Emotional Design: What does emotion have to do with design?

Summary:  Emotional Design: What does emotion have to do with design? Emotion is embedded in everything that makes users human. To ignore it is to overfocus on function and miss emotional value. Understanding how important emotion is in your design can help you design for it more deliberately.

What does emotion have to do with design?

Emotion is one of the strongest differentiators in user experience namely because it triggers unconscious responses to a product, website, service environment, or interface. Our feelings strongly influence our perceptions and often frame how we think about or refer to our experiences at a later date.

Emotion Design has become synonymous with cultivating user satisfaction, and rightly so. It revolves around curbing the common emotions associated with poor usability – think frustration, annoyance, anger, and confusion. But its impact extends far beyond mere happiness; it’s about sculpting experiences that resonate deeply.

What research shows- emotional design impact

Let’s take a quick look at a few different design contexts and research-backed findings that support emotional design as an essential design requirement.

1. On the Web: A meticulously organized website, boasting a professional aesthetic and seamless navigation, triggers emotional reactions like credibility, trust, and perceived ease of use.

2. For Software Applications: Task-centric software applications equipped with “just in time” features evoke user satisfaction, enhance perceived software quality and contribute to the product’s allure.

3. With Products or Devices: Aesthetically pleasing products that perform impeccably establish a connection, evoke pleasure, and generate a sense of attachment.

4. In Service Environments: Environments designed to cater to social, physical, and group dynamics while incorporating aesthetics can bolster loyalty and productivity.

Is Emotion the Holy Grail?

Emotion is not an exclusive factor in defining a successful user experience.  Hekkert et. al. (2003) found that every product feature affects the experience, which can be complex and multi-faceted. Further, emotions are culturally specific and variable (Ratner, 2000), which may explain anomalies Desmet (2002) found in responses to the emotions of ‘desire’ and ‘disappointment’ when testing emotion in Japan, compared to responses found in the USA, Netherlands, and Finland.

The intensity of emotional expression in product design also highly depends on the personal goals, attitudes, and expectations the user brings to the product (Van Hout, 2004).

Emotion and Cognition are unified

Emotion plays a powerful role in our lives (Golman, 1997) and has gained significant attention as a priority area of study in interaction design (Jordan, 2002).

Looking for a great book on this subject? Get Pat Jordan’s book Designing Pleasurable Products

Traditionally, the field of Human-Computer Interaction (where UX comes from) has distanced from emotion until now. This practice is reflected by the field of Cognitive Science, which, until recently, studied emotion as a separate, distinct facet of human cognition.

Ratner (2000) noted that emotions and thinking seem so different that we classify them as different kinds of phenomena:

“Emotions appear so antithetical to thinking that they are said to interfere with it. Clear thinking supposedly requires eliminating emotions”.

Cognitive research emphasizes humans as problem solvers using the computer paradigm to describe human information processing.

Vygotsky (1962) and LeDoux (1996) believed that separating affect from cognition was a major weakness in the field of psychology and cognitive science. According to Davidson (2003), the perception that affect and cognition are independent; separate information processing systems is flawed.

New breakthroughs in neuroscience using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) have validate the assertions that cognition and emotion are unified processes. Gray et. al (2002) found that emotion and cognition ‘conjointly and equally contribute to the control of thought and behavior’. Not only does emotion contribute to the regulation of thought and behavior, but also cognition contributes to the regulation of emotion.

AI’s examination of emotion

Contemporary views in Artificial Intelligence also embrace an integrated view of emotion and cognition. In discussing his book The Emotion Machine, Minsky (Steinert-Threlkeld, 2001) stated:

“Our traditional idea is that there is something called ‘thinking’ and that it is contaminated, modulated or affected by emotions. What I am saying is that emotions aren’t separate”.

Keep the Emotional Data in your Design Decisions

Separating emotion from cognitive functions does not seem helpful from a research or design perspective. Instead, an integrated view of emotion and cognition appears to take hold in neuroscience, AI, and UX.

I recently gave a small talk on the subject of Emotion Design at the Art Institute of Portland where I teach a class on UX strategy, which was attended by 40 people from some of the largest corporations in the United States.


Emotion Design is not just a buzzword; it’s a guiding principle that ushers in a new era of design consciousness. It recognizes that the user experience is not confined to mere functionality but resonates emotionally.

As users engage with digital interfaces, services, and products, their emotions intertwine with cognition, shaping their perceptions and driving their decisions. The integration of emotions and cognition signifies a paradigm shift that enriches design practices, pushing boundaries and yielding more comprehensive, impactful user experiences. So, let’s create designs that deliver emotional value, not just function.

Learn more? See What emotion means for UX strategy

Take our training on Emotion Design

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