When Does Emotional Design Cross a Line?

Suzanne Scacca.
September 23, 2020
When Does Emotional Design Cross a Line?.
Designing for emotion in and of itself is not a problem. Websites are bound to elicit an emotional reaction from visitors, even if it’s as simple as them feeling at ease because of the soft, pastel color palette you’ve designed the site with. I don’t want to outright villainize emotional design. Unless there is some form of unethical manipulation at play, designing for your visitors’ emotions can actually provide them with a more positive experience. So, here’s what I’d like to look at today:
  1. What is emotional design?
  2. When does emotional design cross a line?
  3. What’s the right way to design for emotions?

1. What Is Emotional Design?

When we look at emotional design in the context of a website, we’re focused on three types of emotional reactions:

a. Visceral Reactions

Visceral reactions are instinctive ones. Usually, visitors experience these as their first impressions of a website or web page. For instance, a cluttered or otherwise poorly designed homepage might leave visitors feeling overwhelmed, hesitant, or wanting to flee. A minimally designed homepage interface, on the other hand, might have visitors not feeling much of a reaction at all. In this case, no feeling is a good feeling. Like Irene Au said:

b. Behavioral Reactions

Behavioral reactions stem from the usability of a website. There’s a lot that can stir up negative emotions here, like:
  • Extra-long contact forms
  • Confusing menus
  • Error-ridden content
  • Slow-loading pages
  • And more
Again, if a website is easy to get through and attractively designed, visitors aren’t likely going to “ooh” and “aah” with every step they take on the site. And that’s a good thing. If they’re focusing more on how the design looks, they’re not paying attention to the brand’s actual offer.

c. Reflective Reactions

Reflective reactions are the third type of emotions we design for. This is complicated because there’s a lot wrapped up in how visitors feel about a website after the fact. Sometimes the most well-designed interfaces and experiences can’t save them from a bad experience, whether they realized too late that the products were overpriced or they were treated poorly by a live chat representative. As a web designer, all you can really do is to make sure you’re working with reputable companies and then aligning the designs of their sites with their values.

When Does Emotional Design Cross a Line?

[pullquote]There’s already enough social pressure online; your website doesn’t need to be one of those places, too[/pullquote]Emotional design shouldn’t be about manipulating consumers’ emotions. In most cases, emotional design is about controlling the environment of the website so that emotions don’t go spinning wildly out of control — in either direction. It’s when we take what we know about influencing someone’s emotional state to monetarily benefit from it that emotional design becomes problematic. Here are some ways in which you might negatively impact the emotions of your visitors through design:

FOMO

The fear-of-missing-out isn’t always a bad marketing strategy. However, when FOMO is used for the purposes of rushing consumers to take action now and without time to really think it through, it definitely can be. Chances are good they’ll feel badly no matter what. Either because they regret the rushed (and probably unnecessary, or expensive) decision or they blame themselves for missing out on an opportunity to be like everyone else. There’s already enough social pressure online; your website doesn’t need to be one of those places, too. So, be careful with how you present customers with limits (on time, on products, etc.) or how you frame the call-to-action ("If you don't buy this now, expect to fail/be miserable/suffer even more").

Analysis Paralysis

It doesn’t matter why people specifically seek out your website. They have a problem or a hole in their life, and they’re looking for something to fix it. Now, you can’t help it if the website has too much to offer in the way of options or solutions. Companies have to provide every possible solution/option so their users don’t feel like they have to go somewhere else to get what they need. However, the way you design these options can lead to a negative emotional state if you’re not careful. For instance, your visitors might experience analysis paralysis, where there are so many options that it becomes impossible to take action. Similar to FOMO, this can lead to regret either with the decision they made or the one they were incapable of making. By simplifying how many choices are presented at once, or designing a clear and supportive pathway to the right option of many, your website will leave visitors feeling much more positively about the whole experience.

Trendy Nostalgia

Nostalgia can be a great way to play upon the positive associations and emotions consumers feel towards an era gone by or a place they once knew. But, again, it depends on how you design with it. For example, if you design a vintage website for an agency launched in 2019 and run by a group of 20-somethings, it might come off feeling disingenuous once customers start to catch on. For a restaurant known as the oldest bar in the state, that would be a different story. That nostalgically designed website would be a real part of its story; not just done as a sales gimmick. As a result, customers would likely embrace those warm feelings for the “good ol’ days” they get from the website. Also, think about how quickly nostalgia fades if it’s done to align with a trend. Unless you’re committed to redesigning a website the second that nostalgic feeling falls out of favor, you could be condemning your client to an outdated website mere months after launch.

What’s the Right Way to Design for Emotions?

Like I said before, there’s nothing wrong with designing for emotions. You just have to make sure your website visitors don’t feel manipulated and that they welcome the pleasant feelings the site gives them. [pullquote]make sure your website visitors don’t feel manipulated[/pullquote] It might seem harmless at the time. After all, what are they doing on the site if they weren’t interested in the first place? And it’s not like they were bullied into spending their money, right? But if they sense in any way that their response was driven by an emotion they wouldn’t have otherwise felt, they’re not going to be happy. While it might not be enough for them to cancel their subscription or services, or to return products they bought, it will definitely leave a bad taste in their mouth. And, ultimately, it can cost your website loyal visitors and customers. So, if you’re going to use emotional design on a website, do it to improve their experience, not to put more money into your clients’ pockets. That means your emotional design choices need to be honest, transparent, and focused on eliciting naturally positive emotions like:
  • Satisfaction
  • Feeling impressed
  • Trust
  • Calm
  • Feeling valued
Go back to the three emotional reactions I brought up earlier. If you can design a website to give off a positive first impression, and to be pain-free and usable, you can spend the rest of your time injecting small bits of happiness and positivity into the website with color choices, friendly micro-interactions, personalized content, and more. Featured image via Unsplash.

Suzanne Scacca

Suzanne Scacca is a freelance writer by day, specializing in web design, marketing, and technology topics. By night, she writes about, well, pretty much the same thing, only those stories are set under strange and sometimes horrific circumstances.

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