top of page
  • Writer's pictureJillian Berry

Behavioral Design: Using Emotions to Drive Better Decision-Making

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Emotions play a significant role in everyone's life, whether they realize it or not. Emotions are more than just gushy feelings that creep up on us at inconvenient times. They are how we associate with others and how we interact with objects. They also play a big role in how we are motivated and store memories. A designer's best hope for connecting to a user is through emotional design.

Emotional design is a concept where a designer anticipates the user's emotional response to a product or service to better accommodate the user's needs and desires. By applying this concept, designers can evoke emotions that lead to a better user experience.

Designing for emotion focuses on how the user interacts with a design, what the user is experiencing when using it, and why they are motivated to use it. It can drive behavior change, increase better decision-making, and create positive associations with the company's brand.

Diving into the elements of emotional design, this article will cover:

  • Sensory processing

  • Three Levels of Processing

  • Schemas and Learned Associations

  • Motivation

  • Memory & Decision-making

Sensory Processing

We commonly have five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. However, researchers have now identified that people experience closer to 18 different senses. Some of these senses are pressure, balance, pain, thirst, hunger, velocity, thermoception (the ability to sense internal and external temperatures), and chronoception (the ability to sense the passing of time).

Our body organizes and interprets these senses for survival, known as sensory processing, and it is the base level of how a person's body responds to their environment. Most information is filtered out in the brain during sensory processing, but some details still make it to the preconscious and conscious mind. These details are considered innate associations and can trigger emotions even when people are unaware of them.

Three Levels of Processing

Sensory processing initiates the three levels of how the brain processes everything. These three levels are known as visceral, behavioral, and reflective levels. Knowing these levels and how they affect people allows a designer to focus on a better process for creating and implementing practical concepts.

  • Visceral Level

The visceral level is the brain's biological, automatic, prewired layer. It is the level that makes rapid judgments to determine whether something is safe or dangerous and whether or not to take action. Some of these judgments are prewired through evolution, such as whether a person can determine if something is too hot or too cold. Other judgments are prewired based on a person's culture or experience, such as whether an individual determines if someone is beautiful or ugly.

At the visceral level, senses such as sight, sound, and touch dominate decision-making because reactions are immediate. Designers can trigger an excellent visceral response by keeping things simple, clean, and aesthetically pleasing.

  • Behavioral Level

The behavioral level of the brain is what controls everyday behavioral processes. This level, like the visceral level, is not conscious. At the behavior level, a person can perform a task while consciously thinking about something else on the reflective level. For example, a person can be riding a bike (behavior level) while thinking about a funny incident at work the day prior (reflective level).

People focus on usability and understanding at the behavioral level, not aesthetics. Does it function? Is it usable? Is it understandable? Does it bring pleasure? Designers can trigger a good behavioral response by creating a human-centered user experience. They should focus on the user's wants and needs, how they interact with the design, and what the user is experiencing when presented with a design.

  • Reflective Level

The reflective level is what controls the contemplative part of the brain. This level is where people interpret, understand, reason, and reflect. People using this level of processing are using their conscious mind, and here they control automated behavior and emotional impact. An example would be if a person were trying to pick the perfect gift for their boss and decide between two gifts. They will weigh the options against one another and decide on what gift best fits the situation.

Since the reflective level focuses on a person's overall impression and is a long-term process, a designer will trigger a good reflective response by creating a clear message and a positive experience.

An excellent resource for a more in-depth understanding of the three levels of processing is the book "Emotional Design Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things" by Don Norman.

Schemas and Learned Associations

People, by nature, are pathological classifiers. People use experiences from their life to categorize information into groups. These are known as schemas, and it is how people understand and structure their entire world. Schemas shape a person's world by affording them the ability to deal with vast information in a compact format. Without schemas, people's senses would overload their consciousness with too much information. Overall, schemas help the memory process because they affect how memories are encoded and retrieved.

While schemas can help someone navigate the world, they can also create biases. For example, someone may focus on a schema that classifies people to categorize someone by height, weight, behavior, class, race, ethnicity, etc. If that person holds a specific belief about a particular group of people, it may cause them to interpret situations differently.

Sometimes new information presented to a person can be inconsistent with their prior understanding or experiences, which is considered a schema violation. Schema violations are when information breaks a stereotype when an outcome is the opposite of what a person predicted or unanticipated information. Schema violations are how learned associations are made. Learned associations are associations between stimuli, a response, behavior, and consequence.

