Why Emotions Matter in Design Thinking

Photo by athree23 at pixabay.com

Think about the last time you commented on, liked, or shared something on a social media account. Why did you do it? Your answer probably has something to do with emotions—the piece of content made you happy, sad, enraged, fit in with friends, be heard by others, stand out in the crowd. In other words, it made you FEEL something.

Emotions are the central force in the decision-making process. In fact, research has found that people with injuries in the area of the brain that connects emotion to rational thinking are incapable of making decisions. So, if you want to successfully use design thinking—a human-centered approach to problem-solving—then you must understand humans’ biggest motivator: emotion.

The power of feelings

Marketers and advertisers know emotions rule the world. They vigorously work to ensure their campaigns elicit feelings in consumers because feelings motivate actions, such as purchases, donations, or shares on social media. Take the video below, for example.

Nike is known for some of the best advertising out there. Who doesn’t know the slogan Just Do It? I’m not an athlete, but their Dream Crazier video makes me feel empowered as a woman because my need to be heard is met. By associating its brand with the movement for gender equality, Nike gains positive brand sentiment from me which in the future could influence me to buy or recommend one of their products. 

If this seems manipulative, well…it is. But it’s also naturally how human psychology works, and advertisers aren’t the only ones using it.

Horror movies manipulate you with sound in order to give you the experience of fear you expect from the genre. The composers and sound designers for these films know how to use science to make your heart race and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  

One famous example, the violin screeches in the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Pyscho (Eek, Eek, Eek, Eek, Eek), remind your brain of a distressed animal. Throughout human existence our brains have evolved to equate this type of sound with possible danger—an animal is being attacked in the forest by something that may also attack us—and trigger a fear response for our protection.

Emotional discovery

If you’ve watched a scary movie you probably had no idea this process was going on, you just knew you were afraid. We usually don’t think much about the emotions we feel from moment to moment and why they are happening. The emotional decision-making process is largely subconscious.

When asked about why they did or did not choose a product, users may give vague comments like, “I just like it,” or “It’s just not for me.” They may even give wrong answers. Typically, users are not misleading on purpose. They simply don’t know how to access the deeper emotional reasons behind their behaviors.

Design thinkers must know how to do the detective work to bring these emotional reasons into the conscious minds of users in order to successfully complete the first step of the design- thinking process: empathizing with the user. Only by understanding these psychological facets can you understand a product’s problem. Without the correct identification of the core problem, the design thinking process will not produce a good solution.

A helpful approach to identify and unpack users’ feelings is to use the structure below. 

A product, service, or devices makes me feel blank because my need for blank was or was not being met.

I tried this exercise on myself in relation to one product, one service, and one device I use often. Although I intuitively knew how I felt about these things, putting my feelings into words, and figuring out why I felt the way I did was surprisingly difficult.

So, I recommend using one or more of the pre-made lists of feelings and needs available online to help you through the brain block. These lists made me feel focused and confident because my need for guidance when crafting my 3 examples below was being met.

Product: My Cuddl Duds Heated Blanket

Photo by Katrina_S at pixabay.com

Using my heated blanket makes me feel tranquil and appreciative because my need for warmth, rest, and rejuvenation are being met.

I tend to hold a lot of tension in my body which combined with cold weather can leave me sore and unsettled. Regular blankets made me feel dissatisfied because my muscles’ need for warmth was not being met. The only things that worked to relax me were long, hot showers. Using so much water every day, though, made me feel guilty because my need for environmental responsibility was not being met.

My heated blanket keeps me consistently warm and my muscles just melt into relaxation whenever I turn it on. The more relaxed my body is the more peaceful my mind is. Knowing that I have a green energy source for my home’s electric relieves any guilt from using it. With my heated blanket, I can also indulge in self-care at the same time as taking care of responsibilities such as homework and paying bills. This combination can be hard to produce so, I’m thankful to have found a product that provides it.

Service: My Local, Public Library

Photo by StockSnap at pixabay.com

Visiting my local, public library makes me feel stimulated and connected because my need for discovery, learning, and community are being met.

