Building Interfaces: How Emotion Rules Decisions

Dmitry wrote this on November 09, 2011 in , . It has 7 comments.

Dale Carnegie, the renowned author of "How to Win Friends and Influence People," said in his other book, "Public Speaking for Success":

When dealing with people, remember, you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.

Numerous studies have highlighted that emotion rules our brains' decisions, yet so many companies seem to disregard this finding when designing their user interfaces. In order to understand why companies should include emotion in their user interfaces, let's delve into how emotion impacts our decisions.

Emotions are Powerful Memory Makers

Emotions attached to a significant event are extremely powerful memory makers. Just think about some of what your remember:

  • Do you remember first time you drove a car?
  • Do you remember where you were on 9/11?
  • Do you remember when someone close to you passed away? Was born? Graduated?

Now try to remember what you had for lunch 4 days ago. How about the color of socks you wore 3 days ago? Why is it that we have such vivid memories of some events that happened a long time ago but don't remember an event that happened a few days ago. The answer: emotion. James McGaugh wrote a great book, titled "Making of Lasting Memories," where he describes emotion as the scientifically documented reason for lasting memories. Let's take this a step further and look at how emotions and lasting memories drive decisions.

Emotions Drive Decisions

Back in 2006, Dr. De Martino asked 20 men and women to undergo brain scans while being asked to gamble with $95. When told the people would keep 40% of their money of they didn't gamble the 20 volunteers decided to gamble 43% of the time. When told they people would lose 60% of their money the volunteers decided to gamble 62% of the time. The odds of winning were identical and explained to them in both cases. When the scans were examined it was uncovered that fear prompted the volunteers to act a certain way:

The brain images revealed the amygdala, a neural region that processes strong negative emotions such as fear, fired up vigorously in response to each two-second (on average) gambling decision. Where people resisted the framing effect, a brain region connected to positive emotions such as empathy, and another that activates whenever people face choices, lit up as well, seeming to duke it out over the decision.

You can see how emotions impact decisions from the example above. The problem is that the majority of products online do not use this to their advantage. There are many great examples of companies embracing emotion and character in their user interface. Let's look at some of these examples.

Examples of Fun Moments in User Interfaces


This is a funny example, but very memorable. When you preview your email in MailChimp don't stretch the browser too wide or you'll rip the chimp's arm off!


This is a fun example; a very small detail, but again very memorable. Notice what happens when you enter your name as you complete the checkout process — a cute little robot greets you:

Facebook Pirate Language

Facebook introduced a fun new language called 'pirate language' a few years back. Check out one of the user's excitement over the feature.

These details seem very small, yet they are responsible for the powerful emotions we experience as users. As mentioned above, these very emotions are guide us when making decisions about whether to use a particular product or buying something online. It's our job as designers to show personality and emotion through our user interfaces. We'll leave you with a quote from Kevin Hale, the founder of Wufoo, a company that has taken a very boring and uniform product and made it fun and exciting:

The inspiration for our color palette did come from our competitors. It was really depressing to see so much software designed to remind people they're making databases in a windowless office and so we immediately knew we wanted to go in the opposite direction. My goal was to design Wufoo to feel like something Fisher-Price would make. We were determined to make sure Wufoo was fun!

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