So why do schemas and learned associations matter to designers? Schemas and learned associations matter because designers need to use these real-world concepts to help users understand the digital design world; this is called skeuomorphism. Designers must respect users' real-world learned associations and schemas when designing for the digital world to help them recognize elements quicker. If designers do not consider schemas and learned associations when designing, they will have difficulty connecting with the user.

To give a quick example of what skeuomorphism looks like, in the real world, people file their paperwork in folders and then put those folders into a filing cabinet. In the digital world, designers can create realistic-looking folders where people can store their files to have the same mental connection for storing important information.


People use schemas and learned associates to classify information, whereas emotions help people respond to information. Emotions are a series of physiological responses to a perceived threat or opportunity. They are facilitated through hormones and neurotransmitters. Emotions prepare someone for action and change the body's response, such as a more rapid heart rate, sweating, and pupil dilation. Let's look at different hormones and neurotransmitters that affect a person's emotional response:

  • Hormones

Part of the endocrine system, transmitted through blood stream, lasts two minutes to a few days

Cortisol (stress response)

Endorphin (emotional reward, pain masking)

Vasopressin & Prolactin (parental bonds)

Estrogen & Testosterone (sex hormones, personality traits)

  • Neurotransmitters

Part of the nervous system, transmitted through a synaptic gap, lasts only milliseconds

Dopamine (pleasure)

Serotonin (emotional calmness, confidence, mental health focus)

  • Hormones and Neurotransmitters

Oxytocin (social bond, social cognition)

Norepinephrine (stress response, heightened focus, energizing)

  • Energy


How do hormones and neurotransmitters cause emotional responses that lead to someone being motivated? Well, motivation, by definition, is an emotional response that facilitates action. For example, let's say a runner is not sure if they want to compete in a race. Then, their coach states that the runner who wins the race will receive $1000. As a result, the runner now sees a benefit that was not there before and is more inclined to run the race. In this scenario, that monetary incentive triggered their endorphins (a hormone), creating an emotional response that motivated the runner to compete.

A designer needs to know what motivates a user to assist in a behavioral change in that user. For example, let's say a company wants to wean the user off an old product to make way for the following product. A designer should understand what motivates a user to effectively design an accurate campaign for the new product. Understanding what motivates people also comes in handy when a designer needs to gain buy-in from stakeholders.

To gain in-depth knowledge on why emotional response plays a huge role in motivating people, I highly recommend taking the course "Emotional Design Psychology & Neuroscience" through

Memory & Decision-Making

Creating the opportunity for a user to have an emotional response increases the chances of storing information in long-term memory, facilitating better decision-making. This decision-making process is gradual, starting at the visceral level when the user is triggered by new information. Next, they encode that information into their sensory memory. Then, the user discovers value in that information during the behavioral level and stores it in their short-term memory. Finally, during the reflective level, the user begins to engage with the information, which is then stored in long-term memory.

Sometimes friction can get in the way of a user remembering content or engaging in the decision-making process. This friction is when there is a strain on the user in one way or another. For example, there could be an emotional strain where the user is forced to control a difficult situation. Second, there could be a cognitive strain where the user is forced to think too hard. Third, there could be a willpower strain, where the user is forced to follow non-habitual behaviors. Lastly, there could be a physical strain, where the user is forced to work too hard or too long.

Due to these different types of strains, a designer should act as an expectation manager when creating content or imagery. They should inform users what will happen next or how much time and energy it will take to complete a task. As a result, they can create content that reduces the user's risk of experiencing emotional distress or uncertainty about what steps to take next.

A designer needs to be aware of memory limitations, and they need to organize content in smaller, digestible groupings. Most people can only hold three items in their working memory at a time, and it is much easier for them to retain information when content and imagery are mixed. Designers need to be aware of the pain points in their design work and break it down if necessary to ensure the user will have the best opportunity to retain that information.


Overall, designing for emotion creates a space where a designer can connect with the user on the visceral, behavioral, and reflective levels, creating the best opportunity for the user to have a positive experience interacting with the design. In addition, understanding the effects of schemas, learned associations, emotional response, motivation, and memory limitations give a designer the ability to have a more robust design strategy. This is why emotional design is necessary if a designer wants to build a relationship with the user.


0 views0 comments
bottom of page