Psychology of Design Masterclass – 11 Key Facts About Emotions

Psychology of Design Pt8 – 11 Captivating Facts About Emotions

Table of Contents

We are making decisions every day. Contrary to what we like to think, the majority of these decisions are based on our emotions. Every product or interface we design has to offer amazing user experience in order to succeed. One of the things that can help as create amazing user experience is working with emotions in the right way. How? Today, you will learn eleven captivating facts about emotions and how to use these facts to design better user experience.

Psychology of design and the science of emotions

Our emotions have incredible power. How we feel influences our daily decisions. We use our feelings to decide whether we should trust someone or something not. Our emotions are also a great way to strengthen our memories. It is well known that when we experience something deeply emotional, our memories from that event are almost impossible to erase. When we experience some tragedy it can even result in something called post-traumatic stress disorder.

Aside from just the negative side, we can also use emotion for more positive things. For example, we can help people to relieve pain. Or, we can help people to “find” motivation and fuel change in their lives. Or we can decide to use emotions to design better learning platforms that will allow people learn faster and remember new knowledge much easier. We can do a lot of things with emotions to create better products. So, without further ado, let’s dive right into it.

No.1: We know 7 universal emotions

The first thing we need to understand is that, at least in psychology, scientists and researchers are used to distinguish between emotions (or emotional states), mood and attitude. Our emotional states are directly related to our physiology. We can express our emotional state by using specific postures, gestures, grimaces, tone of our voice and so on. Our emotional states are results of some specific events. These states often lead to further actions.

One of the differences between our emotional states and mood is that mood usually lasts much longer. We can be in a certain mood for couple of hours, days even weeks. On the other hand, our emotional states can change from minute to minute. We can easily demonstrate how quickly our emotional states can change. Just think about some movie with strong story that struck you. We were happy in one minute just to get angry or depressed in the next.

We don’t even need to movies. It can happen sometimes that we don’t feel like going to train. Then, we heard some song that fueled us with motivation or confidence and we were able to give it all. Another fact about mood is that we often don’t express it. Mood also doesn’t have to be result of specific event. In some sense, we can get into certain mood without knowing how we got into it. We can’t say the same thing about our attitude. Our attitude is built on our values and personal philosophy. It is something we consciously choose and usually last for a long time.

Since we are talking about emotions, I should also mention that, as it seems, facial expressions may be universal across all cultures. In general, we can distinguish between seven universal emotions – joy, contempt, fear, disgust, surprise, anger and sadness. According to psychologist Paul Ekman, we are using around forty muscles in our face to express these emotional states. These facial expressions are also known as micro expressions.

The most interesting thing about these micro expressions is that they are very brief and happen unconsciously. Does this mean that we can’t fake or hide these micro expressions? Not exactly. We can fake or hide almost everything. The delicate thing about micro expressions is the incredibly short time at which they occur. Micro expressions are spontaneous. These expressions occur in fraction of the second. How well are we in faking something like that? Probably not so much.

The takeaway

First, there are seven universal emotions which we can distinguish – joy, contempt, fear, disgust, surprise, anger and sadness. We can express these emotional states using gestures, postures and facial expressions. Second, we are using around forty facial muscles to express our current emotional state. These facial expressions are called micro expressions. These micro expressions happen only in fraction of the second and are very hard to fake or hide.

Third, if you are using images with faces in your design, make sure to use image clearly featuring one of the seven universal emotional states we talked about. This will help you make the message easier to communicate and reduce the possibility of misunderstanding. Fourth, use only photos with person expressing true emotion. People are very good in distinguishing between real and fake facial expressions. In other words, avoid using stock images and other garbage full of fake smiles.

When people recognize fake smile there is a very high probability that they will not be willing to trust you. Therefore, either stick to images of people showing realistic and true emotional states or don’t use images with people at all. Fifth, do user research to find out what emotion will be the most attractive for your target audience. Aside from searching only for demography data, gather psychographic data as well. Meaning, enhance your user personas with data about emotions that motivate people.

