Emotional Design graphic

Why Emotional Design Creates More Successful Products That Customers Love

DSRUPTR - Joe Smiley

I can still remember the thrilling experience of unboxing my first generation iPhone back in 2007, from the minimalistic black box with the large iPhone photo beckoning me to open it. Once I lifted the lid; there it was.

Majestically waiting for me to power on its heavenly aura.

I pulled off the plastic and quickly pushed the home button that birthed a white Apple logo on the glistening LCD panel, slowly fading into the background while sliding the beautifully crafted skeuomorphic app icons into view.

Holding it in my hand – it truly felt like a masterpiece of form and function. A passport to the digital world. Pixel perfection. It was made just for me.

We try to convince ourselves that we are rational beings who make choices based on logic.

In truth, we are highly emotional creatures.

Our emotions govern our attention, memory, interactions, and even influence our decisions. Just like my decision to purchase the first iPhone wasn’t necessarily rational – there were other cheaper options – but I was hypnotized by Apple’s perfect design of hardware and software all bundled together by their legendary branding. I had also built up a deep love for Apple products going back almost 20 years to the Apple II, and I couldn’t resist.

Often the decisions we make are based on some intrinsic need, where we seek help to complete a task or activity. We turn to technology – like iPhones – to complete our tasks, partly basing our decisions to buy or utilize a certain product because its functionality matches our needs.

But it’s a lot more complicated than we think. There’s a secret war raging in our minds between our subconscious and conscious dispositions over the rationalization of each decision.

And this rationalization process is what makes us human. This is the heart of Emotional Design, and it often separates the successful products from those relegated to the trashcan of history.

Three Levels of Emotional Design

Don Norman literally wrote the book on Emotional Design, where he explores the idea that there are three different levels of emotions, and how these can be triggered by three different levels of design.

His book is based on his realization that customers associate feelings with what they encounter. Whether or not they realize it, users have sophisticated thought processes directing their every move.

For us designers, if you want your digital product to be successful, delightful, and profitable, you must embrace the emotional design of a product by addressing these three levels of cognitive responses when you design.

Level 1: Visceral Design

Ever loved someone or something at first sight? This feeling is sparked by our visceral – or emotional – response to our first visual impressions of a product, person, or pretty much anything that we can see.

These emotions are subconscious and we can’t control it. But you’ll know. You’ll feel it all over; sweaty hands, racing heart, feeling anxious, etc. You feel it everywhere, except – unfortunately – in your mind.

As I mentioned in my post on the psychology of simple design, this emotional response is deeply embedded in our human DNA. We will always be attracted to beautiful things. We prefer beautiful and functional over just functional – to the point that studies have shown that both adults and children are more likely to trust someone they find attractive!

And that’s why these first impressions can often be irrational (ever dated the wrong person based on looks?), but it helps you form a quick first emotional bond with the product that you’re using.

As designers, it’s critically important to focus on crafting a visceral design that makes users feel delighted and excited. You have to understand what motivates them. Understand their wants and needs. And then craft a visual experience that will tug at their heart strings, where their emotions do the deciding.

Level 2: Behavioral Design

Have you ever been consumed by an activity (e.g. shopping online, writing a paper, listening to a podcast, etc.) that the world around you disappears?

This is called a flow state. For designers, this is the optimal state of our customers for the products and experiences we design and develop.

For simpler experiences that don’t require achieving flow state, it’s simply the feeling of joy in accomplishing a goal quickly. Like ordering your favorite pizza or movie with a couple clicks. Or when you Uber shows up on time and gets you home quickly.

For behavioral emotions to be impacted, your customers must feel in command of their experience and find pleasure in what they’re doing. This heavily relies on usability and effectiveness of the experience versus the pure aesthetics (or UI and branding) of Visceral Design. In this level, users form a strong opinion about your product.

You not only want your customers to feel happy, but also motivated, smarter, and empowered. They should believe that they cannot live without your product. That it’s a natural extension of themselves.

In behavioral design, the main product areas we should optimize are functionality, tactility (perceptible by touch), and performance. This encompasses the usability of the product, how quickly they can learn to use it, and how fast they can accomplish tasks & goals on your product. All of these aspects impact their perception of your product.

This requires a deep understanding of your customers’ motivations and needs, which will ensure that your product blends seamlessly into their daily lives.

Level 3: Reflective Design

This is the final level of emotional design, where we feel the extraordinary weight of our thoughts and emotions. Reflective design describes the total impression of a product where users reflect on all aspects like design, features, branding, affordability, the company’s mission & values, etc.

Only at this level do we become aware of what we value and what we don’t.

Unlike visceral and behavioral emotions, reflective emotions are conscious emotions where they help us to understand, interpret, and make thoughtful judgments. Reflective emotions are the most powerful and can often override the other two emotions (visceral and behavioral). However, reflective emotions are the most susceptible to change. Your customers’ reflective emotions can change over time with experience, education, and even based on bad experiences with your product.

Therefore, it’s important to maintain a balance between all three emotions and stop relying on your customers falling in “love at first sight.”

One of the best ways to know if you’ve successfully utilized reflective emotions is when your customers speak with a friend about their experience. Or save the brand packaging of a product after unboxing it. Even posting about it on social media. This shows that they are deeply invested in the story of your product and brand.

Beyond usability, I recommend for designers at this level to increase your users’ affinity for your product or experience, which is best achieved by developing a powerful brand as well as crafting a unique personality for your brand or product.


As rational as we may like to think we are, emotions are at the heart of the human potential for understanding and learning in the world around us.

Positive experiences drive curiosity. They help motivate us to grow as individuals. Negative experiences help us prevent repeated mistakes.

Emotional Design will help your customers to feel something. Anything. Positive or negative (yes negative, think horror films). A reaction that elevates the experience of using your product to be pleasant and memorable, hopefully by evoking emotions like curiosity, gratitude, surprise, originality, success, and satisfaction.

graphic of Don Norman's three levels of emotional design

Emotional design is a fluid part of the entire design process, where you must consider the impacts of its visceral, behavioral, and reflective emotional design. And while it’s an empathetic approach to understanding your customer, it should be iterative. You should be constantly reevaluating the emotional appeals of your designs – at each stage of the design process – in order to carefully cultivate the kind of responses you want the user to have with your experience.

Developing a successful product with great design can only be accomplished with a deep understanding of the three levels of emotional design; when they are combined appropriately, a great design is achieved.

Now more than ever, it’s critical for designers to understand how emotional design shapes the entire experience, from your customers first discovering the product, to using it, and then how they think about the product after they use it. It is not enough to produce delight from a beautiful design.

You must design for love at every point in your experience.

Your customers must love the experience emotionally. They love that it makes them smarter while empowering them to obtain their goals. They love the feeling of your product being a natural extension of their personality. They love being inspired and delighted by your product. And because they love your product so much, they’re equally as passionate about sharing their love of your product with friends & family.

The greatest benefit of the love you create with your customers utilizing Emotional Design, is that their love will last a lifetime – just like my love for all things Apple that still tugs on my heart to this very day.

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