In UX, ‘Functional’ Doesn’t Cut It; Experiences Need to Be Emotional

A while ago, I noticed a post on Twitter that said, “a user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not very good”. Now, that’s obviously true; if your users have to spend their valuable time figuring out what your website (for example) is trying to tell or sell them or how the interface works – it’s (probably) not very good.

But in terms of user experiences, it’s no longer enough to just be usable; products, sites and services have to be enjoyable – people have to want to use them for them to be a success.

Technology has moved from the realm of being functional to emotional. And whilst it’s hard to quantify exactly what makes an experience emotional – this is often an unconscious reaction that we can’t control – all experiences should aim to build some kind of emotional connection with the user.

So, how can we shape our designs with this in mind?

The Three Levels of Processing Emotion

Don Norman’s ‘Three Levels of Design’ (from his ground-breaking book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things) puts forth the idea that humans have three processing “levels” that an experience needs to impact if the aim is to elicit an emotional reaction:


The initial impact of interacting with the product [etc]. This is perhaps the most superficial of the three; this impact is mostly unconscious and based largely on the “look and feel” of the design. This includes design attributes such as the texture and material (if it’s a physical object), the colours used, and so on.

You’ll have an immediate, visceral reaction to the products in this photo – though you won’t necessarily know why!


This level deals with how satisfactory the experience is; how easy it is to accomplish a task. Going back to the joke I referenced at the start of the post, if users can’t, well, use your product, they can’t establish a connection with it and, therefore, won’t be satisfied by the experience (if you run an app-based shop with no items available to purchase, you can’t expect users to feel satisfied).


This is the most conscious level of design. As the name suggests, this design ‘level’ seeks to make the user reflect on who they are – and what using that particular product says about them. It’s a predictable example to use, but Apple has mastered this kind of design: whether it’s an iPod, iPad or Apple Watch, users feel that their choice of product is a reflection of them.

Ultimately, to elicit an emotional response from the user, a product needs to appeal to a human’s visceral, behavioural and reflective processing modes. If it lacks even one, the experience won’t surpass being simply “usable”.


The Customer Satisfaction Model

An alternative viewpoint is Kano’s Customer Satisfaction Model. Like Norman’s, it also breaks down the creation of an emotional experience into three key attributes, however, Kano’s emphasis is more on the product than the user:

Basic Attributes

The functional elements. These are expected by the user; even if they are done well, they are unlikely to make a user feel more than neutral, but without them, the product wouldn’t work at all.

Satisfiers / Performance Needs

Attributes of a product that satisfies the user when present, and make the user feel dissatisfied when not. Whilst these attributes can be functional, they are not solely functional. For example, TVs don’t need to be ‘smart’ (internet connected) to function, but most people wouldn’t feel satisfied with a TV that wasn’t a ‘smart’.


These are touches that, crucially, are unexpected by users but appreciated when implemented (no dissatisfaction is caused if they aren’t implemented). Delighters often come in the form of smaller design elements; things like amusing micro-copy or animations.

Even though this illustration is part of an iPod ‘error’ message, it’s a nice touch that makes a bad situation a little bit better

Because its focus is on the product, Kano’s model is less ‘static’ than Norman’s; for example, a delighter can quickly become a satisfier (or even a ‘basic attribute’) if implemented often enough. Kano also argues that to even be considered a “minimum viable product”, a product must contain some satisfiers and some delighters – if it doesn’t, users won’t enjoy using it and will find an alternative.

Designing for emotion isn’t easy, but hopefully, the models above will give you a good framework to start with! And if you need any more information, get in touch – we’re happy to help.

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We are psychologists, interaction and design experts, researchers, usability specialists. We cover Web, software, mobile, print, service design and more.
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