No.2: Our emotions are connected to muscles movements

Have you ever though about getting a Botox to remove couple of wrinkles on your face? There is at least one thing you should know before going through this procedure. We discussed in the previous section that we are using about forty facial muscles to express various emotional states (micro expressions). Botox will disable your ability to control, unconsciously or consciously, some of these facial muscles. You will not be able to fully express some emotions. That’s not all.

Latest research suggests that our emotional states are connected with our facial muscles more than we though. Meaning, when we can’t express some emotion, we may also not be able to feel that emotion. In the practice, this can mean that when you get a dose of Botox into your face, it will do much more than just removing couple of wrinkles. Botox can also “remove” or decrease your ability to feel some, or even all, emotions. Think twice before you decide to get rid of the wrinkles on your face and consider all possible consequences.

The takeaway

First, our facial expression are connected to our emotions. You should pay attention to facial expressions of people testing your product. It is possible that these expressions will influence people’s emotional state and mood and also how he performs ongoing activity. Second, you should try to adjust your design in a way that will “lead” people to neutral facial expressions. For example, you should avoid using small font size because it can cause people to squint their eyes. This can lead to frown face which will result in inability to feel comfortable when using your product.

What’s more, this can also influence people’s reaction and the results you will get from testing your product. Third, everything we discussed so far is even more important when you use videos. At this moment, you are already familiar with mirror neurons and the fact that we learn by imitation in. You learned about this in previous part, which focused on social dynamics. When we watch video that shows some person, it is quite likely that we will imitate her emotional state.

What I mean is that watching video with someone who is smiling may cause us to feel joy and we will start to smile as well. When we watch video with someone who is sad, it can cause us to feel sad. Since our actions often follow our emotional state, emotions we watch can influence what we do next. Therefore, you should think twice (at least) about what do emotional state do you want to evoke. Chances are that you will succeed.

No.3: Interesting tales are more convincing than facts

Believe it or not, the majority of our mental processing happens on unconscious level. Therefore, it is easy for us to put more emphasis on information and pure facts and almost ignore information related to or based on emotions. This is why sometimes we are literally under siege of advertisement trying to convince us to buy or do something on the basis of numbers and bare facts. All these incentives ignore the fact that we are mostly moved by emotions.

Let’s just think about our school years. How many times we had to endure those long lectures full of facts, numbers and boring statistics? It is no surprise that, when the lecture was finally over, we didn’t remember almost nothing. This can be also why so many people disliked Math at school. On the other hand, lectures on subjects such as history were often much more enjoyable. What’s the difference? Math was mostly all about numbers. There was often no interesting story.

History, on the other hand, was often full of interesting and captivating stories. As a result, we are more likely to remember and describe in vivid details what happens in this or that year and who was responsible for it. Try to do the same with calculus, integrals or derivative of a function. Also, try to use these concepts from Math as a fuel for party. Unless you enhance these concepts with some interesting story, there is a big chance that you will bore people around you to death and kill any chance of getting invitation to another party in the future.

One of the reasons why interesting tales are more interesting for us is that tales often take the form of stories. Stories have incredible power to evoke empathy that will lead to emotional reaction and make us feel certain emotions. You also already know that emotions are strong stimuli for creating memories. As a result, interesting and funny tales are great tool we can use to make boring facts and number more impactful, convincing and memorable.

The takeaway

First, we remember information better if it contains some emotional clue. Second, we can make facts more convincing and impactful by evoking empathy and emotions. Third, we can achieve this effect, and make even the most boring information and data much more memorable, by using interesting and funny tales and stories.

No.4: Scent is strong stimuli for emotions and memories

You probably have some food you love. When you smell something that smells like that food, you can almost feel its taste on your tongue and see it in front of you. Our brain contains one area called thalamus. Thalamus is responsible for processing visual information our brain receives from our eyes. In a fact, all our senses send information into thalamus. Only when they are processed by thalamus are these information send to other parts of our brain.

