UX-designers target emotions to create a competitive advantage

Miklos Philips , a UX Designer @ Toptal, argues that designers have to cater for customer delight to create a competitive advantage and to promote growth. According to Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, design is an act of communication; therefore, it requires a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating. If taken into account that companies are rewarded substantially when they connect with their customers’ emotions in a positive way, designers need to identify the powerful motivators that can help companies to create a competitive advantage.

Looking at the products around us, most of the designs speak to our emotions. We like or dislike it, we feel disillusioned or motivated when we use it, and we even love or hate certain colours. I will not buy an orange tool for my kitchen, even if it is better than it’s competitors. All designs ultimately produce an emotion, a fact incorporated in an old adage in the user-experience (UX) professionals world: “interaction with any product produces an experience (emotion) whether it had user experience or not.” All end products elicited an emotion from their audience; therefore, UX-designers are concerned with how an user interacts with and responds to an interface, service or product.

The response to a product or service or interface is regarded as an emotion; therefore, UX-designers do not only strive to design usable, functional products; they also strive to generate a certain emotional effect — usually a positive one — on a user while he or she uses the product. If the design is good, the response will be maintained throughout the user journey. Therefore, emotional design focuses on an interaction with the designed product that affects the user. In this article, I am using Philip’s guidelines to evaluate some of the products and interfaces I am using on a daily basis.

Approaches to designs

First, we need to look at some approaches to designing products, interfaces, and apps.


Functional design, or utilitarian design subscribes to the “form follows function” style prevalent since the early 20th century. This approach is based on the idea that the shape of an object or building should be based mainly on its function and purpose, and not on its aesthetic value. Current approaches to designing incorporates the aesthetic value to speak to the emotions of potential buyers of the products. (see the example from Philip’s article).


Philps refers to brutalism as the twin brother of utilitarianism. The form follows the function, but the product is also put together with the least amount of effort, the cheapest materials available and with zero regard to appearance or the human experience as can seen in the picture of a block of flats in one of the poor areas of the Western Cape, South Africa.

The flats are functional, but not pretty at all.

Aesthetics and Perceived Usability

Two Japanese researchers studied in the 1990’s two different layouts of controls for ATMs to invesigate if aesthetics affects perceived usability (Philips). The versions were identical in function, but the interfaces were not identical regarding their aesthetic value. The researchers found that the ones with attractive interfaces were perceived to be easier to use.

Philips argues that Braun, a very successful design and manufacturing company founded nearly a 100 years ago in Germany, is famous for its minimalist, elegant designs which captivated people since they are functional, but also simple, refined, good-looking and consequently a joy to use (see images below (Philips).

Utilitarian designs that are simply functional and feature-rich do not please people any longer. According to Tinker Hatfield, a shoe designer at Nike Nike basic designs are always functional but great designs will also say something to the potential users.

The Emotional Design Pyramid

Maslow (1943) postulated that human motivation is based on people seeking fulfillment and change through personal growth.  Based on his hierarchy of human needs, emotional design can be put on a pyramid that illustrates its importance (Philps).

People perceive functional and attractive things to work better than other things.  As illustrated in the Japanese ATM experiment, a product’s aesthetic value can affect its perceived usability. According to Philips products that include a pleasing aesthetic and anticipatory design can lead to such a degree of customer satisfaction, that minor frustrations and imperfections with those products will be forgiven.

During the 1990’s and early 2000’s Blackberry took South Africa by storm. The phones were not good-looking, but the free BBM function made up for an ugly design due to the high cost of Internet access in South Africa. And then Blackberry took the BBM function away, leaving potential buyers with the opportunity to choose any other phone. Currently, iPhone’s, LG’s, Sony’s and Samsung’s are the phone of choice, based on their people-pleasing slick designs (image Philips).

Emotions and The Brain

According to Philips, negative experiences focus the brain on what’s wrong; they narrow the thought process and make people anxious and tense. We feel restricted and frustrated if a website or an App is badly designed and doesn’t perform to expectations. In fact, this feeling can grow into a form of anger known as computer rage. Computer rage races our pulse-rates, forces us to click away from irritating sites and to delete Apps in frustration. When design goes wrong, extreme emotions can be produced.

Good emotional design elicits pleasure and a sense of security and safety (Philips). Until 1998, all PC boxes were white, and then Apple released translucent, candy-colored iMacs that signaled more than a renaissance for Apple; it sparked a widespread industrial design revolution since it found the sweet spot (image from Philips).

Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computer,  stated that design is much more that what a product looks and feels like, it needs to work well as well.  According to Bruce Claxton, Professor, Design Management at Savannah College of Art and Design, we seek out products that are not just simple to use but also a joy to use. In this regard, my Dell Inspiron 13, from the 7000 series serves as an excellent example.

Many manufacturers offers tablets (iPads) and computer, but Dell integrated a computer and a tablet to improve usability and user experience. Although I love my Apple products, they are not user-friendly in airplanes and when I work in bed. The screen of my Dell folds further back and can even be folded all the way back to change my computer in a tablet (see figure below).

From Passive to Interactive

Not long ago, the objects around us were mostly “dumb,” passive, one-way machines due to a lack of an interactive relationship.

My mixer could not talk back, but my new Thermomix machine can, a feature that allows me to form an emotional relationship with her. The interactive, chip operated Thermomix asks me if I want to see a recently used recipe or the interactive cooking book.

