Emotional Design for Higher Conversions

Knowing how to create an emotionally compelling site that draws in users by understanding their personalities and psychology can increase your revenue drastically.

Understanding Emotional Design

In order to understand the customer journey to your website, you have to learn a bit of biology.

The biology

Neurotransmitters can help us understand how design triggers emotion in the human brain. There are two hormones released when we experience emotions:

  • Dopamine: this is released when experiencing positive emotions. It’s frequently triggered on anticipation of reward. It gives people energy, gets people feeling curious, and inspires movement toward a goal. Overall, it’s an energizer.
  • Cortisol: this is released when experiencing negative emotions. Controlled by your sympathetic nervous systems, it’s produced when you experience stress. Mostly, it inspires threat avoidance.

(Note: A third hormone, serotonin, has a role in learned associations, but that topic is for another day.)

Key concepts

The first step to understanding emotional website design is best expressed by Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi“Reason leads to conclusions, emotion leads to action.”

The trick is to assume that everyone acts in their best interests. People do things that make them feel proud and that help them avoid embarrassment. Reason is not a guidepost.

This suggests people are much more likely to make a purchase based off of emotion rather than cost-benefit analysis. In behavior science, though, the motivation is much less of the focus.

Most of the time, you don’t need to know a customer’s motivation; you just need to know what works from real-world examples.

What are core motivators?

In 1943, Abraham Maslow’s released a Psychological Review paper that introduced a pyramid-shaped model for the hierarchical nature of human motivation.

Maslow’s pyramid is still popular with a number of industry professionals, but behavioral scientists don’t take it that seriously, and it’s been controversial for years, with many proponents and critics too.

Against this backdrop, a team of evolutionary psychologists took a closer look, and proposed an updated version, which we’ll call the “Pyramid of Needs,” as an updated model, that better reflects today’s knowledge of the brain’s motivational and emotional neural circuitry.

What each level means

The Lower Levels

  • Physiological: when a person feels the need to survive; the most basic instinct.
  • Self-protection: when a person desires safety and security. Threat avoidance is dominant here, but no more.
  • Social affiliation: when a person has the urge to connect with people. It’s very easy to motivate people to do this. Trigger emotions like abandonment and rejection occur when there’s a threat, and can be spur people to immediate action.

The Higher Levels

  • Status and self-esteem: when a person craves respect and usefulness. People can feel degraded, unimportant, and depressive if they aren’t fulfilled at this juncture. (Self-actualization has been absorbed into this category.)
  • Sex: when a person desires mating/reproduction.
  • Love/Pair Bonding: when a person needs love and/or commitment.
  • Parenting: when a person feels the urge to bear (and hopefully rear) children.

You need to appeal to at least one of these needs, and often a combination, in order to convince a person to buy from you.

The motivation to buy

What are common motivations for customers purchasing a product? Loss aversion, group rejection, and social norms and pressure.

It’s important to know that most tactics don’t only use one emotion. One tactic is to offer an incentive (they’ll get a reward, or one of their core needs is going to be met) and present a loss (they’re going rejected from a group or lose status) if they don’t buy your product

So, how can you apply this knowledge to get people to buy your product?

#1 Emotional Triggers

Emotion is what happens when the mind prepares the body for action, and express the changes through our facial expressions, body language, voice, and more. It can help us deal with a threat or an opportunity.

An emotional trigger is an idea or image that evokes that emotion based on our past associations. Tactics appealing to these emotions typically work best.

#2 Schema

Schemas are the network structures the brain uses to remember and encode information. They classify events, which trigger the appropriate emotional response.

These are formed from prior experiences and shape interpretations of UI elements and UX. Concepts learned in one part of a consumer’s life aid their comprehension in another. Neural schemas correlate to hierarchies, and the way the brain encodes memories is the same way it encodes those hierarchies.

Certain symbols and words will trigger emotional reactions habitual behaviors based on past experiences.

Schema are very hard to control, and act independently of your willed, conscious awarenesses. However, using cognitive appraisal, we can learn to better manipulate this reaction.

