Emotional Design

Published on June 12, 2020

By Archit Parhi

How emotional factors affects design?

Emotion is a physiological state which creates thoughts, feelings, behavioural traits and even gives pleasure or displeasure to a person. But the question is what it has to do with design? To answer the question, I would like to provide you with an example. On a beautiful morning, you take a train to work, and when you reach the office and look for your phone, you don't find it. You start panicking as there is a lot of valuable and personal information. It becomes a traumatising experience for some people. This example leads to a question. Why is it traumatising for some people? The answer to the issue might be simple. They must have an emotional connection with their phone. But if we go deep into the subject, the emotional aspect of the design is a complex subject.

According to Don Norman, humans have a special connection with objects in three different levels i.e.

  1. Visceral- It defines the looks of a product along with the texture and feel of it. It stimulates the senses of a user.

  2. Behavioural- It defines the usability and the ease of use for the users.

  3. Reflective- It defines the importance of a product.


Emotional design helps to create products that elevate the appropriate emotion to create a positive experience for the user. Emotions play a vital role in the human ability to understand a product. Positive emotions drive the curiosity and pleasant experience for the user, whereas negative emotions protect us from making the same mistakes again.

People love certain products that they use again and again. Products that people like quickly slip from the user's mind and they get replaced in time with products that are liked more or loved. The ice-breaking thing is the emotional aspect of design which can elicit strong emotion in users to either create loyalty or to drive a particular decision in the user's mind.

"What is a successful design?" Is it a product which can quickly solve a problem, or is it something more to that? Successful design gets linked with the emotion of the user. In other words, the emotional model suggests that emotional attributes added to a design contribute toward the success of the product.

To talk about the importance of emotional design which elevates the user experience, Sony Corporation design strategist Alex Arie talks about the experience they target when developing a new product. He says" We think of it as a holistic experience. It's not just the hardware, but also everything surrounding it. It's how people connect with it in the store. It's how they open the package when they get home, how they first pick it up, how they use it. It's the relationship they build with the product over time. We want it to fulfil their desires, to become part of their family."

A user when using a product, goes through three major stages, i.e. –

a) First Impression-Value judgments, including aesthetics preferences, that shape the first impression of a product are directly influenced by emotions (O'Shaughnessy J. and O'Shaughnessy N.J. 2002). These value judgments are influential upon purchase decision.

b)  User satisfaction: User satisfaction is an important part of the product experience. Emotion is an important part of the experience phenomenon (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).

c) Longevity- Longevity can be considered as the major success of a product. Long-term use could be possible only when the product manages to establish an emotional bond with the user. People attach to objects because of the feeling's objects present (Norman 2004).


There are various factors which drive the emotional design which is as follows-

  • Aesthetics- One of the most crucial factors which drive the emotional aspect of a design is aesthetics. An excellent example of defining aesthetics is through an experiment conducted by a Japanese researcher and an Israeli scientist. In the first research conducted in Japan, researchers Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura tested ATM kiosks. ATMs were identical in function, button number and operation procedure 48 however some had attractively designed buttons and screens whereas some had unattractively designed ones. Outcomes were surprising. Japanese participants of the research found the attractive ATMs easier to use. The second research started with the doubt of Israeli scientist Noam Tractinsky upon this study. Tractinsky's belief was aesthetics and usability were unlikely to correlate. According to Tractinsky, aesthetic perception was culture-based. So, the results were not to be surprising for a culture with a strong aesthetic tradition like Japan. But in an action-oriented society like Israel, the same results should not be expected. Tractinsky decided to redo the experiment in Israel. Layouts of the ATMs were brought and translated into Hebrew. Tests were conducted under strict controls not to allow any flaw. Nevertheless, the results were parallel with the Japan sample with stronger outputs.

Seymour Powell design company strongly believes that aesthetics is a major factor while designing a product. They proofed it while designing a watch for the fashion-oriented world. As a design company, they state that people

buy fashion as much as time while explaining the concept for B-Cool wristwatch

(WEB_13 2006):

 …so instead of changing the inside, you can now just change the outside…B-Cool isn't a watch

with a strap…it's a bracelet that tells the time. The watch capsule just snaps out of one style

and clips into the next, letting you expand your temporal wardrobe as much as you want…any

time you want.

