Design for emotion: A user-centred approach

Emotions play a critical role in our daily lives. They help us assess whether situations are good, bad, safe or dangerous, and guide our decision-making. But what if we told you that aesthetics have the power to influence our emotional state? Contemporary design trends have shown that a product’s visual appearance is responsible for shaping first impressions and sparking an emotional level of connection before purchase.

Stay with us as we delve into this guide, exploring the power of emotional design and how you can leverage it to craft exceptional digital experiences. Let’s dive in.

What is emotional design?

Emotional design is the practice of designing interfaces that can evoke emotional responses, such as excitement or happiness, from users. Coined by Donald Arthur Norman, co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group, this concept underpins the idea that emotional design focuses on creating exceptional user experiences. This, in turn, leads to greater user satisfaction, loyalty and trust. Arguing that objects are more than utilitarian, Norman suggests that they are pieces of artwork that each have their own story.

Remember when everyone was obsessed with Blackberry phones? Back in 2011, “pinging your pals” on Blackberry Messenger was the ultimate way to connect with friends and family. But then came Steve Jobs and the new iPhone in 2007, and everything changed. Blackberry was unable to keep up with evolving tech trends, while Apple stole the spotlight by introducing a smartphone with a sleek design, touchscreen and seamless integration of software and features — and ultimately became a pioneer of emotional design.

Emotional design was central to our work with Once, the first dating app to match compatible people based on a comprehensive emotional profile.We worked closely with the founders on a total redesign of this dating app. Following the relaunch of the app featuring our designs, Once was acquired by a larger dating group for a reported sum of $18 million. Most importantly, it continues to help its users find love.

How is emotion connected to design?

Have you ever ordered something in a restaurant and when it has arrived at your table, the presentation is off or it smells strange, leaving you immediately filled with disappointment?

The reason behind this is because everything we see, hear, and interact with triggers emotional responses. The same is true for digital products and services we use. Whether we are using an app, browsing online or updating our phones, our perceptions of the product depend on our emotional response to these experiences.

Emotions play a fundamental role in the human decision-making process, affecting cognitive processes, memory, and the overall evaluation of experiences. It is important to address three levels of cognitive responses when designing:

  • Visceral responses: Visceral design refers to the appearance of the product. 
  • Behavioural responses: Behavioural design encompasses the product’s usability and performance. 
  • Reflective responses: Reflective design considers the long-term impact of the product on the user.

A design must satisfy all three cognitive levels, as this can lead to long-lasting emotional connections between users and the product, as well as bring happiness.

Visual elements such as colours, typography, and imagery can all contribute to the shaping of the emotional tone of a design. For example, warm hues like red may evoke feelings of excitement, energy and fearlessness, while cooler colours like blue can evoke feelings of serenity and dependability. Similarly, the choice of font and typography can convey different tones and personalities, depending on their shapes, weights and proportions; influencing how consumers perceive a brand. For example, serif fonts are associated with timelessness, elegance, and authority, while sans-serif fonts are seen as modern, streamlined and minimalistic.

Therefore, when choosing visual elements for your design, you must consider what message you want to send to your audience, and the emotions you want to evoke in them.

Why emotion is important in design

Emotions are crucial in design because they play a critical role in our lives,creating enduring, engaging and delightful product experiences. By incorporating emotional design principles, businesses can create products that resonate with users on a deeper and more meaningful level, leading to stronger brand loyalty, increased engagement levels and a positive experience overall. Some of these principles include:

User engagement

Products designed with emotional appeal create a deeper connection between the user and the product. When users feel a positive emotional bond, they are more likely to have a better experience and develop loyalty to the product. Consider how every year Apple releases new iPhone designs that have minimal changes but people still purchase them. People are more likely to spend time and remember a product that makes them feel good.

User experience (UX)

UX Design is all about crafting products and services that will provide users with meaningful and enjoyable experiences. In order for a user to have a meaningful experience, UX designers will make it their primary goal for each user to have a positive interaction and achieve this by focusing on pleasurable and efficient aspects of the product. This includes branding, design, usability and function.