Example: Compliments

Let’s take a compliment, like “You’re amazing!” How does this make you feel?

Most people react positively to this (though some people might have more distrustful personalities and react suspiciously). A compliment like the above has been positively reinforced our whole life, and theoretically makes most of us feel good.

What does this mean for website design?

The challenge is to build website on categories people already understand. When consumers have a pre-existing schema for the topic, people learn faster.

So in order to attract and retain traffic, your website needs to anticipate their schema.

The buyer’s emotional journey

The buyer’s emotional journey starts at the trigger event, as shown above, and goes through sense perception and schemas before the user even reacts.

Based on this response, the reader may have an impulsive behavior, which they then appraise. Once they evaluate their emotion and reaction, a deliberate action will be taken. (For our purposes, the deliberate action would be purchasing your product or service.)

Emotional states before purchasing

If we have to appeal to these needs and feelings, how do we know what someone is feeling when they’re looking at website or product? We don’t.

However, there are some emotional map guidelines in the graph below that cover most of the emotional states of potential buyers.

Here’s a walk-through

  • High energy emotional states are above the horizontal line, or x-axis. Customers above this line to the right are excited, and feel anticipation of a reward.
  • Low energy emotional states are below the x-axis, lower left. Customers tend to feel unempowered, degraded, and in a depressive state.
  • To the right of the vertical line, or y-axis, are positive emotions.
  • To the left of the y-axis are negative emotions.

Each quadrant needs to be marketed to differently.

Now that we understand the graph, where do we want to be?

  • Marketers generally want to target those customers whose emotions are mostly in the upper right-hand quadrant; they’re motivated to take action.
  • Customers in the upper left quadrant can be motivated too, however; the trick is to promise to remove or solve something negative in their life.

Where don’t we want our marketing efforts to be?

  • Marketers try to avoid customer who fall in the bottom left quadrant, mostly because in order to get your low motivation, highly content customer to take action, you have to promise to give them something bad. This can be alienating.
  • To motivate customers in the bottom right, your marketing should promise to take away something good.

Why does personality matter?

Personality is a person’s emotional and cognitive disposition. It’s about 50% based on genetics. Emotions can hijack our minds, and it’s important to understand a user’s personality so as not to trigger the wrong one when attempting to sell your product or services.

Personality-targeted design

Historically, a lot of personality-based audience research throughout the 20th century was based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Assessment (MBTI), which released in 1944 by mother-daughter team Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Myer.

Much of the test is based on a Jungian theory that people see the world through 4 lenses: sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking. (Carl Jung based many of his ideas off of Freud’s research as well.) The test The test has been replaced by newer psychological models, such as the Big Five personality traits.

What’s wrong with the MBTI?

The MBTI has been used frequently in the business world. Forbes estimated that about 80% of Fortune 500 companies have used the test at one point or another However, researchers are finding it to be increasingly unreliable.

Adam Grant, Ph.D., Psychology Today

“[…] I am an INTJ. That’s what I learned from a wildly popular personality test. […] When I took the test a few months later, I was an ESFP. Suddenly, I had become the life of the party, the guy who follows his heart and throws caution to the wind. Had my personality changed, or is this test not all it’s cracked up to be?

I began to read through the evidence, and I found that the MBTI is about as useful as a polygraph for detecting lies. One researcher even called it an ‘act of irresponsible armchair philosophy.’

When it comes to accuracy, if you put a horoscope on one end and a heart monitor on the other, the MBTI falls about halfway in between.”

So, if not MBTI, what’s more accurate?

There’s a more complete way to look at personality than MBTI. In this test, There are three categories with two choices:

  • Anchor (A) and Seeker (S)
  • Feeler (F) and Thinker (T)
  • Lower reactive (-) and higher reactive (+)

Using this this test, the user can pick which end of the spectrum they are closer to in each category using this test based on the descriptions and get a letter combination.

Let’s say my result was Seeker, Feeler, Higher Reactive, or “SF+.”

On this graph below, my letter combination would be in the upper right-hand quadrant, telling me that my personality is “non-traditional, risk-taking, routine-avoiding, and energetic.”