Okay, I lied. Smell is an exception. Thalamus is not part of the system responsible for handling data obtained by smell. When we smell something, all these information and data goes straight into amygdala, which is where we process everything related to emotions. This is why we react on scents emotionally. There is nothing in our brain that would censor these information. When you smell something nice, it can make you happier. When you smell something spoiled, you will feel disgust. Amygdala is also close to brain’s memory center. So, scents can evoke specific memories.

Another way that can help us understand how powerful smell is to think about it in the terms of branding. Many of the world’s largest companies are investing huge amount of money into strengthening their brands using different scents. For example, some hotels chains such as Sheraton and Westin are using custom-tailored fragrances in their hotels. We can see this trend in retail business as well. For example, both Sony and Samsung, are using fragrances in their stores.

The takeaway

First, everything we smell goes straight to amygdala, which is part of brain responsible for handling our emotions. That’s why we often react emotionally when we smell something. Amygdala is also close to brain’s memory centers. This makes memories “enhanced” with emotions stronger and more resistant to forgetting. Second, scents and fragrances are already used in hotels and retail stores to evoke specific emotions and create stronger memories and associations with brands.

Third, growing number of predictions is suggesting that manipulation with scents and smell will become important part of work of UX designers. It is very likely that designers will use fragrances to influence emotional states of users and customers in the future. Fourth, you may start to think about learning more about fragrances to get ready for the next big thing in the discipline of UX.

No.5: We are programmed to react positively on surprises

Do you remember when we talked about lizard brain? Back then, you learned that this is the oldest part of our brain. You also learned that this part of our brain is constantly on the lookout. It constantly watches our environment for potential dangers and anything new and unknown. As it looks like, our brains are not only looking for new and unexpected things, they actually crave them. Couple studies showed that area of our brain that is active when we experience pleasure and happiness is also activated when we experience something unexpected.

However, this doesn’t mean that all surprises are created equal. The fact is that our brain processes pleasant and unpleasant surprises differently and in different areas. Meaning, when we experience something that is unexpected and unpleasant it will activate different neurons in amygdala (part of brain responsible for handling emotions) than something that is pleasant. So, you still should think twice before you try to surprise your users.

The takeaway

First, new and unexpected stimuli will attract our attention. Second, our brains actually crave unexpected things and it can evoke pleasant feelings. Third, although it is a good practice to keep design consistent, implementing a little bit of novelty and unpredictability can have positive effect on people’s mood and even motivation. It is also a good way to introduce new features or convince former users to come back.

No.6: We are happier when we are busy

Let’s say that you have an appointment with your doctor. Next, imagine that you are sitting in waiting room with another twelve people and you have to wait for about fourteen minutes until your turn. Now, imagine a little bit different situation. Instead of waiting in the waiting room, you have to visit receptionist and fill in few documents about your health. Then, you also have to go to bathroom. Your doctor needs sample of your urine to do complete examination of your health.

Finally, as the last step, nurse will also take sample of your blood. When you finish this whole procedure, you return to waiting room. After another two minutes, doctor shows up and invite you to his office. The process of preparation for health check took about twelve minutes plus another two minutes of waiting in waiting room – fourteen minutes in total. In other words, you had to wait the same amount of time in both, scenario one and scenario two. Nonetheless, you, me and majority of people would prefer the second scenario.

The reason is that most of us just don’t like to be inactive. For many people sitting and staring at white wall is very uncomfortable. This is also why people may have problems with trying meditation (yes I meditate every day). Can you sit without moving for twenty minutes and focus on your breath? We don’t need any hardcore science to understand that we are happier when we have something to do. The fact is that we like to keep ourselves busy. We can summarize this and say that time is relative. Meaning, when are in motion, time seems to pass faster than when we do nothing.

