Chapter 5. Emotional Engagement – Designing for Emotion

Chapter 5. Emotional Engagement

As we’ve seen in Chapter 3, personality is a powerful way to engage your audience. It helps people understand who you are and shapes how they interact with you, while setting the tone for the voice, aesthetic, and interaction design of your site or product. It’s a foundational layer on which you can build. And in Chapter 4, we learned just how crucial it is to understand and empathize with the people you’re designing for.

Now we’re ready to layer moments of emotional engagement on top of that foundation, using the power of psychology to create positive, long-lasting memories of your brand in the minds of your audience.

Before we dive into emotional engagement, though, let’s first talk about timing, as knowing when to use emotional engagement is every bit as important as knowing how.

Designing Moments

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “customer journey?” It refers to the experience a user has with your site or product to reach an intended outcome, like completing a purchase or setting up an account. A customer journey can be more than just a session on your website. It can encompass many sessions online, across devices, or, if you have a brick and mortar store, in person too.

We’d like each step of the journey to be perfect for our customers, but if we’re honest with ourselves, there are peaks and valleys. You can see these for yourself, in fact, with a tool called a customer journey map (Fig 5.1). This map will help you identify when to use emotional engagement.

Fig 5.1: By mapping the customer journey, we can see points at which the experience is at its best and worst. When we use emotional engagement at just the right time, we can create a better experience.

Creating a customer journey map is a team-based activity that goes beyond what we can cover in detail here (though your personas from Chapter 3 will likely come in handy). I recommend this step-by-step guide from the folks at Atlassian to help you get organized (

The map’s peaks and valleys show the various high and low points of the customer experience, with the dotted horizontal line indicating baseline satisfaction and emotional neutrality. When you find valleys, you can take away the pain by improving usability and shortening time to task completion.

Generally, this is the worst time to introduce a witticism from your cheerful mascot, as people are operating within the lowest levels of the hierarchy of needs we saw in Chapter 1. They need functionality, reliability, and usability first and foremost. Do some research to find out what’s causing user frustration and make the necessary changes to mitigate it.

Now to those peaks. This is where great things happen, and when emotional engagement is most powerful.

To help you understand the opportunity, let’s talk about colonoscopies. Bet you didn’t see that one coming! Of course, most people don’t. (Rim shot!)

The Peak-end Rule

Back in the mid-1990s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky conducted a study with two groups of patients who had to undergo an uncomfortable colonoscopy procedure. Patients rated their pain during the procedure, which resulted in a graph not unlike the customer journey map we saw earlier.

For group A, the procedure lasted the standard amount of time, but for group B the procedure lasted an extra three minutes. During these last minutes, the scope remained unmoved, which caused discomfort, but wasn’t painful.

Afterwards, the doctors asked all patients how bad the procedure had felt to them. For group A, their memory of the procedure was far worse than for group B, even though their procedure was shorter.

Dr. Kahneman explains that our brains process events through what he calls “the experiencing self” and “the remembering self.” The experiencing self processes events in the moment, but not all of those events get committed to memory. Remember in Chapter 1, we talked about the limbic system that records emotional experiences in memory? It’s at work here. The remembering self is a storyteller that selectively recalls those memories.

As Dr Kahneman describes in his TED talk on his research (, video), “endings are very, very important.” The remembering self relies most heavily on the end moments. The last thing group A recalls is extreme pain. The last thing group B recalls is mild discomfort.

This is the peak-end rule. The peak at the end of an experience—whether it’s positive or negative—will disproportionately shape our memory of the whole experience.

Keeping this principle in mind, when possible, we should position peak experiences towards the end of the user journey to leave a lasting positive impression. It’s okay to have peak experiences elsewhere in the customer journey, of course, but mind the peak-end rule to achieve maximum impact.

Let’s take a look at a peak-end experience that has had a lasting impression on customers for many years.

A well-timed surprise: The Mailchimp high five

Back in 2005, when I was still a freelancer using Mailchimp to help my clients, I remember spending hours writing and designing emails in the product. When my work was complete, and I pressed “send” releasing thousands of emails to customers, I literally said out loud to myself, “It’s Miller time!”

It was a triumph, and I wanted to high-five someone.

So when I joined the company in 2008 and founders Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius gave me and my colleague Chad Morris the freedom to redesign the product, I wrote a bit of copy for the page the user sees after they send an email campaign: “High fives! Your email has been sent.”

Fast-forward a few years. The team had grown and we were redesigning the product once again. We took a close look at that page, recognizing this was where our customers felt most emotionally engaged. We wanted to deliver on our promise of a celebratory high five!

We used the principle of surprise to shape the moment. In Chapter 2, we learned that our brains scan for pattern breaks to identify contrasting visual and cognitive elements so that we can react appropriately. When we’re surprised, we’re experiencing a high-contrast situation in which something is not as we expected. A moment of surprise frames our attention, blurs peripheral elements, and brings the extraordinary into focus.