Why is it important to know your own personality type?

In short: knowing your blind spots. So here’s the question: if you fit firmly into one niche, how can you market to someone who is in another, potentially complete opposite, one?

The easiest thing to do is seek out people who’ll write better for your target audience because their personality is more similar to their audience’s.

But ultimately, you’ll have to market to many varying personalities.

Marketing to many personalities

The trick is to use both negative and positive emotions. The only tactic we really want to avoid here is entirely negative messaging.

There are various combinations of how to do this

  • Loss aversion: combine a negative message (something is wrong) with an optimistic or advocacy message (what the user can do about it).
  • Create mystery to arouse curiosity and trigger dopamine.
  • Use gratitude and compliments, followed by a request or call to action.


Avoid overly negative messaging. Insulting or degrading messages when someone isn’t interested in your product or service can alienate customers and cut off your chance at reclaiming them in the future. It’s crucial that your efforts don’t backfire.

As CXL Founder Peep Laja notes:

It’s annoying when a website (or anyone for that matter) tells you what you should feel. Especially when you’re not feeling the feeling the website is telling you to feel. Don’t do it.

You can guide the user, you can make your site easy to use – but you shouldn’t assume how the users feel. If the visitor uses your site and thinks “Boy, this is easy!” – great! But you shouldn’t make that statement, the user should.

Don’t assume how people feel about using your site. Making statements like “Wasn’t this simple!?” doesn’t make them change their mind if it wasn’t (nor happy when it was). You will just look arrogant and presumptuous.

You don’t control how users feel about the site.

People’s feelings and opinions are not up to you. Yes, you can influence both and facilitate them feeling a certain way, but in the end it’s not in your control. Hence, don’t make any assumptions about how they feel. And certainly don’t put it in words on your website.

Unfortunately, many websites do this. Make sure yours is not one of them.

The future of emotional design

Our digital footprint will provide a signal tied to the user’s neurological predisposition, telling you what drives each user and/or audience. However, the art and science of conversion will remain the same, as everyone will be using the same tools.


Emotional design is the use of psychology and emotional triggers to influence the design and copy of your site.

  • People are motivated by omultiple needs, which come in incentives and loss-aversion.
  • They are driven to purchase by specific emotional triggers and neural schema.
  • Knowing the personality, needs, and emotional triggers of your customer before they buy from you will help inform your persuasion tactics.
  • Personality-targeted design is one of the best ways to market to your target audience.

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Join the conversation Add your comment

  1. Thank you so much for writing this, It’s amazing.
    How can I implement emotional design into my webpage design?

  2. There are several ways. But this article is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Here are a few: We fuse the pyramid of needs model with behaviorism, to build motivational content, through either incentives and loss-aversion, which are easily translated into value props, benefit statements, micro-motivators, and several other communication vehicles.

    The emotion map is only a high level overview. But in a nutshell, it lays out high motivators, pressure tactics, user loyalty, and helpless states which we should avoid. Then we use the tools for audits, scanning for psychological backfires, and design strategy, plus complex emotional transitions from one emotion to another, such as strategies to move someone who’s content, to a discontent state, before you can incentive them with something better (that they would have rejected had they remained in a contented state).

    The personalty tools is good for targeting, and developing empathy for users’ dispositions. But it’s best value is for us, the communicators, for seeing our own blind spots, and better understanding how to engage others by being aware of differences between our perceptions, values, preferences and those of our audience.

    We’re sometimes our own worst enemy, bringing our biases to our communications, so I find personalty tools help people see past their own disposition, and allows them to better decide on what’s optimal for the audience, without imposing their own biases. Of course, personality targeting messaging is ideal, but it’s difficult for most companies to pull off, so I tend to focus on empathy applications, and of course, our own automated personality assessment tech which is one application I’m working on, but for now, I primarily use these tools to help digital media pros get past their biases, and become truly user-centered.

  3. Hey, This is the best blogs I’ve read in last couple of months, Keep publishing…

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Emotional Design for Higher Conversions