1. Web Design
  2. UX/UI
  3. User Testing

The Role of Emotion in UX (What “Happy Users” Really Means)

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Read Time: 7 min

When designing user interfaces common sense is really important; make it easy for your users to complete their tasks and achieve their goals, and they will be able to buy your product or service easily. Ignore major usability issues and even if your users were initially interested in what you had to offer, they will soon give up. In today’s world, where it’s not difficult to find an alternative to your product, good usability is not optional, it’s essential. However, just because someone is able to complete a task, it doesn’t mean they will. That’s where emotions come into play. 

The concept of “happy users” is well known in the world of UX. In the way we feel a range of emotions when interacting with our environment, so too can we apply those principles when interacting with systems and interfaces.

Types of Emotional Responses

Most changes in our emotional state occur due to external factors, and depending on a wide range of variables, we end up with two main types of emotional response.

  1. Negative emotional responses
  2. Positive emotional responses

The Impact of Negative Emotional Responses

We often undervalue the emotions our users experience when interacting with a website or user interface. If we exclude the example of the gaming industry, where negative emotions such as “fear” can lead to a positive effect, then it is our priority as designers to focus on minimizing the possibility of generating negative emotional responses.

totally unimpressedtotally unimpressedtotally unimpressed
Nope, totally unimpressed

While there are many factors that affect our emotions which we are unable to control, this is usually not the case for most user interfaces. We are often overwhelmed by options, therefore if your product doesn’t meet your users’ requirements, they will certainly look for alternatives. When I speak of products here, I refer not only to the user journey that leads to your main product, but also to the product itself, which can be either physical or digital. The user journey doesn’t end once the product is purchased. The act of interacting with your product, which can be either an app, a software or even a physical product, is equally important. 

A negative experience not only prevents your users from being able to effectively use your product, it also affects your credibility and image. 

How to Generate Positive Emotional Responses

In order to be able to design user interfaces that generate positive emotions, we need to focus on an important aspect of UX: user research and identification of your target audience. 

When it comes to making your users “happy”, we are referring in fact to your intended users, and this is why having a clear idea of your target audience is so important. Different factors generate different responses in different individuals, therefore it’s important to design for the needs and expectations of those who will use your product. 

She has coffee; that’s a good start

While usability can refer to generic concepts, the process of generating positive emotional responses is more specific. This is why it isn’t enough anymore to simply create a product that works well. 

Here are some examples of how to generate positive emotions, both generically and more specifically.

Generating Positive Emotional Responses by Eliminating the Negative

A basic principle of usability is to eliminate any friction and obstacles between your user and their goal. By avoiding negative emotions such as frustration, then you’re most likely providing a pleasant user experience. Depending on your product’s goal, sometimes the fact of it being effective and allowing your user to complete a task with ease, is the strongest point. 

Following UI Patterns and Conventions

In life, we are used to anticipating the behavior of a certain object or system, based on the representations of the world which are stored in our long-term memory. The same happens when interacting with websites and other interfaces. Designing for usability is also about designing interfaces and products which behave as expected. Completing a task easily and in a short amount of time is likely to elicit a positive emotional response from your users.

Creating Emotional Experiences by Association

Our emotions become associated with many elements in our lives, including objects and places. When designing a new product, certain design decisions can encourage the user to form some type of emotional connection. Once this association is formed, then the emotion can be evoked over and over again, resulting in a powerful and lasting connection over time. In this sense, design decisions that include the aesthetic properties of the product are not arbitrary and can therefore influence your target audience’s response. 

Happy on roofHappy on roofHappy on roof
Happy on rooftops

In summary, influencing emotions involves a deep understanding of all these factors, both those generically responsible for affecting usability, and those specific to your product and intended users. 

Norman’s Three Levels of Design

In his book, The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman talks about three levels of design which, while being separate dimensions, work together on influencing our emotional experience about a product.

By applying the system proposed by Norman, we can more easily attempt to influence our user’s perceptions and emotions. 

1. Visceral Level

This level is responsible for the unconscious and automatic aspect of human emotion, and it’s mostly about appearance and first impressions. The purpose here is to get your user’s immediate attention. 

At a visceral level, the superficial aspects of a product can help it to stand out from its competitors. In terms of user interface, giving a clear idea of what you offer right away, while getting your users on board as soon as possible, can lead to an instant response. 

Branding plays a huge role at this level, as your set of values and the beliefs which make you different from your competitors also encourage your users to connect to you emotionally. Impressions at this level are unconscious, and because beauty is subjective, the success of design at this level involves in-depth research of the market and target audience. 

2. Behavioral Level

The behavioral level refers essentially to what we’re used to knowing as usability in general. UX focus mostly on this level: the user experience, the practical and functional aspects of a product or system. It’s essential because if a user is unable to use something effectively, then nothing else matters. 

The impact at this level can be easily measured with user testing. Good user experience should allow users to accomplish their tasks and goals with minimum effort. The type of emotion targeted here is related to the feeling of being able to achieve or fail at something.

Negative experiences at a behavioral level can greatly impact both the visceral and reflective emotional experiences. Bad usability influences how we feel about a product and makes us disregard their aesthetic appeal (visceral) and ultimately affects our decision (reflective). Like visceral processing, the behavioral level is considered to be unconscious.

A user trying to order a pizzaA user trying to order a pizzaA user trying to order a pizza
All he wanted was a pizza

3. Reflective Level

This is the highest level in terms of emotional design and it takes into account the users’ conscious thoughts and their power of decision. It’s the only level that involves a conscious form of processing but is highly influenced by the other levels. At this point, the better emotional response the product has generated, the more likely it is for the user to form a connection with it and make a positive decision. 

Many commercial adverts focus on the reflective level exclusively, trying to target the users’ emotions, and disregarding completely the other levels (functionality, appearance of the actual product). The goal here is to establish some sort of emotional connection between the user and the product even before the product itself is revealed. Effective branding can play a huge role at this level as well. 


Our emotional state is greatly influenced by how we interact with the environment and systems, and this includes digital products and user interfaces. The term “happy users” is used generically, often forgetting that happiness means different things to different people. 

By defining your intended users and target audience from the very beginning, you will be able to conduct relevant research that will allow you to tap into what matters most for the success of your product: the emotional response of your users. 

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