Chapter 1 Excerpts

5. Emotion Communicates Personality, Forms Relationships and Creates Meaning

The human brain is tuned to perceive emotions.

In fact, this tuning is so ingrained that we don’t even require other people to perceive them! We perceive the expression of emotion and personality in things in our environment, including products, interfaces and websites.

Even though we may consciously know that computers and media aren’t animate, don’t have feelings and therefore couldn’t be expressing emotions, we still respond socially and automatically when viewing, interacting and evaluating them. We unconsciously perceive and interpret emotional expression in things and then form relationships with them based on the personalities we’ve given them (Reeves & Nass 1998).

When it comes to things that aren’t alive, we can think of a personality trait as the long-term expression of a particular emotion.

Object Displaying Emotion & Personality The person who appears sad or sullen is expressing an emotion: sadness. When that same person expresses “sadness” the next 20 times you meet, that person will be viewed as possessing a personality trait: “depressed.” Because physical products usually remain the same over time, any emotional expressions are perceived as “personality traits”.

Living Objects and Relationships

We perceive the expression of emotion and personality in things in our environment, including products, interfaces, and websites.

People can feel happy or sad, angry or passive, relaxed or anxious, proud or ashamed, and motivated or unmotivated through the use of products. Social interactions with things trigger emotional reactions normally reserved for social interaction with other people. Because of this effect, products should be viewed as “living objects with which people have relationships” (Jordan, 2000, p. 7).

Regardless of whether you intentionally give your product a personality, people will perceive a personality.

Intentionally designing specific personalities requires an understanding of visual and interactive design, as well as specific styles of content creation. It also means that designers need to understand how product/user “relationships” evolve through multiple interactions over time.

Personality and Relationship

Personality traits shape our relationships.

Object Displaying Emotion & Personality In human relationships, personality traits are an important part of attraction and conversation. They shape our relationships by determining who we like and what we expect. Personality traits also influence how much we trust and get along with others. In this respect, perceived personalities in products and websites are no different.

We tend to purchase products that seem to have personalities similar to our own, or who we aspire to be.

Unlike us, however, product personalities can exist in fictional worlds and be controlled by designers so that they appear at particular times and places. They can often be simpler, more consistent, and more easily identifiable than real personalities, reducing uncertainty and promoting trust (Fogg, 2003).

Unfortunately, when designers fail to consider and design the personality they’re communicating, the result can be the opposite.The personality appears to be inconsistent, the user feels betrayed and trust is destroyed. In the end, we tend to purchase products that seem to have personalities similar to our own (Govers & Schoormans, 2005).

Although personality traits are complex, researchers have identified a number of traits that can be related to design.

Psychologists have grouped product personality traits into categories that have a similar character. They’ve identified two major dimensions of personality that are readily assigned to products, computers and interfaces by users. We explore those in more detail in the book.

The Creation of Meaning

The things we make, buy, and use help us create our existence and form our identities.

The emotions we feel are created in part by the meaning(s) we give to people, brands and things, rather than the people, brands, or things themselves. Meaning is influenced by the personality that we perceive through appearance and interaction. By enabling new behaviors and actions, objects help to shape the existence of the people who use them.

Things that assist us in realizing goals can often be associated with the emotions that result when those goals are achieved. This association imbues these things with meaning. If attention is the energy a person requires to complete tasks and accomplish goals, it’s through the investment of attention that we create meaning. By actively cultivating meaning through emotional experiences, we both shape and reflect our larger goals.

Objects can also become personally significant because they cultivate meaning by creating associations through time and experience.

Even though people can derive a wide range of feelings from their interactions with objects, and attribute a wide variety of meanings to those feelings, the physical characteristics of an object often suggest some meanings over others.


We connect how we feel in the moment to the people and things that are in the immediate vicinity.

New people or things can also take on meanings that are based on an individual’s previous experiences and associations. Association can be a powerful way to connect the emotions and meaning aroused by one object or situation with another object or situation. We connect how we feel in the moment to the people and things that are in the immediate vicinity.

In addition, when we encounter objects or experiences that are similar to objects and experiences we already have strong associations with, we sometimes experience the emotions we felt previously, albeit at a lower intensity. The natural human tendency to associate feelings with certain events, objects, and people contributes to the “emotional affect” that is an ongoing part of our daily experience.

In some cases, familiarity alone can be enough to create pleasurable emotions.

Simple familiarity and positive or even neutral past experiences mean that an object is known and relatively safe. People, objects, and brands that are unfamiliar are unknown are potentially unpleasant. This vague feeling of discomfort is often enough of a negative response to dissuade many people from trying or approaching a new product.

Responses like this are evident when an existing product or system undergoes a major redesign. Even if the new system is a vast improvement in every way, some users will respond negatively. They may be irritated by the inconvenience of learning a new tool, or simply apprehensive and fearful of change.

