huge array of emotional states, some of which are difficult to bracket entirely in one category or the other.

Image that show the result of combining the different emotions present on the Inside Out movie.

Emotional responses

Emotions result from changes in our psychophysiology and these changes are, more often than not, due to events in our surroundings. An emotional response to environmental stimuli is mediated by cognition, which helps us interpret the information and, as a result, heavily influences the type of emotion we experience.

1. Positive emotional responses

The first principle of design on most people’s minds is usability; how the product behaves according to our expectations and limitations does have a significant impact on how likely we are to continue using a product.

Positive emotional experiences are not easy to create, so in the quest for products capable of providing positive emotional experiences, designers delve into the users’ psychology and investigate what they require from the product. A disconnection between the users’ wants, needs, or expectations and the perceptible characteristics of the product almost inevitably leads to disappointment or some other negative emotion.

When the product satisfies and meets the expectations of the user, we are moving ever nearer to inducing a positive emotional response.

Sometimes we could also been using negative emotions to positive effect. In the gaming industry emotions we might term negative in the ‘real world’, such as fear, help to create positive emotional experiences in the ‘virtual world’.

2. Negative emotional responses

We are unable to control the factors impacting on emotional states experienced as a result of our interpersonal relations. In contrast, we largely get to choose which things we interact with in our environment, how often we do so and how we choose to do so. This typically means, when the objects in our environment fail us or give rise to some initial, negative emotional state, we promptly walk away from them or seek alternatives.

Reject an object or element in our environment for another is, perhaps, a designer’s biggest problem. If a product does not meet our requirements, there are usually tens, hundreds, and even thousands of alternatives for us. This is why it is essential not only to provide a positive emotional experience but to limit the potential for negative emotional experiences, too. However remember that negative emotions are not always a bad thing! 🤯

3. Don Norman’s three levels of design

Image showing the three different levels of Design by Don Norman: visceral, behavioral and reflective.

Don Norman proposes the ‘Emotional System’, which consists of three different, interconnected information processing levels. Each of them influences our experience of the world in a particular way.

The three levels are visceral, behavioral, and reflective. While classified as separate dimensions of the emotional system, are linked and influence one another to create our overall emotional experience. These three levels influences design in its own specific way:

Visceral design

This level of design refers to the perceptible qualities of the object and how they make the user/observer feel.

Much of the time spent on product development is now dedicated to visceral design, as most products tend to offer the same or a similar set of functions, so the superficial aspects help distinguish a product from its competitors. 🤩

What we are essentially referring to here is 'branding', the act of distinguishing one product from another, not by the tangible benefits it offers the user but by tapping into the users’ attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and how they want to feel, so as to elicit such emotional responses.

That might be achieved by using pictures, colors (e.g. red for 'sexy' and black for 'scary'), shapes (e.g. hard-lined shapes) or even styles (e.g. Pop Art) that are evocative of certain eras. Visceral design aims to get inside the user's/customer's/observer's head and tug at his/her emotions either to improve the user experience.

Behavioral design

Behavioral design is probably more often referred to as usability, but the two terms essentially refer to the practical and functional aspects of a product or anything usable we are capable of using in our environment.

Behavioral design is interested in, for example, how users carry out their activities, how quickly and accurately they can achieve their aims and objectives, how many errors the users make when carrying out certain tasks, and how well the product accommodates both skilled and inexperienced users. That is why behavioral design is perhaps the easiest to test, as performance levels can be measured.

The behavioral level essentially refers to the emotions we feel as a result of either accomplishing or failing to complete our goals. When products/objects enable us to complete our goals with the minimum of difficulty and with little call for conscious effort, the emotions are likely to be positive ones. In contrast, when products restrict us, force us to translate or adjust our goals according to their limitations, or simply make us pay close attention when we are using them, we are more inclined to experience some negative emotion. 🥵

Reflective design

Reflective processing is the only conscious form of processing. This process involves the active consideration of a product, encompassing how it relates to us personally, its place in our wider environment, and how it reflects upon us to own and use it.

At this level, people might ask how the product fits in with their current self-image, whether it reflects upon them in a positive or negative way and whether it would enable them to connect with other people.

Essentially, if we are to design for the reflective level of the emotional design model, we must focus on what the product means to the intended user base, whether there is an existing set of attitudes towards the product or you are seeking to attach specific, meaningful messages to the product. Regardless of whether there is an established message attached or you are trying to impose meaning to your product, at the heart of reflective design is the user’s self-image.

we must now influence users or potential customers on some emotional level. When products elicit some positive emotional response, it is assumed that we will feel a connection with the product, which is more likely to influence our behavior with that particular product and the brand.

