Web development

Emotional web design: Building meaningful connections.


Unless you’re a web designer, you may not realise that websites are designed with emotions in mind. In this guest blog post, organisational psychologist and freelance writer, Melissa Gray, highlights why emotional connection in web design should never be overlooked.

The identity of every successful business is built on emotions. Every great brand, logo, or other digital art has at least one emotional factor that attracts visitors. For example, a car company will focus on trust, reliability, and performance to make their products relatable to their function. Every successful business integrates an emotional perspective into its design. Without emotions, we’re just machines.

With that said, let’s discover how to build meaningful connections through emotional web design.

What is emotional web design?

Emotional web design refers to creating designs that induce emotions leading to a positive user experience. Designers strive to reach an audience on three cognitive levels – visceral, behavioural, and reflective, so the audience only develops positive associations with brands.

Emotional web design adapts to users’ needs and responses.

A professional web design company will focus on users’ needs in their interactions with brands, products, and services. Logically, what you design should help them accomplish their goals as effectively and efficiently as possible. However, their response is equally important, so you should focus on them too. Our responses are emotional, and emotions play a vital role in interpreting reality. Positive experiences motivate us and drive curiosity, whereas negative experiences help us avoid mistakes. Moreover, users connect feelings to what they come across and have characters – some get annoyed faster than others. The point here is that the emotional design of a brand, service, or product affects its success.

People have sophisticated thought processes. So, you have to tackle three levels of cognitive response in your design:

  1. Visceral: This level refers to a person’s instinctual reactions or first impressions of the design.
  2. Behavioural: Behavioural level applies to how people subconsciously assess your design – can it help them achieve their goals efficiently.
  3. Reflective: After experiencing your design, they will consciously evaluate its performance, benefits, and value for money. Naturally, if they are satisfied, they will continue using it, develop emotional bonds, and share it with their circle of friends and family.

Plutchik’s theory of emotion

Emotional design is essential in the UX world; designs that address users’ emotions respond to their needs and offer a better user experience. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions can help you provide valuable experiences when designing products.

Robert Plutchik developed the psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion. This theory helps classify emotions into primary emotions and the responses to them. He claimed that the primary emotions are an evolutionary development. The eight primary emotions, according to Plutchik, are trust, surprise, joy, anticipation, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger.

Plutchik developed a Wheel of Emotions from this initial emotional theory to help users understand emotional subtleties and how they contrast with each other. Web designers can use the wheel to explore the intricacies of emotion. It can act as a colour palette for emotional web design, where merging different emotions will form various levels of emotional response and its intensities.

Plutchik’s wheel is a simple model, but it focuses on the primary emotions most web designers want to evoke in their audience. That’s why it’s a valuable starting point.

The primary emotional pairs

Below are the primary emotional pairs:

  • Surprise and anticipation
  • Fear and anger
  • Trust and disgust
  • Joy and sadness

We can combine them as:

  • Anger and anticipation form aggressiveness, with its opposite being awe
  • Disgust and anger equal contempt, with submission being its opposite
  • Sadness and disgust form remorse, with its opposite being love
  • Surprise and sadness create disapproval, with optimism being its opposite
  • Fear and surprise form awe, with its opposite being aggression
  • Trust and fear equal submission, with contempt being its opposite
  • Joy and trust form love, with its opposite being remorse
  • Anticipation and joy create optimism, with disapproval being its opposite

Criticism of Plutchik’s model

Pride and shame are emotions designers often play with. However, Plutchik failed to consider the pairing of these two emotions. That’s why people criticised his model. It often felt that Plutchik’s model was too simple and didn’t include greater emotional subtleties. However, it is still a good starting point and doesn’t prevent UX designers from searching for other tools to help them with web design.

Include emotion in your web design

Websites typically contain several components that can be viewed as emotion carriers and can make a design more personal, such as colours, as we mentioned. However, what about the less obvious ones like humour and tone of voice? Find out below.

Humour

Humour is a proven way to connect with the audience in a meaningful way.

A laugh can break the ice and make people feel comfortable anywhere, including websites. However, it is also a sensitive issue. What one finds funny might be insulting to another. That’s why it’s vital to carefully think it through before implementing it into your web design. Understanding your audience and the context of use will aid you in determining whether users will share your sense of humour. You likely won’t make everyone laugh, but avoid offending people or making them feel uncomfortable. Also, remember that the humour on your website will impact the way your audience perceives you. Humour is an excellent way to get people involved, but it shouldn’t irritate them.

Recognition

It’s in human nature to seek emotional connections with others.

We like seeing images of faces on websites and value recognizing ourselves, in a way, because when we see a face, we are automatically triggered to empathise with that person or feel something. We feel understood and connected when we recognise content on a website, such as a habit or a dilemma. We try to relate everything we see to ourselves, even a web design without direct human attributes. It’s enough to recognise our body’s proportions to see it as harmonic and familiar. When we see ourselves, we feel that there’s more than just a screen with codes and images. We recognise human presence. That makes us feel connected and comfortable.

Dissonance

It’s also human nature to try to fit the world into patterns. They help us understand how things work and what we can expect. That makes us feel comfortable.

Usability guidelines are founded on an understanding of how our brains process information. Following these guidelines in web design can help us give the audience a consistent structure they can fit into their mental patterns. When they recognise patterns on a website and see that they match their expectations, they can quickly focus on the content and reach their goals. However, two things can happen when a website doesn’t fit these patterns. Users will either welcome some distraction and see the dissonance with their expectations as a positive experience. Or, they will become annoyed because they can’t find what they’re searching for. That can lead to frustration – something you want to avoid. Note that how people react depends on who they are and in which context they use your website. So, if your audience wants to find particular information, meet their expectations and go with the patterns they are familiar with. If you see your audience has the time and wants to explore, you can play with some dissonance to catch their attention and involve them.

Tone of voice

The tone of voice on your website is another vital emotional element. Your tone of voice tells what you want users to think of you, but also what you think of them. It strongly determines your first impression.

For example, people may not take you seriously if you convey a heavy message in a funny story. The opposite is also true – if you say something that is supposed to be funny in a serious way, again, they may not take you seriously. You need to know what you’re selling, who is buying, and in which context you are conveying the message to get the right tone of voice for your website.

Engagement

A perfectly accessible and usable website could still have a low number of sign-ups and a high bounce rate.

Engagement is what helps us form relationships and positive user experiences. Top UX agencies are aware of that. Long gone is the time of passive consumption. Now, people want to be engaged and entertained. That can take the form of interaction, playing, or content personalisation. Again, your audience and their context should govern how you engage them. For example, if users are looking for the most efficient way to interact with your website, ensure that interaction is forthright.

Form meaningful connections with your audience

After reading this article, you understand how important it is to create meaningful connections with your users through emotional web design.

Aesthetics go together with planning and intent. When you add emotions, the design is luring visitors towards it. So, how can you effectively use emotions at the vital stages of your design process? First, you need to understand that emotional intelligence is necessary for your design to succeed. Your website drives visitors through emotional content. That said, by mixing the right emotional factors into your web design, consumers will be able to connect with your website in a meaningful way.


Written by Melissa Gray
Melissa Gray is a freelance writer and an organisational psychologist. Her focus is primarily on marketing and new digital trends across the world. She is also a passionate gamer, with special interest in narrative design. She writes for Digital Strategy One.