design and emotions

In this article I want to discuss the relation between emotion and design, but first let me say why I think that we are having this discussions at this very moment (and not a decade ago (or next decade)) I see five reasons.

  • Interaction design is more than graphic design on a screen or industrial design in a browser
  • Enlightenment, modernism and the questioning  of man being rational
  • The rise of neurological research, and the continues psychological and sociological experiments
  • The availability of a massive amount of behavioural data
  • Internet companies have found themselves in a saturated market with highly competitive products

I believe this is the right moment  to connect emotions with design research. Let me first go over the word “emotional” (again) in our language emotional is often used as the opposite of rational, when you are ‘all emotional’ you are not acting rational, and even worse both also carry a value connotation, to be emotional is bad, to be rational is good. I (and many with me) think this is a strong oversimplification that will not help us any further. Emotion is in accepting that in order to make a decision we  take much more into account than only  ‘is this cheaper or will this last longer’. As Malcolm Gladwell tried to explain in his book Blink or Weinschenk in her book Neuro Web Design there is a lot of thinking going on beyond closed doors.

The estimate from neuroscientist is that our five senses are taking in 11 million pieces of information every second. And how many of those are we processing consciously? A mere 40! (Weinschenk)

Is it pure magic what happens with the other 10 million inputs? Luckily we can already say quite a lot about the way those other inputs are processed, they are (mostly) in-line with our needs (A theory on needs was developed by Maslow, the so called hierarchy of need) I don’t want to go in this too deep, but I hope you agree that there is an awful lot to take into consideration when making a decision. This taking into consideration is what I for the lack of a better therm will call ’emotional’ decision making.

Interaction design
Interaction design (or user-experience design, information design, webdesign, etc) although there isn’t makes one thing pretty clear, designing for digital interfaces is not the same as just applying old design knowledge (architecture, graphic design, industrial design) to a new medium. We need the old knowledge, but it’s not enough, we have a new thing to learn about what happens when time, humans and mediated social action meet on a screen, magic happens. To know more about this magical field many people have turned to fields originally hardly associated with design such as psychology and sociology, as I shall try to make clear in this article, it was about time.

Enlightenment and modernism
Now let’s move back a bit in history -and make some terrible generalisations- and try explain why in the first place we have to defend emotional design over rational design. In the period of enlightenment the idea man could get out of the darkness and get on the path of progress if only we would be rational came to the surface . If we would follow our mind and with the help of technology we could work towards a better future for all mankind, we could put ourselves on a infinitive track of progress. In the 20th these ideas shaped thinking about design and architecture the idea of modernism rose on the horizon. If only we would remove every non-essential part, all the clutter, all the fluff, than at the heart we would reach a perfect blend of man and technology the essence, buildings would be white and shiny, products would be simple and clean and font-faces would be simple yet beautiful. Even the short rise (and fall) of post-modern design could not stop it, post-modernism gave us a change though to question our believes, maybe there would be more in life than this.  Now with the knowledge that there is more to progress than just simply removing everything that was not necessary to the job. Emotions came back to the table.

Psychological research
A lot has happened since Sigmond Freud uncovered the subconscious, experiment after experiment prove that humans are not as rational as we think. Research keeps on proving that people are influenced by reciprocity, commitment consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity (for a short introduction on these: Neuro Web Design) So although people are not rational, the factors that influence their behaviour are known and can be studied. This of-course with the hope that we will come to a rational way of understanding irrationality.

Data crunching
Now we have stated that although humans don’t behave as rational as expected, patterns in their behaviour can still be found, it is time to move on to the rise of the internet companies. Because any action that happens on a network can be registrated by that network, there is a massive amount of data available on internet usage. Data in itself is not really meaningful, just a long strings of zeros and ones. Meaning only appears after we work with this data and turn it into information. The quality of this information both depends on the kind of data, the quantity and most important the questions you try to answer with this data. If you start mixing psychological insights with quantitative data, interesting patterns start to emerge. You could for example base authority on the amounts of links that any web page gets, or you could use data clustering to create statements as ‘people who bought this also bought’. Or use it to answer if a border should be 5 or 6 pixels. Important to remember is that data is only useful when you ask the right questions.

So now we have the right mindset that by doing research we can improve the workings of technology, we have the psychological models to know where we have to look for answers and we have the data to give us the answers. Now the only thing we need is a financial stimulus to actually start working.

Web companies face a saturated. mature market
To be a successful company in the online sphere is at least as hard as to be successful in any market, there is no easy money any more. Although it might be easier than ever to start an online service and to have visitors coming your way, this is true for everyone. Thanks to the growing awareness of good usability practices most new web applications are now usable, this however is also true for the competition. To make the most out of their visitors companies have to make each visitor count. The psychological lessons about humans emotional behaviour are therefore really valuable, design that anticipates human emotional behaviour can make a visible difference in the amount of people that will actually use a website. By applying this knowledge we can move on from ‘is the user’s task doable’ to ‘does the user want to do the task’


So there we have it, the mindset, the questions, the answers and the money. This is why we will hear a lot more about psychology, sociology and emotions in the design world the coming decade.

more to read:

Donald Norman’s Design and Emotion
Predictably Irrational

The amazing slide shows by Joshua Porter
Pieter Desmet research emotions method

3 thoughts on “design and emotions”

  1. Hi Sjors,

    I like some of the points you’re raising in this post. I’m assuming you’re a member of The Design & Emotion Society? If not you should join.

    Regarding the need to move beyond rational motivations in design, I wholeheartedly agree. There is an overwhelming body of knowledge and research that highlights the importance of understanding emotion and unconscious motivation. You may appreciate some of the data (and references) in the following presentation:

    When making ‘the case’ for emotional design I find it’s important, and useful, to start with the following quote – ‘it’s now the consensus amongst cognitive scientists, that 95% of all human thought is unconscious’.

    The implication of this quote is twofold:
    1. Emotions need to be taken seriously. They need to be understood and addressed.
    2. If you don’t take the time to properly understand and address these deeper motivations, you’re missing out on the MAJORITY of market opportunities. YES it may require a shift in how we’ve always thought about research and design. YES it may require some new tools, approaches and techniques. But NO, it can’t be ignored.

  2. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for your reply, I’m not a member yet, but I’ll seriously contempt of joining it.

    I think my main struggle at the moment is with words, concept and definitions. Maybe I should stay away from the word rational, because it’s counterpart irrational has a completely different connotation than the relation between concious and unconscious (or subconscious) I guess that you can make unconscious rational decisions but that these would still count as being emotional? If also concious decisions would be made whilst using emotions, than what is the point of calling an concept Emotions and Design, when it is clear that all design works with processed sensory input aka emotions.

    Maybe though I’m looking for trouble and should stick with what is given. 95% of our decisions are not taken consciously, therefore (in de case of web applications) we should not focus on creating yet more features, longer list of functionalities or staring ourself blind on the price. We should work on all we can do to “influence” thought and action. Influencing thought and behaviour can therefore also not be done by checklist, what you have to do, depends on what you want to achieve and who you are. In a way delivering a good product/ service is as complicated/ multifaceted as being a good person

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