The takeaway

First, we don’t like to be inactive. Second, we will rather do work on some task to fill our time than just sit and do nothing. Nonetheless, this task still has to be meaningful for us. Otherwise, we will not be willing to waste our time and rather do nothing. It’s a little bit of paradox. You want to keep your users engaged, but you still have to give them tasks they will perceive as meaningful. Third, busy people are happier than people who are inactive and bored. Fourth, if users of your design has to wait, give them some task or activity to create the illusion that time passes faster.

No.7: We use our impressions and feelings as first indicator of trust

When it comes to web design, there is not as much research focused on our emotions and its impact on trust. Fortunately, we have at least few pieces of wisdom we can learn from. For starters, we know that when people visit some website, they often indeed base their trust on its design and what emotions it evokes. People pay significant attention to the first impression, design elements such as navigation, color palette, font size and even the name of the website.

Aside from the design elements we mentioned, people mostly base their decisions whether website is credible or not also on the content. In a fact, more than seventy percent of participants of one study said that content of the website was more important for helping them decide whether website is credible. These people also preferred website associated with well-known and trustworthy companies and organizations. Another important factor for increased credibility was information provided by experts.

You may see one problem with this last factor. How can you say that someone who is calling himself an expert is really an expert? This is, I think, one weak point we have to deal with. On the Internet, it is often hard to say with whom we communicate. Anyone can put together simple landing page or buy some well-designed template. And, if you need certificate, you can use many graphic editors that are for free. In case of web design, Internet sometimes works in twisted ways.

The leading experts sometimes present their knowledge on websites that are designed so badly it can decrease credibility of the owner. On the other hand, we can find dozens of deceptive, or dangerous, websites that are designed well. We can see the same issue with testimonials. Many incredibly smart people either don’t have time or sufficient number of testimonials to prove their expertise and build credibility. This is, again, something people who want to deceive others have no problem with.

Let me slightly expand this subject for a moment … I think that one way that can help these people (the good ones) from this downward spiral is taking the time and investing in their online presentation. I think that we should start to see our websites and our online presence as our business card. It is interesting. We are willing to invest significant amount of money almost every month into designing and printing professionally looking business cards. Why don’t we think in the same way when it comes to our websites and online presentation?

Imagine you meet someone interesting. How hard it to lost his business card? Well, there is a chance that he doesn’t have any. Can the same happen with website? Hardly. Anyone with mobile phone and cheapest connection to Internet can take a look at your website and bookmark it. Try to lose that. What’s more wi-fi hotspots in coffee shops and shopping centers are more common than ever. Soon, Internet connection, at least the slowest one, will be omnipresent. Also, there are more than 3 billions of people not connected to the Internet yet. Are you looking for new customers?

The takeaway

First, we decide very quickly whether something is trustworthy or not. Our first impression is incredibly fast and hard to change. This means that we have only few seconds to build credibility with our designs and we will probably never get second chance. Second, we should focus on the most visible design elements such as colors, font size and navigation structure. People often use these elements to help them decide whether they should trust the website. We can think about this as the first phase of resistance.

Third, when our design overcome that first phase of resistance with thoughtful and well-designed layout, it is time for second phase of resistance. We have to fill the website with content that will support and strengthen its credibility. Therefore, we should use authentic images instead of fake-looking stock images. We should give enough space to experts to share their knowledge. Lastly, we should use testimonials and stories of people who already used the product. Here, you can find more tips for designing great landing page.

No.8: Listening to music causes our brains to release dopamine

Music can evoke a variety of emotions and feelings. Some music can make us happy while other music can make us feel sad, anxious or even angry. Couple experiments with music also shown that listening to music can stimulate our brains to release neurotransmitter dopamine. During these experiments, researchers used a variety of musical genres such as classical music, jazz, rock, pop, metal, electronic music. The goal was to allow participants to listen to the music they preferred.

Researchers found that when participants listened to their favorite music genre, their brain and body activity was similar to situation when they were rewarded. They described similar feelings of light euphoria and good emotions. In other words, we can evoke emotions related to euphoria just by listening to our favorite music. What’s more, when we expect pleasant section of music we like, our brains also release a dose of dopamine. This is, again, similar to getting some reward.