By association, the sensory impressions that lead to emotional responses are compared and linked to similar sensory impressions encountered in the past. Whether emotions are aroused by associations with past experiences or by objects in the present moment, the feelings come from the internal representation of the thing, rather than from the thing itself.

Google celebrated the anniversary of Sesame Street and associated their brand with our feelings of childhood nostalgia.

Google Celebrates the Anniversary of Sesame Street

As you’ll learn in the book, association is only one tool in the arsenal of persuasive methods used by designers and marketers to communicate emotion and personality. Through positive and negative associations, these professionals attempt to arouse feelings that nudge you into giving their product a certain meaning and behaving in a certain way.

Products, websites, and software applications trigger complex social and emotional responses that are no different from the emotional responses we experience when we interact with real people (Desmet, 2002). The emotions we feel allow us to assign meanings to the people and things that we experience in life, ultimately influencing the relationships we form (Jordan, 2000).

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Desmet, P. R. (2002). Designing emotions. Delft: Pieter Desmet.

Fogg, B. J. (2003). Persuasive technology: Using computers to change what we think and do. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Govers, P. C. M., & Schoormans, J. P. L. (2005). Product personality and its influence on consumer preference. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 22(4), 189–197.

Jordan, P. W. (2000). Designing pleasurable products. London: Taylor & Francis.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1998). The media equation: How people treat computers, television and new media like real people and places. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.

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Chapter 1 Excerpts

4. Emotion Commands Attention and Affects Memory

The focus of attention determines which experiences enter consciousness and which ones do not.

Attention is also required to make other mental events happen, such as thinking, feeling, remembering and making decisions. It is for this reason that attention has been called “psychic energy” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Like energy in the traditional sense, “without it, no work can be done and through work, that energy is dissipated” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 33).

Emotion commands attention and affects memory.

Attention makes work possible by selecting the pieces of information that are considered relevant from the vast amount of information that is available to our senses. We then compare those pieces of information to other information patterns stored in memory.

Information enters consciousness either because it is our intention to focus our attention on it or because our attention is commanded due to perceived emotional, biological, or social needs (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

In Seattle Children’s Hospital, a large whale sculpture helps direct children’s attention away from the environment of the hospital.
Sculpture in Seattle Children's
The intensity of emotional experience has been linked with the strength and clarity of memories before, during, and after emotional events (Reeves & Nass, 1998). This link is quite natural when you think about it, because without attention, information doesn’t get into our brains in the first place. In discussing the power of stories, Peter Guber puts it succinctly: “emotion bonded with information becomes memorable, resonant and actionable” (Power of Stories, 2011).

We don’t assign equal weight to negative and positive experiences. Negative experiences tend to demand much more attention than positive experiences.

Research has shown that negative experiences tend to demand much more attention and therefore hold much more psychological weight than positive experiences, which results in stronger memories of negative experiences, along with weaker memories of what came afterwards.

Emotional experiences also affect the memory of events that occur immediately before them. Individuals have impaired memory of events that occur right before negative experiences when compared to memories of events that occur right before positive experiences (Reeves & Nass, 1998).

Using negative emotion to increase the strength of a memory may seem useful, but, commanding attention in this way can have unintended consequences.

Although attention is demanded by negative experiences, it may be drawn to some unintended aspect of those experiences. For example, a negative visual image may demand more attention than the textual message that was actually meant to be the focus.

In software, unpleasant error messages can cause people to remember and focus on negative experiences over positive ones, potentially distorting how they think and feel about the application.

Multisensory Experiences

Emotional design is about directing the user’s attention to the right thing, at the right time.

By creating powerful, multisensory emotional experiences, brands can demand user attention and embed strong memories of their product or service in consumers’ minds. This produces changes in purchasing behavior and contributes to brand loyalty.

Many adults in North America have strong memories of being taken to McDonald’s as children.

McDonald’s uses a multisensory approach to make potential customers familiar with their products. Colorful commercial advertising, busy store locations, the special scent and taste of the food, the ubiquitous brand identity, and the toys all combine to create positive memories for children. Through association, the children have been conditioned by these early experiences to desire McDonald’s products.

These emotional responses help to form a bond through the creation of experiences that become stories and memories.

Whether you’re designing a product, a website, a software application, or even an environment, emotional design is often about directing the user’s attention to the right thing at the right time to create an emotional response.

Understanding the importance of attention (and how emotion commands it) will allow you to use design elements to shift the user’s focus in the right way at the right time.


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Chapter 1 Excerpts

3. Emotion Dominates Decision Making

When asked about their actions in a certain situation, many people will often claim that they carefully weighed the pros and cons before cautiously making a decision. However, this is often the opposite of how behavior actually takes shape. We tend to make decisions irrationally based on how we feel (or how we anticipate we’ll feel) and then justify those decisions rationally (Damasio, 1994).

Emotions dominate decision making because they motivate us to behave (i.e. avoid or approach).

