The Personality Layer

“Oh hai Smashing Magazine!” That’s one of the dozen ways that Flickr welcomes its users upon signing in every time. It’s an easily overlooked detail, one that the service would work without flawlessly. Yet this detail is a big part of Flickr’s particular design character that would be missed if it wasn’t there.

Flickr says hi to its users.
This is how Flickr greets its users, changing the language upon every sign-in.

These easily overlooked details are the ones that I’m particularly interested in because of the reaction they are capable of causing in users. These details trigger an emotional response, and if used purposefully and fittingly, they will help to form a personality that people will respond to positively when interacting with the product.

This positive attitude will often lead to people sharing and even advocating for your product with their peers. This technique of connecting with users on a personal level is also referred to as “emotional design.”

A Little Theory

The term “emotional design” was defined by (among others) Aarron Walter. In his book Designing for Emotion, he describes emotional design by building on Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs, which posits that humans need to achieve elementary states of being, such as health and safety, before they can start thinking about higher-level needs, such as self-actualization. People who are seriously ill or lack safety would find it difficult to think about self-actualization as expressed, for example, in morality, creativity and problem-solving.

The Maslow Equation
Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs (left) and the hierarchy of emotional design (right). (Image: Aarron Walter)

According to this theory, a product has to be functional, reliable and usable (in that order) before a layer of pleasure can be applied. Emotional design, then, is the pleasurable layer that you put on top of a functional, reliable and usable product.

An effective emotional design strategy has two aspects:

  1. You create something unique that transcends your own style and that evokes a positive response in users;
  2. You consistently use that style until it becomes a body of work, a personality layer.

In this article, we will look at some strategies you can follow, as well as some examples found in the wild, plus a few projects in which the consistent use of emotional design results in a great personality.

To learn more about the theory of emotion in design, you might be interested in the article “Not Just Pretty: Building Emotion Into Your Websites.”

The Elements Of Emotional Design

The goal is to connect with users and evoke positive emotions. Positive emotions instill positive memories and make users want to interact with your product in the future.

There’s an additional benefit, though. In pleasant, positive situations, people are much more likely to tolerate minor difficulties and irrelevance. While poor design is never excusable, when people are relaxed, the pleasant and pleasurable aspects of a design will make them more forgiving of problems within the interface.

Below is a non-exhaustive list (based on personal observation) of ways to induce these positive emotions. Of course, people will respond to things differently depending on their background, knowledge, etc., but these psychological factors should work in general:

  • Positivity. See the article “What Are the Top 10 Positive Emotions.”
  • Surprise. Do something unexpected and new.
  • Uniqueness. Differ from other products in an interesting way.
  • Attention. Offer incentives, or offer help even if you’re not obliged to.
  • Attraction. We all like attractive people, so build an attractive product.
  • Anticipation. Leak something ahead of the launch.
  • Exclusivity. Offer something exclusive to a select group.
  • Be responsive. Show a reaction to your audience, especially when they’re not expecting it.


Have you shared something lately that you were excited about because it was different, lovely, surprising, attractive or appealing in some way? Have you built something like that? Let us know in the comments section below!

And if you’d like to learn even more about emotional design, here is a good list of further resources.


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