There are also other facts we know about music and how it can influence our psychology. For example, we know that there is a difference in how our brain processes emotions after listening to either happy or sad music. For example, one study showed that we are very likely perceive neutral expressions in a way that matches the tone of music we heard. Meaning, if you are listening to sad music and see someone with neutral facial expression, you are more likely to perceive that person as sad. The opposite is true for cheerful music.

Another fact we know about music is that it can help us be more creative. Research paper published under Oxford University suggests that moderate levels, neither too low or too high, of ambient noise have positive effect on creativity and productivity. When we listen to ambient noise, we are increasing processing difficulty of inputs. As a result, this benefits abstract processing that then leads to higher creativity. You can become idea machine. This may be why we often get more done in a little bit more crowded places such as coffee shops, libraries or restaurants.

Lastly, when we listen to certain types of music, it can help us get more from exercising. Meaning, music can help us train faster and harder. When we exercise, there will be moment when our body will start to send signals of fatigue to brain. Our brain has to pay attention to these signals in order to process them. Listening to music competes for this attention. As a result, when we listen to music, it can override the signals coming into our brains from our bodies and we feel less fatigued. This works mostly for exercises of low and moderate intensity.

The takeaway

First, listening to music can make uncomfortable situation more pleasant. Second, when we listen to music we like and prefer, we can experience moments of euphoria and evoke emotions related to happiness. Third, we should remember that music is highly individual. One genre may work great for one person and completely fail at another person. Fourth, expectation of pleasant sections of music can trigger release of dopamine and evoke pleasant emotions. Fifth, we can use ambient noises to stimulate our creativity and create conditions for creative problem-solving.

Sixth, tone of music can influence how we perceive neutral expressions. Sad music can cause us to perceive neutral expressions and emotions as sad. The opposite applies to cheerful music as well. Seventh, music can help us exercise more, harder and faster. Music of a particular tempo, tempo in range of 120 and 145 beats per minute, can override signals of fatigue coming to brain from body. What’s more, our body will also try to synchronize its movements with music. As a result, music can “fuel” us with energy and positive emotions that will help us complete the exercise.

Eighth, we can use music in web design to create better user experience. We can also use music to create unconscious associations in between music and product in minds of users. Then, when they hear the music we used, they will immediately think about our product. Here is the catch. We have to remember that music s individual. Different people will react in different ways on different music genres. So, before we implement any genre of music, we should do some user research to find out what is the preferred music genre for the majority of our audience.

No.9: The more difficult to achieve something is, the stronger is our desire

When you were at school, were you member of some club or society? What about some elite or secret ones? Those of us who have some experience with these clubs know how difficult it can be to get there. It is common practice that many of the elite clubs and societies require candidates to go through some kind of ritual to test how committed those candidates are. Some of these societies and rituals received such attention that they are mentioned in movies and books.

The question we should ask is what makes these clubs and societies so interesting? Why are so many people willing to go through those often hard and uncomfortable rituals? I think that we are willing to go through these rituals for three reasons. First, when we hear about these rituals, we think that that club has to be somehow special. If these clubs were boring, it doesn’t make any sense that anyone would be willing to undergo any of these rituals. The only conclusion is that there has to be something you don’t know about yet. Hence, you will give it a try.

The second reason is that we desire and assign higher value to things that require more effort. Think for a moment about something you had to work incredibly hard for. Next, think about something you got for free and without any effort. Exclude objects that are connected to emotions. Which object do you value more? Or,which object do you care about more? Which object do you use more? Chances are that your answer on these questions is object number one – object that required ton of hard work and effort from your side. The same principle applies to clubs.

When we have to undergo hard ritual to get into certain club or society we will value it much more. Wait, this doesn’t explain why we want to undergo these rituals at the first place. It does, partially. Difficulty of the ritual leads you to assign higher value to the club. Then, you will take into account other people who already tried to get there, which will increase club’s value and attractiveness. Again, why would anyone want to be member of boring club? That doesn’t make any sense.