Unlike the visceral and behavioral levels, reflective processing does not have direct access to sensory information. Instead, sensory information is filtered through the unconscious levels of processing (visceral and behavioral), which influences our perspective and thoughts as a result. Reflective design presents the biggest challenge to us as designers, as customers and users have different opinions, attitudes, memories, and life experiences which are called upon when we make value judgments during reflective processing. To tap into the reflective level successfully, we must investigate what users want from our products, not just in terms of how they intend to use them but also how they might fit into and enhance their lives.

4. Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’

Image showing the Moslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’.

Abraham Maslow has provided one of the most prominent accounts of human motivation with the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which is about five distinct groups of needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self- actualization.

To achieve happiness, we must first satisfy our physiological needs; an inability to do so prevents us from dedicating the time and energy required to satisfy our more complex needs. Maslow’s hierarchy has since been demonstrated in the form of a pyramid to emphasize the increasing complexity of human needs.

In order to progress through the levels of needs, we must satisfy the basic physiological needs. When we are incapable of finding the time and/or energy for these further needs, we are more likely to experience some negative emotion.

Physiological Needs

At the base of this hierarchy lie our basic, survival-ensuring needs, such as food and shelter, which Maslow referred to as our physiological needs. In order to advance through the other stages of the hierarchy, we must first satisfy these primary needs.

If you are not selling something that directly satisfies our primary needs, then how can you take advantage of these drivers? We are highly susceptible to imagery and text that suggests we will satisfy one or more of our basic needs (e.g. many products targeted at men – young men, especially – involve young women either using the product or showing interest in someone else who is using the product).

Axe Dark and Gold Temptation. The perfect example of how Branding is triggering on physiological needs.


Safety needs represent the second tier in Maslow’s hierarchy and is essential in all animals including humans. These needs include the security of body, employment, resources, and health.

Environmental information is used to determine whether we are safe — in which case, we will usually stay — or unsafe — which will typically encourage us to leave (‘flight’) or attempt to change our current circumstance (‘fight’). When environmental information suggests there is some potential threat to us, our family, loved ones, our property, or something else we hold dear, we experience a negative emotional response.

In the average day, we have to make lots of decisions: what to wear (according to the weather), what to eat (according to our health), where to go (according to our personal and physical interests), and whom to see (family, friends, colleagues etc.). All of these decisions are based on maintaining or improving our physical and psychological well-being.

When we use products, no matter what they are, we want to feel safe and secure, therefore designers must ensure users feel comfortable and safe, confident that they will come to no harm physically, psychologically, financially, etc. by interacting with the products.

Love/belonging and esteem

Love/belonging and esteem needs encompass confidence, strength, self-belief, personal and social acceptance, and respect from others. While esteem is an internal quality, we are affected by external factors, such as validation and approval from our peers.

There are now many different examples of designers tapping into our love/belonging and esteem needs, many of which we can find on social media sites. For this reason, you must consider how to make users feel better about themselves from both owning and using your products.

Esteem needs are the needs for a sense of personal importance, our desire for social acceptance and status. We have a deep-rooted need for approval and validation from other members of society, such as our parents when we tell them what are we gonna study at university.

There are a number of component involved in achieving a sense of self-esteem while also felling ourself been part of a specific group or community, such as the respect of others, an internal acceptance of who we actually are, confidence and achievement.

Maslow distinguished between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ esteem. Higher esteem needs might include the desire for physical strength, knowledge, competence, independence and freedom. Lower esteem needs might include status, recognition, fame, celebrity, prestige and any form of attention highly related with the sense of love/belonging.

There is a controversy here while some experts are saying that our lower esteem needs are secondary or subordinate to our higher needs.

The need for internal acceptance is necessary for any external validation to have a significant and long-lasting effect.

Websites and applications have been engineered to satisfy our esteem needs through explicit and sometimes implicit methods, such as gamification elements, both Leaderboards (e.g. a list of the top performers for a particular group of people, such as gamers, course takers) or Achievements (e.g. virtual rewards are often given to users when they have completed one or more tasks, such as entering profile details); reviews; ‘likes’, the more explicit examples of approval and validation that social media has provided us. 👍


Self-actualization is the final stage in the linear growth of an individual and represents the highest-order motivations, which drive us to realize our true potential and achieve our ‘ideal self’. These needs include personal and creative self-growth, which are achieved through the fulfillment of our full potential.

