The design of emotions and emotional intelligence

by priyasaraswat
2 minutes read

In 1972, psychologist Paul Eckman introduced to the world the six basic human emotions– fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness. Emotions are complex and complicated yet they play a crucial role in human behavior. Detecting, understanding, and responding to emotions is something innate in humans. A brief neurobiological explanation of an emotion is a pleasant or unpleasant mental state organized in our limbic system. While the oldest and innermost region of our brain is wired for survival, the limbic system is where our behaviors, emotions, and memory live. Inside our limbic system, there lies an almond-shape set of neurons called amygdala which is primarily responsible for controlling our perceptions, reactions, and emotions. Through sensations, we collect all the arbitrary data from our surroundings and through perceptions, we create real sense out of it. Honestly, we don’t have to be a neuroscientist to understand the importance of emotions in design. Truth is the biology and psychology of emotions are very much intertwined, so are their relationship with design. And that’s the reason why the same design can be perceived in many ways by different people.

There is a well-known concept of Emotional Design in user experience, which revolves around creating long-lasting and delightful user experiences through emotions. There is another term called Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman that he describes as understanding one’s feelings, developing empathy for others, and regulating emotions in a way that enhances living. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify emotions. When we identify our own feelings, we try to handle them appropriately, and when we recognize other’s, we try to empathize. Although the two concepts of Emotional design and Emotional Intelligence have emotions in common, they are significantly different. Both emotional design and emotional intelligence play a critical role when it comes to designing product and services for people.

Delight creates desire — I am so intrigued by the concept of introducing the element of delight in the design to make a product or feature more likable to its audience. Delight is a strong positive emotion. We seek for this emotion every time we pick our mobile phone to check our Instagram account or to watch a Youtube video. Emotional Design articulates the sudden rush of positive emotions that we experience after seeing a product. It can be a physical object like a shoe or a digital one like a new filter on Snapchat. I think the minimum delightful product (MDP) is an approach to deliver not just a viable product rather a product that makes people excited. Delight is the first step or cue that leads to a routine in expectation of a reward and thus forming a habit. A habit formed using emotions. Emotional design has the power to turn out visitors into our users and highly likely to our loyal fans, who spread the word about products they love. That said, delight doesn’t exist in isolation.

As per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the largest and the most fundamental needs of individuals sit at the bottom of the pyramid, and this stands true for user experience too. When it comes to adding delight to our designs, we must be thinking about usability, function, and reliability as the basic and most fundamental need of people.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs and Aaron Walter’s hierarchy of user’s need

In his book on emotional intelligence, Don Norman talks about three levels of emotional design– Visceral, Behavioral and Reflective.

The visceral reaction is what we can call ‘the first reaction’ when we interact with a product. Triggered by an initial sensory experience, the response transpires within milliseconds and is immediately reflected on our faces. There is no rational explanation on why we react positively, negatively or sometimes stay neutral after interacting with a product or service. It’s ‘love at first sight’ moments triggered by usually the aesthetics.

The next level of emotional design is Behavioral, it triggers when people immerse themselves into our product. The visuals are pretty much transparent at this stage and what kicks in is the underlying interaction model. Are the actions taking me where I expect them to take me? Is this content satisfying my need? Am I looking at the right thing? Is this even the right product? All sorts of questions are running in the mind of our users and they are trying hard to make a conscious effort to find answers for themselves.

As designers, we should be mindful of all the rollercoaster rides of emotions that our users take while interacting with the product we design for them. At behavioral phase, people want to feel more empowered and in control. A familiar and less cognitively challenging experience with the right content can help our product evoke the emotion of trust among our users that ultimately creates the desire to use it more often.

An influential behavioral phase often leads to a strong reflective phase, which the third level of emotional design. In this phase, our users are still thinking about the product even when they are not interacting with it. If people are sharing and contributing to the product, these are all strong indications that we were able to build a relationship with our user at an emotional level.


So now, when we acquired the knowledge of emotional design, are we ready to build delightful products? Not really. Till this point, things are in a designer’s control. But we all know how hard it is to anticipate the user’s reaction on our designs and how many times it works the way we expected. To make sure our design resonates with our user’s emotions, we need to acquire the skill of emotional intelligence. Being creative is no longer enough. We need to know how to intelligently understand the context of emotions and the way people respond to the experiences we create for them.

Those days are long past when a designer’s role was just to ensure that people can perform a bunch of tasks and nothing else. We are living in an era where people are spending most of their conscious time in the digital world. Our goal as designers has shifted to design experiences that help people to exist online just like how they do offline. In present times, emotional intelligence has turned critical. It necessitates developing the skill to listen and recognize people’s needs and emotions beyond words.

Emotional intelligence works beyond data and logic. As designers and product managers, it is necessary to ponder and understand how people are going to feel when you present them with a set of information. There are a couple of components through which we can work on becoming emotionally intelligent and build a stronger relationship with our users.

Accept mistakes & oversight: We understand that at the end of the day every organization is doing business and revenue matters. But we can still stay human and stay profitable. Being intelligent means, accepting the fact that no business is perfect and sometimes we end up doing things that hurt people’s emotions and sentiments but showing willingness and intentions to correct what went wrong is what matters.

Recognize motivations and avoid biases: We, as designers, should focus on understanding the user’s motivations to inform our own. One of the best ways to understand motivation is to change our perspective, which is the hardest thing to do and can be very challenging. Each individual has differences which are influenced by several factors including their culture, beliefs, knowledge, and experiences. However, we can work towards understanding these differences by avoiding opinions influenced by stereotypes and prejudices. Collecting information about the people and their reality can help us recognize the differences. We should avoid mind-reading and deducing the thoughts and feelings from the behavior that people present to us. Start by keeping your bias aside and try to learn their underlying goals.

Practice empathy and human-centered approach: Human-centered design and empathy go hands in hands. In IDEO’s Human-Centred Design Toolkit, empathy is a deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for.

Put yourself in your user’s shoes — literally.

We do have several tools like storyboards and empathy maps in our design toolkit to exercise empathy. The need is to believe in the hidden power of empathy and in our human-centered approach to infuse the element of emotional intelligence in our products.

Both emotional design and emotional intelligence are concepts in design that although gained popularity over time but are still very much emerging. If applied correctly, these concepts can serve as a powerful tool to combine human emotion, cognitive behavior, design, and technology. The underlying thought is pretty simple -Humans designing products for another human.

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