The third reason is exclusivity and rarity. The more rare and exclusive something is, the more we want it. Our buying decisions are based on our emotions, not logic. This is why we are willing to pay more for products in limited series. Imagine that Apple would introduce some special edition of iPhone in incredibly limited amount. How long do you think would it take to sell everything in the stock? Back to elite clubs. Hard ritual means that only few are able to get in. Therefore, we perceive membership in this group as something exclusive.

The takeaway

First, when we have to work hard for something, the stronger our desire is. Second, when something is hard to get, we think that it must be worth the effort. Third, exclusivity and rarity increases the value we assign to something. We can motivate user to value products or communities more by making it harder to get them (or get in). Fourth, we can learn from communities like Dribbble. For example, we can implement invitation system. We can also give candidates some test to see whether they meet some minimal requirements.

No.10: We overestimate our reactions on future events

How often did you think that some “negative” or “positive” will have huge consequences, that it will destroy everything you done? Now, let me ask you, “what was the actual outcome?” It seems that we are very at this thing. We often overestimate our reactions on “negative” or “positive” events and what outcome will these events have. When we think about “positive” events, we often think that we will very happy when that event will finally occur. The opposite is true for events we perceive as “negative”.

The truth is that, in vast majority of cases, our estimates are wrong. The reason is that every one of us have certain level of happiness. This level stays less or more the same through our life, regardless of the emotions we experience. When we experience something significant that will shake with our emotions, it will cause either positive or negative spike on our happiness scale. The thing is that, after some time, we will always go back to our default level of happiness. This level of happiness is different for each of us. Meaning, some of us are naturally happier than others.

The takeaway

First, we are bad at estimating our reactions on events and their outcomes. Second, we often overestimate our reactions to changes. Meaning, when customer tells you that some specific change will change how many times he will use your product, or that he will stop using it, take it with reserve. It is quite possible that his behavior will remain the same. Third, when you introduce some change, measure the outcomes and always compare users’ feedback with real data.

No.11: Our expectations about event and memories from the event are more pleasant than event itself

When we plan some event such as vacation we have often high expectations. When we think about the event, we are flooded with emotions. We imagine all the things and adventures we will try. And, it is high likely that the longer we plan the event, the stronger emotions we experience. Somewhat paradoxically, when we finally put our plans into motion, our experience is often not as great as we planned. It is also interesting that when we come back, our memories of the event will get better. We will start to perceive the event as more pleasant.

The takeaway

First, we enjoy planning of event more than the event itself. Second, our memories on the event are also often more pleasant than the event. Third, we can positively influence users experience by prolonging the planning phase. Fourth, we will get better reviews if we ask people couple days after using our product or visiting our website.

Closing thoughts on psychology of design and emotions

You’ve just completed another part of Psychology of design series. I hope that this article and these eleven interesting facts helped you understand the psychology of emotions. I also hope that this information will help you design better products. As always, let’s quickly recap what we learned today about designing for emotions. First, we know seven universal emotions. These emotions are joy, contempt, fear, disgust, surprise, anger and sadness. If we use visual media clearly showing one of these emotions, people will be able to understand it better.

Second, our emotions are connected to muscles movements. These muscle movements has the power to influence our emotional state and mood. These movements can also change the way we perform ongoing activities. Our emotions follow our facial expressions. Third, interesting tales are more convincing than facts. Fourth, scent is strong stimuli for emotions and memories. Fifth, we are programmed to react positively on surprises. Sixth, we are happier when we are busy. Seventh, we use our impressions and feelings as first indicator of trust.

Eighth, listening to music causes our brains to release dopamine. Ninth, the more difficult to achieve something is, the stronger is our desire to get it. The same applies to exclusivity and rarity. We base our decisions mostly on our emotions, not logic. Tenth, we overestimate our reactions on future events. Eleventh, our expectations about event and memories from the event are more pleasant than event itself.

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By Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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