Emotion is everything

We often take a cursory glance at people’s emotions when we design experiences and products, focusing instead on needs and goals. But if we consider that people are driven by their subconscious and do things because they feel good, rather than because they meet a need, our focus should really be on making people feel good: not only now, but in the future as well.


Cersei said it best in the season 6 finale of Game of Thrones:

I do things because they feel good.

Feeling is everything. People make decisions and do things because of how it makes them feel. (We also allow other people to make decisions for us because of how it feels.)

We’re very good at convincing ourselves that we make decisions based on logic, when really, the rational mind is to the emotional mind like a rider on an elephant. Without motivation, your rational mind will keep on trying to control your emotional mind, and you’ll get nowhere. Chip and Dan Heath write in Switch – How to change things when change is hard:

…the brain has two independent systems at work at all times. First, there’s what we called the emotional side [the Elephant]. It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure. Second, there’s the rational side [the Rider], also known as the reflective or conscious system. It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyses and looks into the future.

If you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both.

The Rider can get his way temporarily – he can tug on the reins hard enough to get the Elephant to submit. (Anytime you use willpower you’re doing exactly that.) But the Rider can’t win a tug-of-war with a huge animal for long. He simply gets exhausted.

Stefan Sagmeister takes this one step further. He theorises that our emotional side drives our decisions without us realising it:

…the rider thinks that he can tell the elephant what to do, but the elephant really has his own ideas. If I look at my own life, I’m born in 1962 in Austria. If I would have been born a hundred years earlier, the big decisions in my life would have been made for me – meaning I would have stayed in the town that I was born in; I would have very much likely entered the same profession that my dad did; and I would have very much likely married a woman that my mom had selected. I, of course, and all of us, are very much in charge of these big decisions in our lives. We live where we want to be – at least in the West. We become what we really are interested in. We choose our own profession, and we choose our own partners. And so it’s quite surprising that many of us let our unconscious influence those decisions in ways that we are not quite aware of.

We think the Rider is in control, but really, the Elephant picked a direction and the Rider has convinced himself that he’s steering the Elephant, when really he’s just an observer.

People want to feel good. They mostly don’t know what exactly will make them feel good, so they make weird decisions and do strange things in an attempt to get there. Every now and then, they’ll achieve things that they believed would make them feel good & then be surprised when it turns out that things turn out to be just things, not feelings. Feeling good is a state of being where one lets go of things, starts being kind to people and focuses on personal growth.

None of the above is anything new. Religions, philosophies and self-help schools of thought have been saying it forever.

Why, then, do we keep on designing experiences around outcomes, rather than feelings? We pay lip-service to emotion by plotting it on customer journey maps, but we almost make it a bonus factor to consider, rather than the heart of the matter. We also tend to think of emotions as the result of external events, when the really interesting and powerful emotions are the ones triggered internally, subconsciously.

We design the perfect bank account application experience, but we should be considering how a bank account is going to bring anyone closer to a place of feeling good. Do people even need bank accounts? If so, is the bank account they are so easily applying for, the right one? And will it change and grow, as the person changes and grows? Will this bank account contribute to this person feeling good?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about most people don’t realise what makes them happiest.

On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure.

(Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, Flow – The Psychology of Happiness, p.159)

Even though it’s been shown that we are happiest when we are in a state of flow, we still believe that we’ll be happiest when we are in a state of boredom. Perhaps we make the same mistake when we design processes for people. We assume that people want to be bored, when they really want to feel challenged at just the right level.

Flow diagram.png

To keep people bored, we hide the complexities of products and processes from them. Unfortunately, when we hide the rules of the game from the players, and start to give them incremental, step-by-step instructions without any idea of the outcome of the game, we create a space where a lot of people are going to feel anxious (because they want to understand how a solution works before they put effort into it) and a lot of people will feel bored (because they know what the outcome of a process is, but the system makes it impossible for them to navigate it efficiently).

The challenge is to focus on the ultimate needs of people.

It almost sounds like I’m contradicting myself here: on the one hand, I’m saying that everything is about feeling good, rather than about achieving an outcome. On the other hand, I’m saying that we need to focus on the needs of people (which sounds a lot like achieving an outcome). What I’m rather getting at, is this: people want to feel good, first and foremost. They believe that they know what’s going to make them feel good, and we help them to achieve those things.

But what we should be doing, is helping people to become aware of their real needs, instead of happily, and expertly, designing experiences that fulfil needs that have been fabricated for them by marketing machines (or by our clients, or by ourselves!). We need to focus on the next level of the hierarchy of needs for the people we are designing things for, which means that we have to know where they find themselves in the hierarchy right now.

We should be helping people to make better decisions, knowing that they do things that make them feel good, and ensuring that those decisions will make them feel good in future, too.

If we take the bank account application as an example: it’s easy to see why people want bank accounts, right? You need a means of receiving a wage and of not carrying cash around with you. The challenge is: having a means of receiving a wage and not carrying cash around with you, is not going to make you feel good if it comes with fees and rules and incomprehensible jargon.

Getting better at managing your money, on the other hand, will make you feel good, as long as the skills you have match the challenges you face. Becoming more aware of how you work with your money and learning, over time, to handle it with greater skill, will make you feel good. And you can begin with tiny steps in the right direction, by people who know more about finances that you do.

Feeling is everything, which means that we have to design with both empathy and perspective. This goes beyond empathic design. As empathetic designers, we should think about what we can do to encourage the best decisions in people, whether those decisions match our goals or not. This means that we have to spend some time understanding what’s best for them, which is usually not simple. It means that we think about how people feel and how we can help them to feel good. We have to look beyond providing services and products, and think about why those services and products are needed and whether they are sustainably good for the people we are designing them for.