Get emotional about your design

Article 4 of 4: Behavioural Design Series

Use the science of emotions to trigger customer responses and improve your UX design.

By Alessia Romano

Emotions. Like them or loathe them. There’s no getting away from the fact that they play a fundamental role in how users perceive their experiences with services and interfaces. Data from IPA compared the outcome of campaigns that relied primarily on emotional appeal vs those that used rational persuasion and information. The results showed that the emotional campaigns performed twice as well, and delivered twice the profit*.

These are not results to be sniffed at. But to successfully tap into people’s emotions, you first need to understand how they work.

By gaining a greater understanding of how emotions work, you can increase the effectiveness of your designs.

The science of emotions

1. Emotions are grounded in rationality
Emotions play a crucial role in how we react to situations. Without them, we wouldn’t run away from danger, behave soberly in serious situations or be protective of vulnerable people. Emotions have the evolutionary advantage of triggering actions we wouldn’t make otherwise. They activate us.
How to apply this to your design:

  • Emotions aren’t the enemy diverting your users in unknown directions. They are an opportunity for you to lead users the way you want them to go. For example, if you’re selling bungee jumping sessions, build excitement from the start. Show the sheer joy of bungee jumping and awaken their sense of adventure. You’re selling a lifestyle, not a jump – so make visitors want to part of the action.
  • Use UI elements like images, videos, text and colours to set the right tone. For example, dark colours for vehicles or minimalist fonts for luxury brands.

2. Emotions are subjective
Behind every emotion there is a personal concern. This means that an event can trigger a certain response in one person and a different or no response in another. Emotions are strictly connected to personal knowledge, beliefs, experience and personality.
How to apply this to your design:

  • Focus on your target audience and don’t expect to have the same impact on everyone.  In the bungee jumping example, some people will never want launch themselves off a bridge, however fun you make it look. That’s fine. Focus on the people your product or service will appeal to.
  • Use images or messages that are highly shared and sharable. Avoid anything that could be perceived as offensive or partial.

3. Emotions are also mostly social
Many emotional states are triggered by social events. Judgements or compliments affect of us. Most of our unspoken social life is regulated by the empathetic ability to understand other people’s emotions and react appropriately.
How to apply this to your design:

  • Empathise with your users. Try to foresee their emotive and motivational states when using your service – and react accordingly. Conveying positive emotions is an obvious choice for attracting and engaging visitors. But other emotions can also trigger responses, for example, awareness campaigns might use imagery and messages to raise feelings of compassion or guilt.
  • Give users emotions that will make them feel socially satisfied.  For example, Luxury brands underline the scarceness and uniqueness of their products to make their customers feel special.

4. Emotions are culturally defined
While basic emotions, like fear or joy, are relatively independent from culture, complex emotions like embarrassment, jealousy or guilt are connected to culture.

For example, being chatty and friendly with strangers might be considered normal in some countries and awkward and inappropriate in others. Laughing in Japan might be interpreted as a sign of confusion. In India, giving a gift with your left hand might be considered offensive. Being late for an appointment might be fine in Italy or Latin America but unacceptable in Germany. Jealousy might be considered very differently in polygamous cultures.
How to apply this to your design:

  • Keep in mind the specific culture you’re designing for, if there is one, and its belief system.
  • If your service is global, adjust content and messages for different countries. For example, Netflix has different programmes for every country.

As with the other cognitive processes covered in the previous articles of the series, emotions can be unpredictable. It’s difficult to know or foresee what customers are going through and what they’re feeling. What we can do is learn more about how emotional states work and the role they play. Then apply that knowledge to design better products.

Watch out for the rest of the articles in this series:

Part 1 – How to use Cognitive Psychology to improve you UX
Part 2 – Four ways memory can influence and improve Design
Part 3 – Three ways to influence customer decision-making

Find out more:

*Read ‘Powerfully emotional advertising’ by IPA

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