Self-actualization is achieved by those who have the most accurate view of themselves and the world around them. Therefore there are some aspect to consider:

a. Acceptance and realism: Self-actualization reflects the individual’s acceptance of who he/she is, what he/she is capable of, and his/her realistic and accurate perception of the world around him or her.

b. Problem-centering: Self-actualized individuals are not purely focused on internal gain; they appreciate the benefits of solving problems that affect others so as to improve the external world. The desire to assist others is borne out of an internal sense of right and wrong, which is grounded in empathy.

c. Spontaneity: The self-actualized individual thinks and acts spontaneously, as a result of having an accurate self and world vision.

d. Autonomy and solitude: Involved needs for personal freedom and privacy. These private times are spent testing people potential, both mentally (e.g. thinking about their problems) and physically (e.g. acting out to identify strengths and weaknesses).

e. Freshness of appreciation: Self-actualized individual is capable of seeing things from new perspectives and appreciating the breadth and wonder of things in his/her world. This capacity allows these individuals to develop new problem-solving strategies, and it fosters creativity as a result.

f. Peak experiences️: These are experiences that display three core characteristics: significance, fulfillment, and spirituality.

we as designers must focus on how we can support our users in their activities. It’s the only way to meet them on this, the apex of needs.

Design can help self-actualization by obtaining first a thorough understanding of the obstacles and processes involved in attaining a goal and then providing solutions that support the user’s activity in doing so.

The better products are, the better we can be. Conversely, if the products we are using are inefficient or ineffective, we are obstructed in our efforts to improve and reach our pinnacle.

5. The concept of ‘Triune Brain’ 🧠

Illustration that shows the MacLean’s ‘Brain Triune’.

Paul MacLean’s ‘Triune Brain’ model, is based on the division of the human brain into three distinct regions. He suggests the human brain is organized into a hierarchy, which itself is based on an evolutionary view of brain development. The three regions are:

  1. Reptilian or primal brain .
  2. Emotional brain or limbic system (Paleomammalian).
  3. Rational brain or Neocortex (Neomammalian).

The hierarchical organization of the human brain represents the gradual acquisition of the brain structures through evolution. Reptilian was acquired first, which is thought to be in charge of our primal instincts, followed by the limbic system, which is in charge of our emotions or affective system, then the neocortex, which is thought to be responsible for rational or objective thought.

When we are in danger and must respond quickly, as an act of self- preservation, the reptilian structure is aroused, preparing us for action by initiating the release of chemicals throughout the body. When we receive an upsetting message, the limbic system is stimulated and, again, chemicals are released, which create our experience of emotions. Finally, when we are making decisions, solving problems or reasoning, the neocortex is engaged.

¡We know now that there are various regions of the brain active during primal, emotional and rational experiences and these findings have led to the rejection of MacLean’s notion of a triune brain! However, While this model is undoubtedly an oversimplification, the concept of a triune brain provides us with a useful way of assessing human analysis of sensory information, in addition to the relationship between the structure and functions of the human brain.

This knowledge is important for designers because it shows us just how much depth exists in human mental activity and how many different aspects of this activity we need to consider when designing user experiences. Subconscious processing, emotional responses and rational thinking are combine.

The reptilian brain 🐊

What motivates us more than food, drink, and love? Not much, therefore sellers have used food, drink, and love—or, perhaps more likely, sex—to attract consumers. By triggering our primal desires, you can influence consumer choices as we are driven by the same desires as others animals.

The human brain is wired to derive pleasure from seeing attractive people. In any instance where an attractive person is used in an advert or on a website, the designers are targeting your reptilian brain. While most of the more explicit examples may be aimed at men, this is by no means specific to men; women derive pleasure from seeing attractive people, too.

However, there are differences between the ways men and women respond, which means designers use different methods to trigger the male and female primal brain, respectively.

The human desire for sex is still the driving force behind the inclusion of faces and people in general.

There are not only significant differences between men and women in this respect; differences exist between cultures and age groups, too. Adverts have become dominated by groups of young people drinking and eating while for older age groups, products are sold using families and home-based activities.

Creating scenarios that trigger our reptilian brain is not difficult, but they must be realistic and natural. As a designer, you want to project the illusion, make him or her just as cool and happening as the models portrayed seem to promise. You have to link that fantasy to the user’s reality.

