How to build irresistible websites by designing for emotion

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April 07, 2014
How to build irresistible websites by designing for emotion.

Good design has strong ties to emotion: this is something designers do know and understand. Unfortunately, in a world driven by SEO and the never-ending evolution of web tech, it’s a very easy thing to forget.

Emotion is at the core of a solid business identity. The best logos and brands, the best printed and digital experiences, capture and express very specific feelings with very specific intent. Banks focus on optimism, confidence, and many are now exploring friendliness and approachability. Sports sites exude the excitement, the drama and the no-compromise determination we love about playing or watching. At as many levels as possible, we are seeking to create the connections that will help us sell, promote or enlighten. Emotion is the bridge, an essential messenger and touchpoint.

Our emotional response to design, from its visual aesthetics to the experience it creates, is part physiology, part math and part mystery. That’s also true for our approach to design, and again: it informs more than the aesthetic aspects. Emotion is also present in the best of its structure and strategy.

People ignore design that ignores people. – Frank Chimero

How do you do emotion?

You can come at emotion in design from a number of different directions:

1. The company

Identify and express the emotional qualities of the business you’re representing.

2. The market

Appeal to the driving emotions of your target customer, both those emotions around their needs (negatives, like frustration or fear, and positives, like anticipation or curiosity) and the emotions they’ll feel when their purchase satisfies those needs (research shows both approaches can work, but you should test).

The iPod was not the first mp3 player, but it was the first to be delightful. – Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO

3. You

Make it personal. Rock star designers talk about working only with clients they like. Not-yet-rock-star designers often feel they haven’t arrived at a place where they can pick and choose, but it’s still possible to draw inspiration from the spark and connection between ourselves and our clients. Besides those with whom we especially click, we can seek out and focus on the qualities we admire in the person (or company) we’re designing for.

All three of these directions are effective, because all three, when approached authentically, are intertwined. If one of these is missing, you are in danger of slipping from connection to manipulation.

The only important thing about design is how it relates to people. – Victor Papanek

Sex (or sentimentality) sells?

Emotional manipulation may seem successful, but it is a short term success if your product or service can’t keep its promise. Gripped by fear that the opposite sex will spurn them, even if fashion or fragrance buyers don’t quickly discover the item they bought was a dud, they will still move on to the next superficial fix.

Designing a product is designing a relationship. – Steve Rogers

It’s no different an experience from those you’ve had with manipulative people in your life. Sure, you can be fooled once, but over time you’ll discover who was just messing with your head. It may take a week or a couple of years, but in the end, you’ll leave. You’ll also warn your friends.

Is emotion really so intangible?

Let’s think about that…

Do your homework

Have you identified your target customer? (Yes, you even need to do this for your freelance portfolio site.) Not only do your customers and potential customers have feelings, but they have feelings which can’t be captured in a single word.

Design is the search for a magical balance between business and art; art and craft; intuition and reason; concept and detail; playfulness and formality; client and designer; designer and printer; and printer and public. – Valerie Pettis

For that reason, don’t stop at afraid, confident, loving, outraged, etc. You’ve got to dig deeper. If this were theater, we’d be going from the stage, where large and simple expressions must shout to the back of the hall, to film, where lingering close-ups reveal not just love (for, say, a dating site), but tenderness, protectiveness and the disorienting thrill of a brand new romance. The more detailed and specific you can get, the more profound and effective will be your communication, and the deeper the connection will be.

If you’re interested in learning more about identifying target customers, research buyer personas and profiles. This indepth article from the marketing folks at Buyerology will help you dodge the imposters.

The other E word

It’s really difficult, maybe even impossible, to be both empathetic and cynical. When you’re developing ideas, send your inner cynic out for drinks. While they’re away, let yourself be moved by the concepts you’re exploring. Be as excited as your client about the potential of their new business (or new business phase).

To return to the dating site example, forgive your ex long enough to remember your first amazing fling. For an even more challenging example, explore the emotional possibilities of that slightly-less-than-thrilling new time management app. My guess is, when you read that, you hit a brief “huh?” hitch, and then made the leap without any help from me. Still, your mobile device-wielding, busy and confident professional and/or harried, baby-wielding new parent could use at least five more defining qualities. Are they so busy they feel fractured? Do they have wild-eyed dreams of squeezing in a family road trip (or a ten minute shower)?

Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. – Steve Jobs


While design is aesthetics with a plan and an intent, when the plan and intent eclipse the whole human picture, we lose sight of our role as designers and fail to make the connections we aimed for.

In the face of the other demands that come with design and digital design work, we’ve got to carve out a large place for its emotional demands. Your personal investments in technical, marketing and business intelligence should definitely be part of your skillset, but to get to craftsmanship, your emotional intelligence will be indispensable.

People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It's not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn't know it was missing. – Paola Antonelli

What can you do to make sure you are consciously and effectively factoring in emotions at key stages of your design process? For many of us, it’s unconscious, and a number of designers prefer to keep it that way. It certainly seems counter to its spirit to make it a checklist item.

Still, if it’s not a natural part of your process, you’ll need to make the conscious choice to include it, and to give yourself reminders. Research the topics of emotional intelligence and emotion in design. Redefine it for yourself, and if it’s not already there, add it to your personal design “manifesto” (whatever form that takes).

Penina Finger

Penina Finger is passionate about design, real brand and community. She owns the Fantastic Machine design studio and is also a partner at H1Talent. Feel free to say hi, ask questions and debate ideas with her on Twitter @peninasharon.

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