It is important to note that while the design of a product can attract the user, functionality is what keeps them interested. A design that causes frustration or confusion hinders a positive UX. For instance, a website that uses calming visuals and clear navigation might keep users browsing longer, whereas a confusing or unpleasant design may prompt them to click away. Both design and functionality are intertwined, and if one is prioritised over the other, the product will suffer.

Brand perception

Emotional design plays a pivotal role in shaping how people view a brand, which is crucial for its growth. It is important that your brand triggers positive associations by using visual cues strategically, incorporating storytelling elements that resonate with the brand’s core values and showcases trust and credibility for its audiences. A great example of this is Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which invited all women to believe that beauty should be a source of confidence, not anxiety. Using relatable imagery and a powerful message to connect with women on an emotional level, it fostered a perception of inclusivity and empowerment. This not only made women feel good about themselves but also led to Dove’s revenues increasing by a remarkable 10% in a year.

Passive vs interactive design

The first step in creating an emotional design is determining the target behaviour and what you are trying to encourage. The next step is deciding whether you want to target a passive or interactive design.But what is the difference between the two? Let us tell you.

Passive Design

With passive design, it sits in the background, and the user plays more of a receptive role. Information is presented, and the user absorbs it without needing to take specific actions. The emotional impact arises from the visual elements themselves (such as colours, typography, and imagery). For example, a billboard displaying an advertisement.

While passive design is easy to implement, effective for conveying clear and concise information does not require the user to have any specific technical skills, users may lose interest quickly because of limited engagement.

Interactive Design

With interactive design, the user is explicitly directed to do an action. They actively participate, triggering their emotions, which can involve clicking, dragging and providing input. For example, a mobile app with touch-based controls.

While interactive design can provide personalised experiences based on user input, it can also encourage exploration and convey complex information effectively. However, there are downsides — such as being more complex and expensive to develop; will require users to implement more effort and technical skills; and it can overwhelm users due to the amount of interaction.

The ideal approach ultimately depends on your specific goals and target audiences.

How to create positive emotions

So hopefully, by this point in your reading journey, you will understand what emotional design is, the principles that underpin it and types of design you can have. So, how do you create positive emotions in your designs? Well there are numerous ways:

1. Understand your users

Identify your target audience and their emotional needs: Who are you designing for? Understanding their demographics, interests, and tech-savviness is crucial. What are their goals and pain points? What positive emotions do they seek?

2. Set the emotional tone

Define target emotions you want users to experience while using your product (e.g., trust, confidence, playfulness). Ensure the chosen emotions resonate with your brand identity and overall user journey.

3. Visual appeal

Use colour psychology, imagery, and typography to evoke the desired emotions. Use colour and contrast advantageously and strategically. Select visuals that reinforce your chosen emotions. For example, photos of serene landscapes for a relaxation app or playful cartoon characters for a children's learning tool.

4. Microinteractions

Crafting small, delightful animations or sound effects can create positive surprises for your users. A satisfying "pop" on a button click or a celebratory animation upon task completion can create positive micro-moments.

5. Storytelling

Having a narrative around your product is extremely important for your brand. The narrative should be crafted around your product’s purpose and how it can improve the users lives. By weaving in relatable stories throughout your design, this can create an emotional connection with users and foster loyalty.

6. User success

Focus on usability and celebrate milestones. Ensure your product is easy to navigate and tasks are clear and achievable. A smooth user journey promotes a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Furthemore, in acknowledging the user’s successes, with a badge system or congratulatory message, this can reinforce positive behaviour and create a sense of achievement.

Emotions are subjective. So it is important to refine your emotional design through user research and testing. Identify user frustrations and emotional pain points and focus on not just eliminating them, but also turning these moments into positive experiences that can delight users.

At Shoreditch Design, we enjoy helping businesses grow their vision and bring their designs to life. Have you got a great new idea but need help to realise it? Check out our case studies or get in touch for a chat directly with one of our designers about your design project today.

Say hello!

Book an intro meeting with us

We can discuss, your project, our services, relevant past work, our rates, and how we can work together, or email us at