1. Images are king

We are capable of processing visual imagery instantly, which is in contrast to text. That id why websites use images to grab the attention of users immediately and convey messages implicitly (e.g. a warm, cosy room full of modern furniture tells the users that buying products from the site will help them achieve the same calm, tranquil and happy lifestyle).

As the primal brain operates instinctively and largely outside our conscious control, images are more suited to our ‘reptilian’ side. Not only are we highly susceptible to the power of images, but we are particularly so when it comes to moving images.

Carousels and slideshows are captivating.

Young adults between the ages of 18 and 31 rated web pages with a single image and a small amount of text as preferable to all other options. Therefore, images and motion are essential tools in the designer’s kit for tapping into the primal brain.

2. Help users distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’

The primal brain is interested mainly in distinguishing things. You must make this distinction as easy and quick as possible for your customers and users (e.g. showing comparisons between products or before and after, often seen in the beauty product industry, helps the users instantly sense what they might be able to achieve if they buy the product/s).

3. Use negative affect where necessary

When you want users or consumers to sit up, listen, and take notice of something, you might need to use threatening signals. This signals danger to the user and stimulates the reptilian brain to force the user into action (e.g. in an e-commerce site, when users have left things in their basket for a period of time, you could send them an email alert telling them that there are only X number of these still available).

The reptilian brain is in charge of our more basic and impulsive attitudes and behaviors. So, as you are a designer, the reptilian brain represents your best target; if you want consumers to buy your products, you must grab their attention and make them feel as though they need, rather than want, these items.

The emotional brain ❤️

The emotional brain is essential to human experience; without the psychophysiological changes that occur as a result of arousal from emotionally charged stimuli, we are unable to make decisions, pass judgment, and interact with the world in a personally meaningful way.

Human behavior is often not as rational as we think; We may be able to suppress and even quell these emotional responses by rationalizing during reflective processing, but we are often influenced unconsciously or so strongly affected that we are incapable of engaging the rational brain.

We are emotional animals, making decisions on the basis of how things make us feel. The emotional brain is influential to our experience of the world in fact feelings and emotions may help us discern between good and bad, safe and dangerous, and useful and irrelevant.

Below is a short list of potential methods you can use to tap into the emotional brain:

1. Fitting emotional experiences

We are wired to respond emotionally to stimuli; the affective, or judgmental, system is largely outside of our control, which means the images, scenes, faces, and people you use must be appropriate for your product.

Use scenes and people to conjure images in the consumer's/user's mind which accurately represent the impression you are intending. We are unconsciously affected by smiling faces, pictures of animals, and—in particular—eyes. Studies have shown we are much more likely to trust people when they make eye contact with us. While the people/animals that feature on products/ websites/adverts etc. are intangible, we are still influenced by their presence.

2. Tug the heartstrings

We are by our very nature empathetic creatures. These empathic responses are targeted by many advertisers so as to get consumers/users to part with their money.

Empathy is a powerful emotional response; however, you must use elements that arouse this emotion sparingly. A picture of a happy child receiving a product or animals being released into the wild — are scenes that evoke emotions automatically. Once these emotional responses have been elicited, we associate the emotion with the advert, product, website, etc. Charities tug our heartstrings to great effect

3. Use color for effect 🌈

Color is not only important for usability reasons, such as distinguishing interactive elements, it can also be used to stimulate a variety of emotional responses.

We detect color outside of conscious control. This means color perception is automatic and influential in how we unconsciously process visual scenes. Therefore, color represents a powerful tool in a designer’s armory.

As a designer, you can help create emotional experiences for your consumers and users. A variety of methods are available, but at the center of all these methods and techniques lies an understanding of what we respond to and how we respond.

Using of color can contribute not only to differentiating products from competitors, but also to influencing moods and feelings — positively or negatively. You may have also noted that fast-food chains, such as Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonald’s use red and yellow in their store and web designs and much of their promotional material. This is no coincidence; these colors are thought to stimulate appetite — perfect for a fast-food chain!

The rational brain

Information from the reptilian and emotional brains is transmitted and analyzed by the rational brain also known as the neocortex.

As the rational brain processes information from various regions and appears to make many of our final decisions, we need to consider some of the ways we can support and ease the pressure on this brain structure.

To support the rational brain to manipulates information so as to help us arrive at the most accurate conclusions regarding events and things in the external world you must provide the right information at the right time, help users/consumers make the right decisions, let them know when they have made the right decision.