The stronger or more intense (i.e., arousing or stimulating) our emotional experience is, the lower our ability to consciously evaluate the pros and cons of an offer or a situation. All of this makes us easy targets for marketers and advertisers.

Using Flattery to Influence Purchase Decisions

Compliments and flattery are persuasive devices that can be used to influence decision making.

Using Flattery to Influence Purchase DecisionsA few years ago, Trevor was shopping in a department store in Sweden. While browsing in the men’s section, he came across a pair of pants that he liked and decided to try them on. In the fitting room, he put on the pants, his back toward the mirror. Turning around to examine the fit, he was surprised to see the message in the image on the left.

Flattery has long been recognized as an effective persuasion method.

Even though Trevor was aware that the message was designed to persuade him to buy whatever he was trying on, it still produced an instant, unconscious emotional reaction. Part of that reaction can be attributed to sheer novelty, because he had never encountered something like this. However, the remainder of his reaction was due to a compliment offered, oddly enough, by an inanimate object.

Even a compliment from an inanimate object is more affective than no compliment at all.

The experience of being flattered is usually a pleasurable one, even when the compliments come from a few impersonal words written on a mirror. Tactics like this can often provide the touch of added influence that triggers a purchase decision. The more intense the emotional experience is, the lower our ability to consciously evaluate the situation.

Behaviorally, pleasure is linked with the tendency to approach, and pain is linked with the tendency to avoid.

When shoppers make purchase decisions, brain imaging has revealed that a choice is made between the pleasure of purchasing and owning the item and the pain of spending the money. Researchers found that they could accurately predict shoppers’ purchase decisions by noting which area of the brain was more active when they considered a purchase (Knutson, Rick, Wimmer, Prelec, & Loewenstein, 2006). We explore this in much more detail in the book.

Advertising and Emotional Appeal

It’s not just retailers who are using emotion to influence your buying habits and purchasing decisions.

The vast majority of pharmaceutical advertising (95%) relies on some sort of emotional appeal (Frosch, Krueger, Hornik, Cronholm, & Barg, 2007). When people get ill, you might think that they’d be looking for the most up-to-date information to help diagnose their illness and choose the appropriate medication. This would likely include descriptions of symptoms, possible risk factors and probable causes. However, a review of pharmaceutical advertising (Frosch, Krueger, Hornik, Cronholm, & Barg, 2007) showed that:

  • 82% made some factual claim
  • 86% made rational arguments for product use
  • 26% described condition causes and risk factors l 25 percent described prevalence
  • 95% made some sort of emotional appeal
95% of pharmaceutical advertisements used an emotional appeal.

Incidentally, not one mentioned lifestyle change as an alternative to their products. The ads often framed medication use in terms of losing (58%) and regaining (85%) control over some aspect of life (Frosch et al., 2007).

Even the pills themselves have been “designed”, with studies linking the color of the pill to its perceived effectiveness. A survey of 12 studies found that stimulants worked better when colored red, orange, or yellow and that tranquilizers worked better when colored blue or green (de Craen, Roos, de Vries, & Kleijnen, 1996).

Marketers and advertisers in a number of industries clearly understand that emotions dominate decision making. It’s time that designers and UX professionals understand this as well.


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Chapter 1 Excerpts

2. All Design is Emotional Design

Simple decisions rely on the emotional feedback provided by our feelings.

If your business involves competing in a market in which your customers have to choose between your product and similar products made by your competitors, consider this: individuals without the capacity for emotional response are unable to make even simple cognitive decisions such as what clothes to wear in the morning (Damasio, 1994). You’re required to make hundreds of seemingly inconsequential decisions each day, and simple emotional responses are likely the deciding factor in those decisions.

Emotional design is not some rare or sacred thing—it’s all around us.

Professionals in a large number of industries are now realizing the importance of considering their customers’ emotional responses. Security professionals have now realized that they are providing not only actual security but also the feeling or perception of security (Schneier, 2008).

Video games are designed with your emotions in mind.

Kinect Star Wars

Companies that make the latest video games have recognized that emotional engagement is the real reason that games become hits (Kohler, 2008). One of the results of this is that games have become more cinematic, with multiple characters, frequent scene changes, and epic story lines.

Other gaming companies are focusing on incorporating players’ emotional states into gameplay by monitoring their physiology. Journey to the Wild Divine: The Passage is a video game that uses biofeedback to monitor emotional arousal by measuring heart rate and skin conductance (, 2011). Movement through the game is dependent on the player’s ability to regulate his or her arousal levels. Some levels require players to relax themselves and others require the players to increase their energy.

All design is emotional design.

With continuing advances in technology and increasing understanding of the psychology and physiology of affective states, interest in emotion is growing because it makes for good business. Emotional design is not some rare or sacred thing — it’s all around us.

 “3. Emotion Dominates Decision-Making” >


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