Creating desirability through emotional connections

Most User Experience (UX) designers, including myself follow the mantra of creating useful, usable and desirable user experiences.

Useful: Performs the tasks it was designed for
Usable: Easy to use and interact with
Desirable: Provides feelings of pleasure and creates attraction

Applying user research and usability testing to create a useful and usable product is a measurable task that can be achieved with a range of tools and methods. However, when you’re trying to create a desirable product, the approach can be more challenging and the results often unpredictable.

Desirability is subjective

Whilst a particular product or brand may be desirable to one person, another person may not feel the same level of desirability if any desire at all.

Some people mistakenly believe that desirability is merely linked to visual appearance and aesthetic appeal. But this is simply not the case. It goes much deeper than the pleasing pixels on a screen.

Desirability is an intangible value which is created through an emotional connection that taps into the individual’s knowledge, feelings and perceptions. The emotional connection can be conscious, however more often than not, it connects at a subconscious level. Your brain has actually made the decision before you realise it. This has been proven in several neuroscience studies. One, in particular, used fMRI brain scans and concluded that decisions were made seven seconds before the participants were even aware of making the decision.

Our complex brains have the ability to make split-second decisions. In an instant, we can judge whether something is ugly or beautiful, dangerous or safe, delicious or poisonous – without consciously noticing.

This is attributed to various factors, including how we cope with the vast amount of information that we’re bombarded with every day. As a way to cope with sensory overload, our brains have become quite clever at ignoring information that we don’t find relevant or engaging.

Emotional connections are more difficult to switch off because they’re unconsciously triggered by a variety of factors including memories, visual stimuli and experiences. Our minds are instantly attracted to some things over others, often overpowering our rational mind (unless you’re a Vulcan).

How desirability relates to Design Thinking

Desirability is an integral component of design thinking, which when partnered up with business and technical objectives can result in a powerful brand strategy.

Desirability, viability, feasibility Venn diagram 

One of the GodFathers of usability, Donald Norman, said, “Everything has a personality: everything sends an emotional signal. Even where this was not the intention of the designer, the people who view the website infer personalities and experience emotions.” The personality that a brand projects attracts certain audiences and target markets, however, the reality is that there will always be some customers that you just won’t be able to tap into, and the reasons will vary across many factors, including: Does the customer already have a strong emotional connection with a competing brand? Is the customer actually attracted to your product or service? Always remember, you can’t sell coffee to a non-coffee lover. It must be meaningful to the individual.

On a more theoretical level, to achieve ‘desirability’, design should be modeled on the following three levels of cognitive and emotional processing:

  • Visceral design is about how things look, feel and sound.
  • Behavioral design is about how products function. The pleasure and effectiveness of use.
  • Reflective design is all about the message, culture, and meaning of a product and its use

Visceral, behavioural, reflective – a diagram

These concepts are not new – Donald Norman discusses them in detail in his book ‘Emotional Design’ which was published in 2004.

As he states in his book, “Only by considering all three aspects of visual design can a product engage and delight (visceral design), educate and guide (behavioral design), and form lasting relationships with users (reflective design). This is not to say that usability and function should be secondary -they are, of course, equally important. However, visual design cannot only be considered at the visceral level as common practice holds. Visual design is much more powerful when it encompasses all three levels of design in a single product.”

As mentioned above, reflective reasoning is one of the three levels of cognitive and emotional processing, that is perhaps the most difficult to influence through design. This is probably due to the fact that it relies heavily on the consumers memories, their past experiences and conscious considerations. The interactions that they experience with products and services may have evolved over time, at different life stages. They might have brought their own life experiences and created individual associations through personal meanings and values which have developed over time.

Emotional connections with some brands actually start developing in people at quite a young age. Children are exposed to a myriad of brands via advertisements as well as through their peers and parents. These emotional brand associations that connect with people at a young age tend to have quite a stronghold that can stay with them through their life journey, well into adulthood. This is where brand loyalty also comes into play. For example, I recall that when I moved out of home I automatically purchased the same brands of detergent, tomato sauce, pasta and tuna that my mother used. My loyalty grew from familiarity, trust and a dash of nostalgia, and as time has gone by and I’ve created my own family, there are still particular brands that keep getting added to my shopping trolley in my weekly shops.

Organisations that are achieving emotional connections

Some savvy brands such as BMW create an array of lifestyle products specially tailored for children including bicycles, push pedal cars, miniature cars and apparel. Exposure to brands like this at a young age start building the emotional bond of trust and nostalgia. The aim for most brands is that this will hopefully stay with the person until they become a wage-earning adult that holds the power to make their own purchasing decisions.

A snazzy car, designed for children

Some financial institutions attempt to acquire young customers through special children accounts, however in my eyes there is a lot of room for improvement – especially if they want to retain them as loyal customers through the various life-stages and related products, such as their first credit card. Loans for their first car, and home loan along with insurance products that they might need throughout their life.

But wait, there’s more

There is another element that we haven’t touched upon which greatly affects the emotional connections that we create with our customers: “Customer relationships”. Relationships and personal contact play a major role in creating good relationships and also in reversing negative customer experiences. Customer relationships are about nurturing long-term experiences by the level of service provided, a personal touch and personalising the experience between the brand and the customer, so that it is an authentic and ‘human’ experience.

So, how might you capture an emotional connection with a person who might be interested in your product or service?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer that will suit every product or service. However, there are many techniques that can be explored to discover and create the magic moment that will connect your ideal target market with your brand. I’ve outlined 2 below to get you started.

Technique 1.

Be aware of the emotional connections that your product has with users. If this is new to you, aim to become hyper-sensitive towards other brands by increasing your awareness of how they achieve desirability.

Technique 2.

Consider some of your favourite brands and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it through the visual appeal of the product?
  • Is it how the product makes me feel prior to purchase, during the purchase and post-purchase?
  • Is it something someone said about this product or brand?
  • Is it the way it speaks to me through copy or dialogue? Or a review or article that you came across?

A good example of this is a colleague of mine who only flies Virgin.

Now what?

Once you are aware of the power of emotive design, you can start analysing your brand and it’s products at a deeper level. There are many tools and techniques that can be used to help you understand your customers on a deeper, emotional level. We’ve listed a handful of techniques to get you started:

  • Personas will help you step into the mindset of your target audience, in order to gain a deeper understanding of what they need and their pain points.
  • User journeys for your key personas. When creating the user journey be sure to document not just the doing steps but how the user might be feeling and what they might be thinking

Real-life example of a user journey map I have created

  • Empathy maps are a great tool to help you crawl inside your customer’s minds and understand them more intimately and help you uncover what they really want and need.
  • Kano model analysis can also be used to measure the emotional reaction to product features.
  • Brand personality analysis helps you tap into the personality of the brand essence and express it through the brand’s touchpoints including the tone and language used in copy, the imagery styles, colour palettes.
  • Service design touchpoints analysis– Strategically planning the intentional customer service that you are providing for customers through mapping the pre-sale, during sale and the post-sale experience of customers.


When we deal with emotions there are so many factors at play. It’s a mighty challenge to strategically come up with a solution that connects with everyone. So the best strategy is to get to know your users well. Understand their pain points, know what pleases them in order to provide them with their wants and needs. By combining a visceral, behavioral and reflective approach you’ll be able to tap into their mindset and connect your brand to your users and potential market segments on an emotional level.

Want to know more about how DiUS can help you?



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