1. Provide users with the right information at the right time ⏱

The rational brain uses information to help us solve problems, distinguish between a variety of options, and make decisions. Without the right information at the right time, the consumer/user is unable to make fully informed decisions and judgments. (e.g. if we can see two products that claim to offer the same level of performance, but yours shows the specifications, while the alternative does not, the consumer can make an informed decision based on rational decision-making).

We can determine how we might use a product by performing mental simulation based on the product information provided. The rational brain allows us to test our potential choices without committing to them, therefore, ensure you users/consumers know exactly what it is that makes your products better than the alternatives.

You will want to help guide, coerce, and direct consumers/users to make the right judgments/decisions but also, there might be times where you do not want to provide users/consumers with all of the information necessary for an informed decision/judgment 🤨. Yes, the rational brain is powered by information; without it, we are left to use the emotional or primal brain to direct our behavior.

Remember that the rational brain slows down decision-making so is it always a good to limit the amount of information that needs to be processed.

2. Help users make the right decisions ✅

There is usually a best possible outcome in a situation, so that is the reason because the rational brain is seeking information all the time; we are constantly processing sensory information from the environment, and the rational brain is the site where all of this information is consolidated to help us behave appropriately.

Typically, one of the options is the best fit for our users/ consumers intended activities therefore, the design should help them by flagging information that is both relevant and useful. The problem is that what is right for the customer may conflict with what is right for your business 😕.

3. Let the users/consumers know they made the right decision 🎉

The rational brain not only uses information to help us make decisions; it also seeks out information to help us make sure the right one has been chosen. For this reason, you must provide users and consumers with information that informs them when they have made the right decision and reinforces their choices (e.g. Making online transactions can be worrying so provide information at all times; the rational brain doesn’t like to be left in the dark). Clear and rewarding feedback can help reinforce the action and put the rational mind at rest.

4. Soothe the rational brain

The rational brain is like a mother and father meeting their son’s/daughter’s new partner. Your product is the potential boyfriend/girlfriend; therefore, you must put your best clothes on (e.g. appropriate designs), stand up straight (e.g. have a sense of propriety), smile at the right times (e.g. come across as friendly/fun/polite), keep the swear words under control (e.g. use the right language/speak with authority), and definitely show you will treat their son/daughter right (e.g. earn their trust).

Image from ‘The Simpson’ where Lisa dress on Nelson to make him look well educated, respectful and intelligent.
Image from ‘The Simpson’ where Lisa dress on Nelson to make him look well educated, respectful and intelligent.

5. the rational brain is practical

The rational brain contemplates, analyzes, and delays. While the primal and emotional brains are inclined to immediate, impulsive and, perhaps, rash responses, the rational brain tries to put the brakes on.

The fewer things there are to consider, the sooner we can make a decision. A minimalist design can help us to reduces the number of sources of information that must be processed and analyzed in the rational brain. This means we can act with greater speed.

Think about a logically structured and streamlined process for checking out, involving just the necessary steps — the quicker you can make this process, the more likely that a purchase will be completed. If the checkout procedure asks for personal details at every individual stage — the rational brain will either be overloaded or send out warning signals that something isn’t right.

While we might assume the rational brain dominates our decision-making and problem-solving, we are still impacted by our basic, primal needs and our emotional responses to things in our environment. The reptilian and emotional brains exert significant pressure on our more reasoned and considered side, in fact some experts consider rationality is something of a myth.

What the rational brain does is to merely justify and add reason to the sensations we experience from the limbic system or emotional brain.

To conclude, as the rational brain processes information from various regions to make many of our final decisions, we need to consider some of the ways we can support and ease the pressure on this brain structure.

To support and even tap into the rational brain, you must provide the right information at the right time, help users/consumers make the right decisions, let them know when they have made the right decision, ease the process of analyzing information, and remember that the rational brain slows down decision-making. So, simply reduce the load placed on the rational brain by simplify and limit the amount of information that needs to be processed.

6. The take away

Design is not just about creativity, but also about deep knowledge and understanding what we call the Human Condition. At the heart of human actions is the desire to satisfy certain needs.

Comprehension and respect of the Human Condition will provide an excellent magnifying lens through which you can begin to understand the fact that much of what our society does today is, in fact, increasingly designed rather than simply emergent.

Let’s be in contact! meet me at Linkedin in/adrianoller

QR code to my linkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/adrianoller/

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