She also warns me when the lid is not inserted, and when a speed is insufficient due to the temperature of the liquid in the bowl.

My Apple watch reminds me to stand up and walk for one minute, a feature that can save my life since I forget to do it when I am working on my computer. Only when my legs cramps I realise that I have dismissed the haptic of my watch and sat for more than an hour in a certain position.

According to Philips such interactions cause an emotional relationship with our “machines” which give a rise to anthropomorphism or the tendency to project intentions, human qualities, behaviors, emotions, and character traits onto objects. If the product works well, we feel satisfied and altogether delighted because it puts what we were looking for at our fingertips at the perfectly right moment.

However, the relationships with ‘things’ can also cause a potential for negative emotions to kick in when ‘the thing’ is not doing what we want it to do. In such cases, we feel frustrated and not in control. Annoyance and irritation may arise with the possibility of escalation into anger if the aggravation persists. Therefore, good designs should be accompanied with excellent guides and help features to reduce the buid-up of negative feelings.

Guidelines for an emotional approach to designs

User-experience strategies need to include designing for emotion (Philips). They can use the power of user research and product testing to effectively set up and gauge the emotional impact of their designs. User-testing, deep research and subsequent touch-point mapping that identifies pain points, can afford designers with opportunities to identify the frustrations users may encounter while using the product. Designers should  strive to eliminate these frustrations, but they should also find opportunities to bring customers pleasure by changing critical moments into positive emotional experiences.

Three levels of design: Visceral > Behavioral > Reflective

Designs needs to work extremely well on three levels, namely, visceral, behavioral and reflective (See Don Norman’s seminal book on “Emotional Design.”).

Visceral level

First impressions are most important; therefore, the design can be regarded as effective when the potential user’s first response is that they want the product. This immediate, deep-level, positive, and instinctual gut reaction to a product’s design can create a competitive advantage. Visceral design also affects the perception of a product’s credibility, trustworthiness, quality, appeal, and even perceived ease of use. My first impression was that the Apple watch is fun, exciting, tough, speedy, uncompromising, but also intimidating.

Behavioral level
First and foremost products must work well for people, thereby contributing to its users’ satisfaction. Behavioral design focus on how the product or system, as evaluated by the potential users, meet their requirements and needs. It refers to pleasure associated with effectiveness. If users perceive it as something they can master and which makes them feel smart; they will buy it. Therefore, it has to feel good, look good and perform well. If it doesn’t work as advertised, it gives rise to an immediately negative emotion. Up to date, the only problem I have with my watch is that the heart rate monitor was troublesome (See figure).
After Googling the problem, I knew that I had to fit it tighter to my arm during exercises. Behavioral design also impacts the lifetime of apps on my iPhone and subsequently my Apple watch.
According to Philps, behavioral design is most important when apps are designed since 77 percent of users never use an app again 72 hours after installing it. As a result of good behavioral design, some apps are used on a regular basis and we can’t imagine being without them (Images from Philips)

Reflective design
 Buying and using products creates a sense of status in society, it’s about socioeconomic status. It’s about self-image, personal satisfaction, memories, reflecting back on the experience; therefore, beauty is a desirable feature of the products we buy (Philips). I want to know that it is beautiful, a pleasure to use, and can make my life easier, but I also want to know that I look good when I use it, drive it, and wear it. In this regard, I believe my Apple Watch speaks of good reflective design.


I can “bond” with this product, the design contributes to the perception of improved performance and quality (attractive things work better) and the perception of pleasure. I do not have to dig into my handbag when my phone rings, I can answer a call by using my watch. Furthermore, this accessory ensure that I exercise on a daily basis. The ability to change the face to suit my emotions distinct this product from a functional design.

Apple strive to form an emotional bond between the brand and the consumers by designing products that interact with one another. Brands spend millions every year to renew that connection; therefore, designers need to strive for the same emotional connection if their products are to be meaningful and successful. Designers should try to give products a “personality”; something that resembles the real world and brings pleasure and fun to the interaction to persuade them to buy and use the product.

Digital designs are a moment-by-moment effect “in the flow”, but they also operate on these three levels in the brain, namely, visceral, behavioral and reflective (Philips). It is important to note that there is a delay between these levels: first it’s visceral, second it’s behavioral and lastly reflective.

The World is in Motion

More and more designers use animated micro-interactions and screen transformations to make them seem “alive.” The world around us is in motion, flowing and fluid;and these designs mimic the real-world to allow users to form a more human-like relationship with digital products via anthropomorphism. These animated designs speak to our emotions as Philips illustrated with the following examples:

Example 1: Jewelry store e-commerce concept by Tubik (Dribbble)

Example 2: Bluetooth pairing sequence by InFullMobile (Dribbble)

Example 3: E-commerce store concept by Remco Bakker (Dribbble).

Final Words

Currently the focus is on functional beauty and emotional dimension of products (Philips). It’s no longer enough to design a functional and useful products or interfaces. Almost anyone can create functional and feature-rich everyday consumer products. To stand out in this crowd, designers need to have a deep understanding of the customer’s motivations and behavior to enable them to translate these  into effective emotional design that is elegant, beautiful and truly unique. Only then they will be able to design products and interfaces that create competitive advantage and promote growth.

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