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Emotions play a large part in the way we perceive the world. In fact, most people make decisions based on emotion, and then rationalize their decision with logic.

Think about the last large item you bought. My last major purchase was an engagement ring. There's no rational reason to pay thousands of dollars for a rock someone dug up from the ground, but the ring represents a deeper emotional connection and promise I made to my fiancé about the life I want with her.

Our need to use emotion to satisfy our logical needs is intrinsically within us. From the moment we are born, we use emotional triggers to communicate and satisfy our most basic needs. We cried when we were hungry, tired, felt alone, etc. As our mother or father satisfied those needs, we felt soothed. This cycle continues and over time we develop emotional and physical connections to our parents because of it.

Maslow and Design

In the 1940's, Abraham Maslow famously created Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In it, he defined a method for ranking basic humans needs. The most basic human needs were at the base of the hierarchy (food, shelter, safety). People sought to satisfy those needs first. As those needs are satisfied, people continue to move up the pyramid and their needs become more emotionally driven.

In product design, there are similar forces at play.

Aaron Walters, Chief designer at Mailchimp compares Maslow's hierarchy to design hierarchy. At the bottom are the basic needs your product must fulfill. It must be functional, reliable, and usable. But as those basics are covered, you must move up the hierarchy to make your products more emotionally connective.


Using emotional triggers and influences in your product's design helps your users connect with your brand. Great design is as much about how you help users accomplish something as it is about how you make them feel as they do it.

With emotional design, your goal is to make your product (whether it be physical or digital) look, feel, or behave in an emotionally connective way so that your users create deep bonds with you.

Here are 4 ways to use emotional design in your products.

1. Microinteractions

Microinteractions are product moments with a single use case that help the user quickly understand when something has happened.

Microinteractions are everywhere. You see them in digital and physical product design. They help users understand new, hidden, or important features in a product's design.

When used, they can create a delightful, unique experience for your users. They can help give the feeling that your product is alive and interactive.

Examples in action

Asana, a project and task management application, has a delightful interaction that helps a user celebrate when they've completed many tasks from their task list. They mirror the joy a user feels as they accomplish things on their to-do list. The feeling of productiveness is reinforced as a positive experience when a unicorn surprise flashes across the screen. Asana Unicorn Celebration

Facebook has expanded the use of the "Like" button to include emojis. As you hover over the like button, a microinteraction showing the new options appears making it easy for a user to include new reactions.

The iPhone has a switch that when triggered, vibrates to indicate to the user that your phone has been silenced and is on vibrate.

Microinteractions are a great way to enhance your customer's experience by drawing a user's attention to something important. Be careful to use these elements sparingly and be mindful of the context of the user.

2. Anticipation

Anticipatory design is a method of responding to a user's needs one step ahead of the user’s decisions.

The idea is that you remove mental effort by automatically providing features or additional content to a user in reaction to an action they've taken in your application.

Anticipatory design has been around for a long time...


But these types of designs have become more sophisticated in recent years as app developers get access to more data about usage habits, and use that data to make predictions about what people might want and need.

Examples in action

A perfect example of this is Google search suggestions. With their extensive data on search patterns, Google uses those patterns to try and guess exactly what you're typing and autocomplete your search. They even start to populate search results before you're done writing your search term.

Google and Apple are also pushing the boundaries of anticipating user needs by pushing content, alerts, and messages to users before they know they need them.

Recommendations are a simple tactic to anticipate what users might want next.

Pandora's music genome is a great example of a more advanced anticipation technique. You can start a radio station by choosing a single song, and its genome will play new songs based on more than 400 song characteristics like melody, rhythm, lyrics, etc.

The more you can help your users make fast decisions, or remove the need to make decisions at all, the better off they'll be.

To delight users, design your product to be one step ahead of your users.

3. Rewards

There's a concept in modern product development called "time to value." The basic premise is that every product requires the user to perform a series of steps before they realize the value of the product they are using. Your goal as a product creator is to shorten the Time to Value as much as possible.

Rewards are a great way to nudge your users towards the value.

As you see users make small steps towards the time to value, congratulate them and nudge them to the next step in that flow.

Examples in action

LinkedIn does this in a small way...

LinkedIn profile image

I make a small investment filling out my profile and LinkedIn rewards me by telling me how great I am.

And the more I fill out my profile, the more I'll show up in search results and get profile views - which is also rewarding as a user.
Yes, people know me!

Dropbox is a great example of leveraging rewards for growth. I make a small investment of social capital sharing Dropbox with my friends, and Dropbox rewards me with more free space.

ProdPad has done something more extensive with an incredibly clever onboarding process. They knew through tracking past user behavior that if a user completed a certain number of steps in their application during a free trial, they would significantly increase the odds that the user would convert to a paid customer. With this finding, they rebuilt their onboarding experience to reward users with more free trial days the more steps a user completes.

Ultimately, the goal of rewards is to guide users to do things within your app that uncover tremendous value to your business and the user.

4. Content

Many people view content as a marketing tactic, but few recognize that content is actually an extension of your product. It is another way to have conversations with users and deliver value to them. Content helps you personify your brand. It gives your product a voice. In some cases, a company's product strategies are driven entirely by the content itself, and not the product.

Most people, when building new products, overlook the copy, messaging, and content that a user sees within their product and they miss a crucial opportunity to connect with their customers. But the words used inside your application or in your marketing messages have a profound impact on the way users view your product and your brand.

Examples in action

A great example of content as a driver of product strategy is Dollar Shave Club, acquired by Unilever for $1 billion.

David Pakman, a partner at Venrock and an early investor, said he never saw the shaving upstart as an "e-commerce' company." The key, he said, is how Dollar Shave Club developed relationships with men.

With each package, they include a short "magazine" with the product. Many, if not all, of the topics covered in the magazine have nothing to do with shaving, and everything to do with the lifestyle they believe their customers live and their brand represents.

Slack's brand is centered around making work fun. Every aspect of their brand is centered around creating positive and unexpected experiences to make their users happy and productive. When opening the app for the first time, you're greeted with a new welcome message. It's a small touch, but it has a profound impact.

Mailchimp's voice and tone is personal and approachable. They do a phenomenal job at making their product seem human, and it works.

CB Insights leverages its newsletter as a deep extension of its product. The firm collects unmatched company and industry intelligence data, and shares its insights through its daily newsletter.

The newsletter has been extremely successful, but one unique characteristic of the email is the way their founder and CEO, Anand, signs off with "I love you" at the end of every email.

While this might seem hokey, if you read the newsletter everyday, you actually begin to believe that he does love his readers because of the voice and tone used in the newsletter -- and its paid off. In fact, the newsletter has helped the company generate more than $1 million in revenue.

Emotional Design is Empathy

At the end of the day, delighting users as you design your product requires a tremendous amount of empathy. By having empathy, you show how much you understand and care about your users.

It can be a simple message, or a profound feature, but using all of these techniques to connect with and help your users be better will position your product leaps and bounds ahead of your competition.

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