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Perception Strategy: The Emotional Side of User Experience

This is part one of John Schneider's examination of the emotions and behaviors driving user experience. Read part two.

What makes a good experience?

Is a good experience simply about task completion? Okay, that was rhetorical. Tasks are quantifiable and easy to measure via a usability test, but does completing a series of tasks yield a good design? Is that enough feedback? Okay, also rhetorical. Clearly, I don’t think so.

What else should we be thinking about when designing user experiences? How should we think about the pages we’re creating? Having a good navigation strategy and making links between information intuitive are important, no doubt. Creating a solid visual hierarchy within pages is key, as well. But how often are we consciously focusing on the subtleties of a user’s emotions, and how the user perceives and responds to the information we present?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that part of design is about understanding and acknowledging the emotional and psychological quirks of human nature. I don’t think that we focus on it enough. Many of the decisions made about a project are the result of a verbal or written exchange between parties. By its very nature, it’s a rational, logical engagement. The part that is underemphasized (or not acknowledged at all) is the emotional aspect. And when you get down to it, using a website isn’t a purely transactional exchange. It’s an experience, a mix of rational and emotional factors.

How we respond to information

The way we interact and respond to information depends on many things: our goals about what we want to do with that information, the nature of the information, the context we find ourselves engaging with it, etc. Throughout these interactions is a continual dance between the rational and emotional.

Our rational selves ask questions like, “What does this do?”, “What are the features?”, or “Can I download it?” This is our practical side that wants to get things done and accomplish tasks. It is the side we seem to focus on, which makes sense since people do, in fact, need to get things done and we can help them do just that. Plus, we can measure it via usability testing.

But what about when there’s not a strong motivation to get things done, or someone needs convincing? Or maybe they do need to get something done but they’re put off or just not encouraged by the presentation of the information? That’s when we need to speak to the emotions.

Our emotional selves don’t ask questions, but instead filter actions through an emotional lens. Our emotions provide the impetus for our action or inaction. We first react, then act, formulating ad hoc rationales for either engaging in or avoiding something. It’s our job to anticipate and help guide the emotional engines of our users and direct them accordingly to either things they need or things we would like them to do or at least consider.

It’s all about content, right?

Maybe you don’t need to put too much thought into how to engage someone who wants to download a pdf, but perhaps you do when it comes to something like signing up or donating. It’s not necessarily about just making the task easy or intuitive, but about motivating the user to act (think campaigns). To do this, the focus can’t just be on content, but also about how that content is perceived.

Information is not neutral. The different forms it takes changes the way we perceive and interact with it. This could mean anything from the order in which it’s presented, to the medium (e.g. video vs. text), to the choice of words. Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate the point.

Font Choices

Take the example of legal briefs. They have traditionally been written using Times New Roman font, which lends itself to speed reading. The information in legal briefs could have easily been rendered using any font (Comic sans?), but a conscious choice was made to use Times New Roman because someone understood the effect that font has on the speed of reading.

Word Choices

 Read these two sentences:

  • How fast was the car going when it hit the other car?
  • How fast was the car going when it smashed into the other car?

Which car do you feel was traveling faster? The choice of words can have a major impact on how something is perceived.

Sequence Choices

Notice how the order of asking questions changes how they are perceived.

Sequence #1

  1. How happy are you?
  2. How often are you dating?

Sequence #2

  1. How often are you dating?
  2. How happy are you?

The second sequence more strongly suggests that there is a high correlation between dating and happiness than the first. 

So, it’s not just about the content, but also about how we choose to present the content and how that information is perceived by our audiences. Much of that perception has to do with memories and experiences, as well as innate psychological idiosyncrasies that, if understood, can be used to shape and influence the experience.


Our industry often references this popular aphorism, “People won’t remember what you say or what you do, but they’ll remember how you make them feel.” If our goal truly is to create user experiences, then we need to focus more on the emotional, psychological layers of our work.

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the underlying psychological principles as well as frameworks that can help focus your designs.