Designing for Emotion: Aaron Walters

During the 18th and 19th century we saw a huge increase in machine production and quicker cheaper creation of goods. Powered by a chain reaction of ideas and innovations, a revolution of industry swept the western hemisphere.

As mass production expanded in the mid-nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts movement sought to preserve the craftsman’s role in domestic goods production, and with it the human touch. The founders of the Arts and Crafts movement revered the things they designed, built, and used every day. They recognized that a craftsman leaves a bit of themselves in their work, a true gift that can be enjoyed for many years.

We can see modern parallels of this mass production in areas like fashion and farming where a huge amount of product is being produced by pitting profits against human welfare.

While bigbox stores proliferate disposable mass-market goods, websites like Etsy and Kickstarter are empowering artists, craftspeople, and DIY inventors who sell goods they’ve designed and created. And their customers love the experience. When you buy from an independent craftsman, you support creative thinking and families (not corporations), and you gain the opportunity to live with an object that has a story. That feels good

This book has many of examples of design sensibilities which are related directly to human individuals reflective of a real personality, and honest business goals.

“For a user’s needs to be met, an interface must be functional.”

“The interface must be reliable.”

“An interface must be usable.”

“In the past it was the usability of an interface that took first place amongst the hierarchy of necessities for an interface. If you can make a usable interface, you’re doing well in the industry.”

Many websites and applications are creating an even better experience. They’re redrawing the hierarchy of needs to include a new top tier with pleasure, fun, joy, and delight. What if an interface could help you complete a critical task and put a smile on your face? Well, that would be powerful indeed! That would be an experience you’d recommend to a friend; that would be an idea worth spreading.”

Certain sites and Apps such as, (, already have emotional design in the interface. Wufoo keeps task flows simple and focused with uncluttered interfaces. Though the app offers powerful features, it strikes a healthy balance by not including obscure functionality that might confuse the majority of users while serving a niche audience.

With millions of users creating bajillions of forms, it’s fair to say that Wufoo is reliable. Like Basecamp, it’s doing a heck of a job staying functional, reliable, and usable for a big audience.

If an interface offers the user an emotional experience that that experience is more likely to remain in the users long term memory. This is an excellent quality for insuring recurring usage of the interface as well as recommendations from one user to another thus increasing the amount of users for a product.

In his book Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina shares the science behind the relationship between emotion and memory:

Emotionally charged events persist much longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy than neutral memories. How does this work in our brains? It involves the prefrontal cortex, the uniquely human part of the brain that governs “executive functions” such as problem-solving, maintaining attention, and inhibiting emotional impulses. If the prefrontal cortex is the board chairman, the cingulate gyrus is its personal assistant. The assistant provides the chairman with certain filtering functions and assists in teleconferencing with other parts of the brain—especially the amygdala, which helps create and maintain emotions. The amygdala is chock-full of the neurotransmitter dopamine, and it uses dopamine the way an office assistant uses Post-It notes. When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say the Post-It note reads “Remember this!” Getting the brain to put a chemical Post-It note on a given piece of information means that information is going to be more robustly processed. It is what every teacher, parent, and ad executive wants.’

Add us designers to that list too, Dr. Medina!

Emotional design makes users fanatics and encourages them to tell others about their positive experience. It also offers a trust safety net that encourages your audience to stay when things go awry.

Humans are complex beings, and can be difficult to design for. All have differing personalities and unique dispositions, so the designer need to find a way to design something that can appeal to such a wide-ranging perspectives.

Beneath disparate personalities and perspectives lie universal psychology principles common to all humans. These principles are invaluable tools in our quest to design for emotion

All humans emote.

What Darwin suggests is that we have a common emotional lexicon guiding us through life. We don’t develop emotions after birth by watching others. We’re born ready to express pain, joy, surprise, anger, and other emotions. Emotion is an essential survival tool. It’s how we communicate our needs to our caregivers, and later in life, it’s how we build beneficial relationships. Though we develop verbal language as we mature, emotion is our native tongue from the moment we enter this world. It is the lingua franca of humanity.

A lot can be learned about design and how to communicate effectively with our audience by studying evolutionary psychology. As humans have evolved physically, so too have our brains, to naturally select the most advantageous instincts and behaviors that will keep our species alive.

Let’s look at a familiar instinct and see how it may inform our design work. Parents love their babies. If you’re not a parent, you might wonder why people would want to subject themselves to sleepless nights, poopy diapers, and constant caregiving while relinquishing the freedoms and delights of adulthood. On paper, it sounds pretty bad. But in reality, it’s pure magic for reasons that are hard to explain.”

Humans are programmed to like babies and small children and are supposed to respond to their small proportions, large eyes, small nose and pronounced forehead as innocent, trustworthy, cute, and lovable.

Such emotional preprogramming in humans is what designers have to focus on in order to make something as appealing as possible to a consumer. Designers often use the principle, called the baby-face bias, to their advantage. by creating mascots with these same proportions to sell their products and draw in users.

There are boatloads of them. Twitter, StickyBits (, Brizzly (, and MailChimp ( are just a few

We humans project ourselves into so much of what we see. As we gaze at the world, we discover ourselves looking back. When we stare at the clouds, or inspect the grain of a gnarled piece of wood, inevitably we’ll construct the image of a face in our mind’s eye. We are accidental narcissists seeking that which we know best—ourselves. This instinct is guided by our primordial desire for emotional connection with others. We are hardwired to seek emotion in human faces.”


One thought on “Designing for Emotion: Aaron Walters

  1. Good design will always elicit an emotional response, but artifice and decoration are no substitute for functionality. The best design is always supremely clean, breathtakingly efficient and frequently aesthetically overwhelming. most times, less is definitely more although some complex mechanical objects can also be visually and spiritually satisfying.

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