Designing for emotions

27 July 2020

“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”– Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

There is an old adage in the UX professionals’ world: “interaction with any product produces an experience (emotion) whether it had UX or not.”

Emotions actually change the way the human brain operates. Negative experiences focus the brain on what’s wrong; they narrow the thought process and make people anxious and tense. We don’t feel free and “in the flow.” We feel restricted and frustrated. Positive emotions have an opposite effect on the way we perceive the world around us. We feel confident, excited, and in control. So it is in the best interest of a designer to provoke positive emotions from the interaction with the product.

We live in a culture of delight, where everything revolves around joy. We are obsessed with keeping customers happy and creating joyful experiences for our users.

But users have a different perspective. They don’t notice well-designed flow, because it allows them to focus on the task they are doing. Only when the flow gets interrupted and users are forced to stop and think – is when the mental chatter starts. The broken flow causes them to notice the flaws and is one of the reasons why they feel negative emotions.

There are 6 basic emotions (fear, disgust, sadness, anger, happiness, and surprise), only 2 of them are positive. So maybe, instead of trying so hard to create a positive experience – we should think about how to create an experience that will not trigger negative emotions.

I have recently completed a UX course with the UX design institute. In the last year, I looked at quite a few airline websites as a part of the research for my final project. What I would like to share with you are some of my personal insights from competitor benchmarking and user testing.

We all know that airlines are not to be trusted. They try to trick us and implement all sorts of dark patterns and break usability rules. In my research tried to figure out when it is all going wrong and why we get so frustrated when booking flights online. 

Here are my top 5 observations of how the interface influences emotions on airline websites:

All this noise
We get overwhelmed by the amount of visual noise. It hits us as soon as we enter the website. It makes us feel alert, stressed, and lost. We don’t know where to start. It makes us think that the task we are here to complete is hard work.

  • Visual noise increases cognitive effort.
  • Poor visual hierarchy slows down our ability to scan the page and process it’s content. Our brain needs to do a lot of work. Everything competes for our attention.
  • We don’t know where to start. There is no clear direction.

Let me be in control
Not being in control is frustrating. People who are (or feel that they are) in control feel smarter and tend to experience less stress, which makes them feel happier. And happier people are more likely to have a pleasant experience and return to your site.

  • Can’t skip steps easily. We are misguided – View all cars’ looks like the main CTA on the page and ‘Skip steps’ isn’t very obvious.
  • Irrelevant offers of car hire, hotel, insurance.
  • The absence of a progress bar or a stepper makes us feel lost.

Don’t make me think

Whenever we open a web page we want to know immediately – what it is for and what to do next. The mental chatter starts every time we stop and think. It adds to our cognitive workload. We are not here to solve puzzles, we need to complete a task.

  • Lack of conventions. How do I pay? We are used to a big button that says pay and how much to pay. And we want to find it easily.
  • Where is the CTA? What do I do now? After I selected my flights and was ready to pay, it took me a while before I figured out how to do it.
  • Navigation isn’t clear and consistent. It is duplicated on the right, and I still can’t see what I came here for – an option to pay for my flights.

Don’t waste my time

We go online to save time, we are on a mission, and don’t like to be interrupted. We choose the first reasonable option and skip non-essential steps. It makes us really angry if the software doesn’t understand or care that we are in a hurry.

How is our time wasted?

  • Making users look for essential information like price and baggage allowance.
  • Interrupting flow by adding unnecessary steps. For example, forced registration. The unnecessary information obscures the useful stuff. 
  • Lack of constraints. It forces users to make mistakes, which slows them down.

Let me trust you

One of the main issues that users have with airline sites is the lack of trust. Airlines use dark patterns to manipulate our decisions. And we know it. We go to incognito mode to check the price, so it doesn’t change when we come back to book it. We book flights on different websites because we know that a return flight will be more expensive.

  • A sense of urgency forces us to make decisions quickly without proper consideration. The last seat on this flight left for example.
  • Increased flight price when you come back to book the next day.
  • Tricks to get you to pay extra (for a seat).

Usually, the main CTA buttons are yellow, so we know to press it to continue, to book, or to skip. Sometimes the colour of the buttons is flipped to manipulate us into paying extra for the seat. We will simply click the yellow button because we are used to clicking it by the time we get to this page. 

In my opinion the ideal strategy is honesty, we should create content that provides value to users and then ask for a favor in return.
Here is an example of the interface done wrong, so if you are not convinced by my insights follow this link ( and experience it for yourself.

Here is my full presentation, which I made using Readymag: