Emotion as a Design artifact for Pleasurable Products

Summary: Product design must focus on creating a pleasurable user experience to differentiate. The traditional approach to product usability has often centered on functionality and ease of use, neglecting the crucial role of emotion. However, recent developments in the field have begun to shed light on the significance of emotions in design, making it a competitive differentiator in today’s market.

In this article, we cover the intersection of emotion and product design, exploring how emotions act as cognitive artifacts and their implications for creating products perceived as pleasurable. This is based on the paper published at the 2004 Design and Emotion conferences by Frank Spillers. See the PDF full conference paper (Emotion as Design Artifact) for citations.

Emotion as a design artifact for more pleasurable products

Emotions, closely linked to attitudes, expectations, and motivations, are pivotal in how users interact with products. Affective states influence various aspects of interaction, both before, during, and after product use. These emotional states significantly impact how users navigate and engage with user interfaces to complete their tasks.

Understanding how artifacts trigger and mediate emotions, aiding users’ cognitive processes. This understanding is crucial for designers creating products that function effectively and deliver a pleasurable user experience.

Artifacts and emotional States

Artifacts, whether physical or mental, serve as windows into the problem-solving strategies employed by users during task completion (Spillers, 2003; Goel and Pirolli (1992) cited in Pearce 1994). They are essential tools for decision-making, problem structuring, and sense-making. In this context, Norman (1991) introduced the concept of “cognitive artifacts”, which encompass physical and mental tools created or elicited to enhance task success.

Identifying the role of artifacts during product interaction offers valuable insights into the emotional requirements of design. For instance, the design of an alarm clock that predicts and adjusts to the user’s mood illustrates how emotional levels of interaction, appearance, and functionality are tightly intertwined.

In the realm of cognitive artifacts, emotions serve as dynamic variables influencing task completion. Emotions are not mere by-products of design but integral components of the user interaction process, influencing sense-making and user interpretations.

“Affective artifacts” as cognitive aids…

The primary purpose of artifacts is to extend and enhance cognitive abilities. Cognitive artifacts are instrumental in mediating emotional state changes, managing workload, minimizing errors, and facilitating task accomplishment. Within this framework, “affective artifacts” emerge as artifacts that represent or elicit emotions, aiding product interaction and user cognition during the appraisal process.

For example, as users engage with products, concerns may arise, triggering specific emotional responses. Consider that emotion a “throw-away” emotion a user elicits to navigate a challenging situation.

For example, when confronted with a new icon on a screen, a user may experience annoyance, to interpret the icon. It does not mean they are annoyed. Their reflection of the overall experience might be positive.

Emotional state changes serve various functions, from exploring and investigating the interface to shifting attention and freeing cognitive resources. In essence, emotions can be seen as artifacts, with emotions playing a central role in sense-making, interpretation, and exploration of user interfaces.

Kansei Engineering: a precursor to Emotional Design

The concept of emotional sensitivity in design traces its roots back to Kansei Engineering, pioneered by Mitsuo Nagamachi over thirty years ago. “Kansei” means “felt sense” a user has with your design. Kansei Engineering focuses on capturing and quantifying the expected emotional responses of consumers when they perceive images and objects, then embedding those emotions into the product. This approach has been widely successful in various fields, from automobile manufacturing to community development.

Kansei encompasses sensitivity, sense, sensibility, feeling, aesthetics, emotion, affection, and intuition, bridging the gap between design and the end user. It reunites the emotional qualities of a design with the individual it’s designed for, offering a more experiential and “high touch” interaction.

For interaction designers, this perspective shifts the focus from purely functional criteria to identifying artifacts that trigger and mediate emotional responses.

Sense-making properties of artifacts as Emotion Design artifact for creating pleasurable products

Emotions are crucial in artifact sense-making, influencing how artifacts are interpreted. Shifts in emotion aid in sense-making by triggering and eliciting affective artifacts, expanding users’ resources and perspectives. For example, when recalling events without a calendar, a user may experience emotions such as urgency or excitement, enhancing their cognitive resources and applying perspective to anticipated situations. Understanding these can help Interaction Designers craft more emotional value in their experience design strategy.

Emotion contributes to sense-making in three ways: instrumentality (tasks the artifact helps accomplish), aesthetics (sensory reactions to the artifact), and symbolism (the associations the artifact elicits). Artifacts can both trigger and elicit emotional states, influencing the quality of the user experience.

Toward ‘pleasurability’

Emotions are the driving force behind the quality of interaction with a product, directly impacting the “appraisal” (Desmet 2002) of the user experience. In other words, how users expect a product to work or expected emotional value. Pleasure in user experience must satisfy multiple levels, including physical aesthetics, social status, values and cognitive appraisal  (Jordan 2000).

The perception of pleasure influences impressions or reflections formed and emotions felt during product appraisal. Emotions significantly shape user interactions, which, in turn, affect how users perceive the product. However, contrary to logic, our research found that negative emotions formed during interaction do not necessarily jeopardize the overall post-product reflection or post-product appraisal.


Emotions are not peripheral to the design process but integral to it. Users generate emotions as a means to minimize errors, interpret functionality, and gain confidence in their interactions with products. Emotion acts as a cognitive artifact, playing a pivotal role in sense-making, interpretation, and exploration of user interfaces.

Designers must recognize the importance of emotional design, with emotions acting as valuable cognitive aids. Emotions and artifacts are inextricably linked, influencing how users perceive and interact with products. By understanding the emotional landscape and leveraging affective artifacts, designers can create products that not only function effectively but also deliver a truly pleasurable user experience.

This is based on the paper published at the 2004 Design and Emotion conferences by Frank Spillers. For citations, see the PDF full conference paper (Emotion as Design Artifact)

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