Dieter Rams know for minimalistic design even criticises aestheticism designed for

consumption (Rams 1998): "The 'purchase attraction' aesthetics upon which design

today is almost exclusively based, and which only fuels the destructive product

extravagance will give way to an aesthetic which supports long-term use and the

conservation of resources." With such criticism, Rams draws attention to the power of

aesthetics in the longevity of a product.

  • Novelty- An incremental change to the existing product to differentiate with similar products. Philippe Starck's table lamp Miss Sissi exemplifies the degree of how typicality and novelty co-varies (Hekkert et al 2003). Miss Sissi can be designated as a novel because of its synthetic material, while, at the same time, it can be seen as a typical table lamp due to its overall form. This shows that although a high negative correlation is often found between typicality and novelty; they are not to be conceived as opposite poles of one.

  • Form- Form of a product can be aesthetically important as much as the content (WEB_14 2006). Form's influence is at such a level that spontaneous emotions, mostly related to the visible structure, generally overshadow the advantages of the concept (Jacobs 1999).



  1. Tom Dixon, a designer, claims that today's designers are much more concerned about the shape of the object and their own personal evolution within it (WEB_16 2006). Tom Dixon treats the form as a result of an understanding of materials and a belief in improving functionality.

  2. Seymour Powell design company suggests the form of a product is neither composed of the things from which it is made of nor by its functionality (WEB_17 2006). The form is a function. For them, styling (the conception and definition of form and finish) is far from meretricious; rather it is a powerful and emotive tool for seducing, simplifying and clarifying, as well as for communicating and reinforcing function, purpose, and cultural context.


        Some products are so aesthetically appealing that users do not throw away the product and keep for a second, altered use or decorative purposes. Glass bottles are one of the best examples. Many alcoholic beverage bottles like wine, whisky, vodka etc. are kept and used as a water bottle, candle holders or vases like the Absolut vodka bottles in the Figure below

  • Materials- Users see the colour of materials, feel texture and weight and hear the sound. These sensory experiences are part of the user experience. Materials are one of the tools product designers use to give a desired sensory experience to the users. Product designers select materials to elicit the right associations. For example, the metals used in a Rolex is aimed to express a feeling of status. So product designers use materials to influence product personality.


Material selection alters the impression of the same 'product appearance' (Figure below). Trashcans in the figure below have different personalities due to material difference. The plastic one is more to look ordinary and cheap, whereas the metal one is more to look exclusive and clean (Kesteren et al. 2005).

  • Colour-  Colour certainly plays a vital role in defining the mood of users. The following list talks about the feeling that colour invokes in a user

  • Antecedent and usage factors- Apart from the significant factors like form, aesthetics etc. there are various factors generally discovered during the usage period, which might evoke multiple emotions in a user.

  1. Encountering events: During the physical interaction in product usage, one can discover hidden features or qualities of the product. A participant reported an incident of exploring a shortcut in the navigation system of an mp3 player. This type of events can trigger emotions such as surprise, fascination, or in general contentment or disappointment.

  2. Malfunction, brake-down, inappropriate response events: These events are characterised by inappropriate responses of the product to the user's actions. Reported examples of this type of events are a coffee vendor that poured only half full of coffee, a computer that crashed, or a washing machine that waited too long to let the tap open.

  3. Errors and accidents: These events involve failed user actions. Examples include pressing a wrong button while trying to read an SMS, spilling coffee on a table while pouring from a flask with an open lid, not being able to stick a dull wooden fork into a piece of mushroom, touching hot handles of a saucepot.

  4. Completion of usage episodes: When one completes a usage, or repair, or upkeep session with the product, the results can be emotionally evocative. A participant reported a case where she felt happy when she completed the instalment of a tent as a marker of the start of fun times.

  5. Communication events: Receiving an SMS or an e-mail through communication devices can be emotionally evocative as well. Depending on the content of the message, these moments can be pleasant or unpleasant.

Emotional design has gained popularity over time but is still very much emerging. There is a lot to discover about the emotional aspects while designing user-centric products. If applied in the right way, the emotional aspect of design can serve as a powerful tool to combine human emotions, cognitive behaviour, design and use of modern technology.  The emotional design will help us develop products which are not only beautiful and functional but also help to increase the longevity of a product.

All work © Archit Parhi 2021

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