My local library is always alive with activity and the prospect of adventure. I can pay a visit to check out a specific book, then find my attention caught by the title of a book one shelf down. I can wander the stacks and decide to learn to cook Indian food or take up knitting.

Amazon recommendations for books make me feel bored and limited because my need for growth and inspiration are not being met. Amazon bases its suggestions on my previous actions so the flavor of what I’m offered feels repetitive. Physically being in a library exposed to a building of books allows me to find unexpected interests

The experience is also warm and welcoming. I truly feel in touch with my town when I am there. The bulletins boards are often the place I find out about local events and services such as museum passes and bike lock checkouts encourage me to get involved outside my house. Most importantly the librarians make my library a community gathering space.

At one table an older man can be putting a puzzle together. At another, someone with an old laptop can be doing research. Kids can be seen doing arts and crafts or participating in after-school clubs while volunteers are holding a book sale. There is no judgment no matter your background, what you’re interested in, or how long you stay. It’s refreshing to find a public space where I am left to linger.

Device: My Roku

My Roku remote

Using my Roku makes me feel pleased and understood because my need for choice, ease, and joy are being met.

I love to watch TV. I’m the kind of person who becomes obsessed with a certain series and binge watches it straight through. But I don’t have cable. Like many others in the age of the streaming wars, my boyfriend and I combined subscribe to 6 streaming services. Before getting the Roku, we had to use a laptop in order to watch anything.

Viewing on a laptop made me feel annoyed because my need for convenience and comfort were not being met. Laptop screens are small. So, I usually had to have the computer on my lap or in bed with me. While trying to curl up and watch something at night the laptop had to be weirdly positioned or angled. Because of this, a number of times it either fell on the floor or on someone’s head.

If I wanted to watch anything on a bigger screen, I had to plug a laptop into my TV with an HDMI cable. When watching this way, we had to get up to change shows or answer when one of our streaming services asked if we were still watching after a lack of activity. It also made it difficult to watch TV when we needed to use our laptops for any other reason.

My Roku now allows me to use my TV to view everything and has links to all our streaming services on one centralized, easy to navigate dashboard. The remote even has specialized buttons to directly open Netflix and Hulu. I am also able to throw content from my phone to the Roku in order to view it on a bigger screen or use the speakers on my TV to play music on Spotify during a party or while I’m cooking in the kitchen.

I can now sit on my couch or lay in bed, push the On button and fulfill my love of TV with very little effort.


As you can see, you can have deep and complex feelings about anything, even inanimate objects, without realizing it. Behaviors are easy to identify and talk about, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Emotions are hidden deep under the murky water constantly shaping and guiding our decisions. Identifying emotions in order to understand users is one of the biggest challenges in the design thinking process.

Doing this exercise made me understand how difficult it can be to weed out accurate insights on even my own emotional motivations. Part of being a design thinker is possessing emotional intelligence. A great way to build this intelligence is to practice on yourself. So, the next time you go to use a favorite product or like something on social media, try this exercise to better understand the motivations behind those choices. 


Chierotti, L. (2018, March 26). Harvard professor says 95% of purchasing decisions are subconscious. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/logan-chierotti/harvard-professor-says-95-of-purchasing-decisions-are-subconscious.html

Lofgren, L. (2019, April 18). The power of emotional marketing. Quick Sprout. Retrieved from https://www.quicksprout.com/emotional-marketing/

Murray, P. N. (2013, February 26). How emotions influence what we buy. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inside-the-consumer-mind/201302/how-emotions-influence-what-we-buy

Smilovitz, S. (2020, January 5). Emotional marketing examples scientifically proven to sway buyers. Instapage. Retrieved from https://instapage.com/blog/emotional-marketing

Tunikova, O. (2018, February 18). The hidden link between emotional intelligence and marketing manipulation. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@tunikova_k/the-hidden-link-between-emotional-intelligence-and-marketing-manipulation-2c19115840ca

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s