Emotional UX design for creating desirable products

A single product can seldom satisfy everyone, so it is essential to understand both your intended users’ actual and latent needs. The product should provide functionality to fulfill their actual needs and it should be easy for them to interact with it. But to design a great product, designers also need to understand how the users react emotionally to the product.

To understand user needs better, Aarron Walter has proposed the following hierarchy for them (Figure 1). On the lowest level, the product must be functional to satisfy the user needs. Next, the product must be reliable, and then usable. After the lower layers are in place, he suggests you should focus on making your product pleasurable to use.

Hierarchy of User Needs in UI Design

Figure 1. Walter’s hierarchy of user needs

According to the hierarchy, the higher needs can be achieved after the lower ones are fulfilled. So, a beautiful product that does not really solve the user’s problems cannot satisfy their needs.

Designing for emotions is based on human psychology. Even though people like to perceive themselves as rational beings, emotions are linked with how we experience  the things we do. Studies show, for instance, that people tend to perceive appealing products as “more usable” than less attractive ones. They are then more likely to tolerate small usability hick-ups with perceptually more appealing products. Aesthetically pleasing products can trigger positive emotions and create positive memories that last for a long time, will increase trust and probability that the user wants to interact with the product again. Emotional design is also about preparing to cope with negative emotions when using the product: how to overcome obstacles and help the user to deal with problems.

To understand emotional design Donald Norman has proposed a hierarchy of emotions: visceral, behavioral and reflective (Figure 2). They are part of any design and interweave cognition and emotion.

Emotional UI Design

Figure 2. Hierarchy of emotions by Norman

The Famous “WOW  Effect”

Great design on the lowest (visceral) level of the hierarchy can cause spontaneous, positive reactions that enable you to create the “Wow effect”. The level reflects the user’s first reactions to the product’s appearance: look, feel, and sound. Seeing something compelling, unexpected, or unique can cause positive reactions. An example, is the speedometer in Qt’s digital cockpit concept (Figure 3) that uses multiple graphical effects like shaders and particles to improve the feeling of acceleration and deceleration.


Figure 3. Appealing or exciting design? The speedometer
in The Qt company’s digital cockpit concept

Proficient visceral design can make the user happy, curious and excited and create feeling of anticipation. The user’s initial reactions will set the context for further interactions and experiences with the product.

Good usability will ensure positive behavioural emotions

The behavioral emotions evoke when the user uses the product. It should provide proper functionality and be understandable, effective, easy to learn and usable. While using the product, the user forms a deeper understanding and opinion about it. When the product feels effective and usable, the user is satisfied and is more inclined to use it again.

Behavioral design should be user-centric because it is sensitive to, e.g., the user’s experience, education, and culture. It should provide, e.g., correct mental models, functionality, terminology, tone of voice, and visuals to help the user to relate to the product and satisfy their needs. Simple and clear design means that there are fewer elements that catch the user’s attention. The user needs less time to explore and learn a system, to remember task flows and ultimately to perform tasks.

Because the behavioral level is about using the product, it should encourage the user to interact with it. Things like subtle visual affordances, dynamic icons, and indications can make the product feel alive, responsive and even fun. Positive surprises like relevant and personal recommendations, well-thought first-time user experience, and smart interactions (as in Figure 4) will affect the user’s behavioral reactions.

Smart interactions

Figure 4. An example of a smart interaction and a visual affordance for movinga notification from the left screen to the screen on the right.

Regardless of design, people make mistakes, or the system may not perform as expected. These situations cause negative reactions, stress, frustration, and anxiety. Therefore, it is crucial to  prepare for them. The design should communicate quickly, clearly and honestly, what happened as well as provide suggestions on how to recover from the situation.

Reflective level

The highest level is reflective, and it defines the long-term, overall impression of the product after using it. For instance, the user becomes aware of what they value, and consider how they feel afterward, related memories, and produced self-image. Unlike two other levels, the reflective level works consciously. It helps the user understand, interpret and assess the product. The level can dominate lower levels and the user can overrule initial impression and behavioral impact through reasoning.

Attractiveness is a visceral-level phenomenon, but what is considered beautiful comes from the reflective level and is influenced by experience, knowledge, learning, culture and individual differences.


Figure 5. The Qt company’s digital cockpit concept

The reflective level is where the users’ desires to own the product can be maximized with things like prestige, perceived rarity, and exclusivity. A popular example of reflective emotion is saving and storing the packaging of a product after unboxing it.


Creating awesome visceral, behavioral and reflective designs will provide a delightful experience that the user loves. But how to get there? Obviously, people must first be aware of the product to desire it. The product should look appealing to attract the user and catch their attention. Next, the user should use the product and witness its usability and functionality. They should be convinced that the product actually does what they need. If the user is satisfied, they feel gratification, begin to trust the product, and want to use it again. Finally, if the product manages to evoke positive reactions on all levels, people will fall in love with it and advocate it to other people.

The launch of the first Apple iPhone back in 2007 is a good example. The phone looked sleek, elegant, and unique when compared to other smartphones. iPhone marketing concentrated on showcasing iPhone’s slim design and unique features like multi-touch that had never been seen in other phones in the market. The phone was appealing, and the excellent marketing campaign generated a lot of desirability for the product before its shipping started. With the aid of the marketing videos and reviews, most people knew how to use the phone’s features before they had even touched it. Because of this and Apple’s design focusing on simplicity, the phone was efficient and usable. Also, the availability of the iPhone was initially limited, so owning it created feelings of pride, exclusivity and prestige. Since the product was fun to use, the fresh owners of the iPhone quickly fell in love with it and became great advocates for the phone.


Norman, D. A. Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things. Basic Books, 2004.

Walter A. Designing for Emotion. A Book Apart, 2011

Baker J. The Art of Emotion – Norman’s 3 Levels of Emotional Design. https://medium.muz.li/the-art-of-emotion-normans-3-levels-of-emotional-design-88a1fb495b1d

Kohli T. The Why and How of Emotional Design. https://uxplanet.org/the-why-and-how-of-emotional-design-3a51d56b84a1


Read more about UX Design by Antti Aaltonen in the white paper: White Paper: The Insider's Guide to Excellent UX for the Non-UX People

Whitepaper: The Insider's Guide to Excellent UX for the Non-UX People


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