• Jillian Berry

Designing for Emotion

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

Emotions play a large 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 how we 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.

Emotional design 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

It is commonly known that we have five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. However, researchers have now identified that people actually 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, which is known as sensory processing, and it's 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 they can trigger emotions even when people are unaware of them.

Three Levels of Processing

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

  • Visceral Level

The visceral level is the biological, automatic, prewired layer of the brain. 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 a person determines if someone is beautiful or ugly.

At the visceral level, senses such as sight, sound, and touch play a dominant role in decision making because reactions are immediate. Designers can trigger a good 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 be 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).

At the behavioral level, people are focused on usability and understanding, not aesthetics. Does it function? Is it useable? 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 of this would be if a person was trying to pick out the perfect gift for their boss and deciding between two gifts. They will weigh the options against one another and ultimately decide on what gift better 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.

A great 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. This is 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 a vast amount of 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 the way 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, so they may categorize someone by height, weight, behavior, class, race, ethnicity, etc. If that person holds a certain 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 that are made between a stimuli, a response, or a behavior and a 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 better. This is call 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 take schemas and learned associations in to account when they are designing, they will have a hard time connecting with the user.

To give a quick example of what skeuomorphism looks like, let's say 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. Let's say a runner isn't sure if they want to compete in the race. Their coach states that the runner who wins the race will receive $1000. The runner is now going to run in the race. What just happened there? The runner wasn't originally motivated to run in the race; then they were offered a reward, which triggered their endorphins (a hormone), which created an emotional response that motivated the runner to compete in the race.

A designer needs to know what motivates a user in order to assist in a behavioral change of that user. This comes in handy when designing products. Let's say a company wants to wean the user off an old product to make way for the next 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 into 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. They encode that information into their sensory memory. The user discovers value in that information during the behavioral level; they then store that information into their short-term memory. Then, during the reflective level, the user begins to engage with the information, which is then stored in the long-term memory.

Sometimes friction can get in the way of a user remembering content or engaging in the decision-making process. This is when there is a strain on the user in one way or another. There could be an emotional strain, where the user is forced to control a difficult situation. There could be a cognitive strain, where the user is forced to think too hard. 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. They can create content that reduces the user's risk of experiencing emotional distress or uncertainty about what steps to take next.

Overall, 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 together. Designers need to be aware of the pain points in their design work and break it down further if necessary to ensure the user will have the best opportunity to retain that information.


Overall, emotional design 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. Understanding the effects of schemas, learned associations, emotional response, motivation, and memory limitations give a designer the ability to have a stronger design strategy. This is why emotional design is necessary if a designer wants to build a relationship with the user.


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