All the Feels — Designing for Emotion

The man needed to go to the store, so he drove to the store and got what he needed. 

Pretty boring story, right? But it is, in fact, a story. It has a hero. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It even has a challenge that the hero overcomes. But it’s awfully boring. So what’s the deal here? What’s missing? Just like with anything in life, stories can come in all sorts of varieties. Some are unbelievably compelling, and some, like the one above, leave a lot to be desired.

Great stories take us on an emotional journey. The not-so-exciting story of the man and his epic quest to get to the store is entirely devoid of any emotion. It’s dry as a bone. But it’s also simple. And simple is good, right? Shouldn’t all designs be as simple as possible? Isn’t it the simplicity that everyone loves about Apple products? Well… kind of. Simplicity is a crucial, but not sufficient. Great designs also have to evoke emotions. What if we were to tell you that the man in the story above was actually a father going to pick up a puppy for his daughter for her birthday, and he hadn’t seen her in six months? Your emotions would start kicking in a little more.

Puppy.pngPhoto by Berkay Gumustekin on Unsplash

Reflecting on the great stories of our society, from Shakespeare to Star Wars, the heroes and indeed all the major characters experience a range of emotions throughout the story. From longing for adventure, to longing for a great love, from the despair of failure, to the thrill of success — these emotions captivate us and leave us wanting more. Designs are the same way. They need to create an emotional journey. If our designs don’t evoke these emotions, we’ll leave our users bored and uninterested. But if we can take them on an emotional journey, they’ll keep coming back for more, and, even better, they’ll bring their friends with them. But don’t just take that from us. Jonah Berger, author of Contagious, and his colleagues meticulously went through thousands of New York Times articles to determine which ones were shared more online and why. They found that people were more likely to share news articles that packed an emotional punch.

Emotional Impact

The people we’re designing for are emotional creatures. Ignoring that would be like ignoring that they have eyes or feet. Emotions are essential to who they are and how they interact with the world. Our designs need to take this into account. Emotions drive the decisions our users make and are responsible for how, and if, our designs are remembered years after our heroes experience them.

Decisions, decisions

DecisionsPhoto by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

Emotions play a huge role in decision making. Even if you think you’re the most logical person in the world, carefully weighing all the data in order to come to the optimal decision, the truth is that, unbeknownst to you, emotions are lurking there as well, secretly influencing your choice. This happens through an area of the brain called the ventromedial sector. This sneaky little area of the brain is actually responsible for connecting our memories of past experiences to emotions. So if you still cry every time you think about the last funeral you attended or swell with pride when you look back on a loved one’s graduation, you have your ventromedial sector to thank for that. 

Ok, so memories are emotional, but what on earth does this have to do with decisions? Well, it turns out that when we’re making decisions, we actually envision what our life would be like if we experienced each option. These imagined futures, as far as our brain chemistry is concerned, really aren’t all that different from when we relive our actual memories. So when our brain creates these “memories” of the possible futures, the ventromedial sector looks for emotions to assign to them just like it would with real memories. But because these aren’t real, it takes an educated guess at what emotions would fit with each fictional scenario by looking at memories that most closely match the futures you’re envisioning. This is why you might sometimes find yourself saying, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” even though you’re talking about something that hasn’t happened to you yet. Somehow what you think is about to happen is similar to a bad experience in the past, and your brain is repurposing those emotions in order to help you avoid getting yourself into a sticky situation.

This type of emotional decision making is at play anytime we choose a drink size at a fast food restaurant. Medium or regular-sized drink is actually a different size depending on which restaurant you go to. But, for most of us, the decision isn’t driven by ounces; it’s driven by fitting in the with social norm of being “regular.” In fact, researchers at Cornell found that people were willing to eat twice as much food if the larger portion size was labeled “regular.”

As designers, we can take advantage of the ventromedial sector’s incessant interference in decision making. We can use past shared experiences to influence what options they should choose. Just as in literature, we can present less desirable options ominously, relying on tropes of darkness to evoke an eerie feeling. Conversely, we can make sure the right options evoke feelings of warmth, newness, and light.

Lasting impressions

We all want to make a good impression, as people, obviously, but how do you make a lasting impression with your designs. You don’t want people to experience what you’ve lovingly crafted for them, and then forget about it the minute it’s over. And of course, you want them remembering you for the right reasons. You don’t want to go down in history as the worst thing they’ve ever experienced.

Bad experiences are rife with emotions. Let me tell you about a bad experience I had the other night. I was at a neighborhood restaurant I had been to many times. But this was one of those visits where nothing went right. Our arrival was met with — nothing. No one sat us for several minutes. As the minutes ticked by, it became clear that the air conditioning wasn’t working. To rectify this, the restaurant had employed a series of ceiling fans, which did a decent job of circulating the air, but were unfortunately placed below the light fixtures, creating a kind of crazy strobe effect that would have been more appropriate for a club than a nice dinner setting. Finally, we were sat at booth so small that we had to inhale just to squeeze past the table. I could go on, but actually none of these details are the point. The point is the feelings they produced. Anger, frustration, regret — these feelings are now so associated with that place that we’ll never be going there again.

Upset.pngPhoto by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

Now, this isn’t all doom and gloom. Positive emotions can have the opposite effect, but unfortunately not to the same degree. “Is the dark side stronger?” as Luke famously asked Yoda when learning about the Force. Yes, yes it is — five to seven times stronger in fact. Researchers have found that negative experiences are more powerful and last longer than positive experiences. As designers, we need to make sure that we have enough positive experiences built up, that our relationship with our heroes can take the hit of one bad experience.

With Feeling

Without emotions, our designs would be boring. And we can’t afford boring, not in today’s world with so many designs competing for attention. But be very intentional with how you construct your emotional journey. Carefully craft the highs and lows of your experience to deliver an emotionally impactful design.

Published by Ben Haefele

Product Designer. Innovator. Aspiring Ping-Pong Master.

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