The Power of Emotional Design: Bringing Products from Good to Great

Whether you are a developer, designer, product manager, or someone else working to create digital products, you might wonder: What separates great products from good ones? Was it their attractive designs, their aesthetic, the methodology or technology used, or just a genius idea put into practice? Although these things might be influential factors within a great product, the actual distinction lies in how a person feels when using your product. 

In this article, we’ll go over two popular design theories: Don Norman’s ‘Level of Three’ and Paul McClean’s Triune Brain Model, to better understand the relationship between people’s emotions and the products they use in their everyday life. We’ll also look at how our choices in coding, user experience, and interface design redefine the way users engage with our products, and how to evoke certain emotional responses. Let’s begin!

Understanding emotions within product design

Every experience has an emotional component, even when using a product. Understanding emotional design–how users feel and what affects these feelings–is essential to leveraging great user experiences. 

You most likely have used things that aren't great, but love them anyway, because you feel a connection to them. These connections are powerful: they subconsciously affect you and can turn objects into evocative extensions of your emotions. 

One thing we must take into consideration is that our emotional state is in constant flux, according to the stimulus we receive from the environment. These changes are mediated by:

  • Our cognition (how we interpret information) 
  • Our disposition (how we feel at the time) 
  • Our environmental factors (where we are)

Our emotional state has a significant effect on our life; it drives us to choose and pursue different objectives. If we experience negative emotions, we are more likely to change or stop the path we are on. Therefore, our role when creating is to understand how our users are affected by our product and how we can captivate them to improve and forge lasting impressions with it.

The Product-Emotion Cycle

Additionally, the things that now shape and consume most people's lives (computers, televisions, and phones), can induce a whole new set of emotional responses. 

A relationship exists between users and the things they interact with; we refer to this relationship as the 'Product-Emotion Cycle', the series of changes that occur both in the product and the user during the user-object interaction. In the Product-Emotion Cycle, the user: 

  • Feels an initial emotional response, which affects the way they then behave with the product; 
  • The product then changes as a result, which then induces or maintains an emotional response. 

This cycle continues for the duration of an interactive experience. Successful products are those that induce positive emotional responses while meeting the expectations of the user.

As people who are involved in the making of products, we need to learn how to encourage emotional connections between users and products. 

In order to influence emotions, we must have an understanding of general factors that impact all users, no matter the product we are making or the specific features of it, we must understand what is relevant to our product (cognitive, dispositional, and environmental).

Don Norman’s Three Levels of Design

When talking about emotions and the brain, there are several ways of dividing the subject; first is the “Don Norman’s three levels of design”: visceral, behavioral, and reflective.

  • The visceral level of design refers to the first impression of a design, both in terms of how the user perceives the product and how it makes the user feel. 
  • The behavioral level refers to the experience of the product in use. We often think of this level when we think of user experience. 
  • The reflective level refers to the user's reflections about the product, both before, during, and after use. 

All three levels combine to form the entire product experience:

  • At the visceral level of design (the aesthetics), simple, minimalistic designs are generally more pleasant to the eye, certain colors are associated with positive emotional experiences, and smooth shapes are appealing.
  • At the behavioral level (the user experience), there are various possibilities; but first and foremost, the product must be easy to use.
  • At the reflective level, (the conscious consideration of the product): if you are dealing with an existing brand, familiarity may be a positive quality, so use aspects of previous products to promote reflective processing.

In order to exploit the benefits of visual appeal, you must focus on a number of important considerations. Who are your intended users? Is the design simple enough to ensure rapid identification of the elements necessary for a specific task? Are you being honest and transparent? 

Each new product presents a specific set of challenges; however, the principles of functionality, appropriateness, simplicity, and transparency can help us make the correct product design decisions.

Now, let’s take a look at another popular emotional theory: the Triune Brain.

The Triune Brain Theory

Another way of explaining emotions in the brain is the Triune Brain model, introduced by Paul MacLean in the 1960s. 

This model of brain structure and function is based on three specific regions of the human brain:

  • The Reptilian or Primal Brain, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight survival response, and other primal activities.
  • The Paleomammalian or Emotional Brain, which is responsible for emotions.
  • The Neomammalian or Rational Brain, which is responsible for rational thinking.

MacLean's model provides a clear view of mental activity, which can be beneficial when addressing the needs of users in our design projects.

If you want consumers to buy your products, you must grab their attention and make them feel as though they need, rather than want, these items. While the primal brain is somewhat simplistic, we are capable of overriding it through further processing in our more cultured brain regions. One of the most effective ways of targeting the primal brain is to make new things seem familiar. 

The emotional brain helps us distinguish between positive and negative things in our environment: good from bad. This system is also in charge of dopamine release, which reinforces positive experiences, such as impulsive buying of clothes, food, etc. 

To tap into the rational brain, you must provide the right information at the right time to help users/consumers make the right decisions. The key to drawing in users is to simplify and limit the amount of information that must be processed and reduce the cognitive load on the rational brain.

In Summary 

Embracing the principles of emotional design empowers us to create not just a product, but an experience that leaves a lasting impact on our users. 

We have the potential to evoke emotions and redefine the ways users engage with our products, create technology that resonates with the human experience, and enrich the lives of those who use our products and services. Our practice as product designers can serve, inspire, and transform user experiences into extraordinary connections.   



Ready to be Unstoppable? Partner with Gorilla Logic, and you can be.