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Digital emotions


Have you made a rational decision lately? Chances are you never have. At least, that’s according to a study in the Harvard Business Review, which found that emotion and cognition are tightly intertwined and that areas of the brain associated with rational thought and decision making both have direct connections to areas associated with feelings and do not exist in separate psychological compartments. That’s a mouthful, but basically what they’re saying is that there are no rational or irrational decisions. All decisions are based on feelings.

Few things in life are accidentally great
- Torbjörn Buhré, Creative Director

Do we really need to talk about feelings in digital?

When creating a new digital product or service, there are lots of questions we ask ourselves. What personas can we create to meet user needs? What language, functions, placement and colors have the best conversion rate? How can we use data to eliminate UX-pitfalls? We even question others in interview upon interview to make sure our content makes the most impact. But how often do we ask ourselves what emotions we want to trigger? And do we really need to?

Yes, because emotions drive sales

Do you remember the time when a computer was just a big, nicotine-colored box? A thing so out of place with other interior decor that it was best hidden away in a closet? I loved what that box helped me create. I loved the worlds I could imagine through it, but the thing itself was just a tool, and an ugly one at that. Then came 1998 and Apple launched its iMac with bold colors, blistering white contrasts and matching keyboard and mouse. The crowd went wild. People started displaying it as the apartment centerpiece, got matching curtains, dusted it regularly and became emotionally attached. Of course, critics claimed that as a computer it was no better than others, and no work tool should be in a color named “Blue Dalmation.” And they were right. It wasn’t a better computer. But we didn’t care, and what Apple proved is that emotional attachments — even digital ones — drive sales, capture attention, engender trust and are long lasting. Emotional attachments boost more sales, create more advocates and build better brands over a longer period of time than conversion tactics. Just google “iMac aquarium” and you’ll see what I mean.

So how do we trigger digital emotions?

Few things in life are accidentally great. Greatness springs from hard work and study, so we need to have an understanding of what triggers emotions. That could take a while, but if we just look at design, the book “Emotional Design” by Don Norman is a great place to start and is the go-to guide on the subject. Norman divides design into three levels:


Here is where similar products distinguish themselves based on appearance. A.k.a. the first impression. The iMac is one example, and how about a KitchenAid blender in Lava Black? It has the same basic function as any other blender, but the superficial aspects are enough to have many prepared to shell out a lot more money to see it glistening on their kitchen counter.


This level has everything to do with how we experience a design. However, it’s not just UX. Behavioral design refers to what we feel as a result of either accomplishing or failing our goals. For instance, the annoyance or sometimes sheer panic you feel when your car’s GPS lags in response to a traffic situation. Or the relief you feel when you try the voice command instead and it gets it right away. It’s the pleasure we feel when a product enables us to do things with minimum effort, or the frustration we feel when restricted or forced to change our behavior because of a product’s shortcomings.


Finally, here’s when we start to intellectualize a product. Take a smartphone as an example. Several behavioral factors go into choosing a particular smartphone, like ease-of-use or that you’re already part of the brand eco-system. And then there’s the personal statement factor. “What will my friends think about this?” “Does it boost my self-image?” “Can I tell a story about it?” Users will put up with shortcomings in usability to gain non-functional benefits like status and recognition.

So, what does all this mean for your business? If you trigger the right emotions, create that digital attachment with your target groups, make the users feel. You will not only drive conversion, attract attention, engender trust but also create long term advocates for your brand. So, let’s get emotional.

Key questions for digital emotions

  • What we don’t clearly express will be interpreted in its own way by each individual.

  • Consider the emotional purpose of your design concept. How do you want to be perceived?

  • What does the brand stand for and what emotional triggers are already in the brand that you can support and/or boost?

  • What would you add to your emotional impact? What goes beyond mere hygiene factors?

  • Think through your use of colors, whitespace, typography text and image tonality. Are they painting the same picture?

  • What types of functionality would your users not only expect but really appreciate?

Remember: the first reaction is the first interaction.

Sources: The Ekmans atlas of emotions “Emotional design” by Don Norman “Web UI Design Best Practices” UXPin

Profile picture of Torbjörn Buhré, employee at Petra Digital Agency
For more about this, contact

Torbjörn Buhré

Creative Director