The illustration of Freddie’s hand offering a high five created a surprise moment that felt right to us, but we wanted to push it further. We spent the better part of a month animating Freddie’s arm and making it interactive so you could actually high five him (Fig 5.2).

Fig 5.2: The Mailchimp high five that customers experience after sending an email uses the peak-end rule to create an emotional response that customers have been tweeting about for years.

I remember thinking we were going way too far down the rabbit hole at the time—but it ended up being worth the effort. The Freddie high five launched resonated with people. Customers tweeted screenshots and videos of their hand hitting their computer screen. One guy high-fived his iMac so hard, he knocked it over and nearly broke it!

The response was so significant, we explored ways to expand the high-five moment. T-shirts, a video game, and a rainbow of foam Freddy hands later, what started as a peak moment of emotional engagement became an extension of our brand personality. (

The high five wasn’t conceived as a marketing gimmick, but after it spread like wildfire among Mailchimp customers, we learned a valuable lesson. Paying attention to peak experiences not only creates great experiences for customers; it’s also good for business.

You can find your high-five moment, too. Take a careful look at the experience you’re creating for customers and find the peak moments. Whether you use surprise as your strategy, or a more empathetic connection like that of the TurboTax example in Chapter 1, emotional engagement will be best received if you position it thoughtfully.

Now that we understand timing, let’s look at some engagement methods that you can fit into any part of the customer journey.

Fig 5.3: A high five can be even higher when you have a rainbow of Freddie hands.

Drawing People In

Tell a story

For thousands of generations, humans have used storytelling to create intense emotional engagement with one another. Stories can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions, and behaviors, inspire us—and change our brain chemistry.

A story that follows the traditional arc—with rising action, a climax, and a resolution—triggers two important neurotransmitters in our brains. The rising action of a story, which often includes conflict, causes our brains to release cortisol to focus our attention like a spotlight on concerning matters. Simultaneously, our brains release oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for care, connection, empathy, and coincidentally, narrative transportation. With our attention focused and our minds thinking empathically, we’re able to process the emotional experiences of others as if they were our own.

Two things result from the emotional transportation of a good story.

1. We process and recall information more effectively

In a 1969 study, Stanford professors Gordon Bower and Michal Clark discovered students were able to memorize and recall six to seven times more words when they organized the words into a story compared to when they made a random list (, PDF). Because stories shape emotions, and emotions in turn form long-term memory, stories are effective tools to help us understand and recall information.

2. Stories influence our actions

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak and his research team conducted a study on the effects powerful stories have on us. Researchers showed participants a short film about a two-year-old boy who doesn’t know he will die from a growing brain tumor in a few months and the emotional turmoil of his father who knows the truth.

Afterward, the research team gave the subjects of the study opportunities to donate some of the money they earned for participating in the study to a charity related to cancer. Nearly all of the subjects donated, and on average, gave half their earnings. Zak and the team were able to predict with 80 percent accuracy who would donate by measuring the amount of oxytocin in each subject’s blood (

Since stories cause the release of oxytocin, and oxytocin greatly influences us to take action, stories are an effective tool to call people to a cause.

Outside of a research environment, it may not always be obvious when you’re being drawn in by a story. But even subtle story placement can be quite effective at creating a genuine sense of connection. For example, you may know Patagonia as the company that makes quality clothing and gear for outdoor experiences, but that’s selling them short. They are a storytelling company.

Stories are fundamental to their mission and their products, promoting not just outdoor adventures for self-fulfillment but a broader sense of responsibility and stewardship for our planet. They produce documentary films to tell stories about threats to our wild spaces and wildlife, like Artifishal (Fig 5.4), which explores our disturbing influence on fish populations. They produce captivating content about the environment on their blog, The Cleanest Line (

Fig 5.4: Artifishal tells the story of the perils of losing wild salmon populations. Nothing about the film sells their products, but it resonates with their eco-conscious audience (

Films and articles are expensive to produce, yet none of these stories is about selling their products. Patagonia tells stories about their hopes for the world, building a strong connection with like-minded people whose loyalty to the company is invaluable.

Each of the stories Patagonia tells builds respect for their brand, creates emotional engagement, and drives people to take action.

Embrace transparency

In a time when companies obfuscate their terms and conditions in pages of legal jargon, and many companies hide their more questionable practices, it’s rare to find moments when a company is transparent about its struggles and shortcomings. When one does, the refreshing honesty can make a lasting impression that sets a business apart.

Stripe, whose business is online payment processing, has taken an admirably transparent approach to how they talk about their company and court talent. Examples of clear, direct copywriting and straightforward explanations abound throughout the site, and the Jobs page, in particular, includes an unusually candid discussion of what it’s like to work for the company.

While most companies would go no further than a mission statement on this kind of page, Stripe continues on to share some of the problems they’re confronting as a company, like a lack of people to staff great projects. They say something few tech companies admit: “We don’t have all the answers.” Most tech companies present themselves with hubris, as genius saviors who are making the world a better place. Stripe, by contrast, acknowledges their imperfections—and the vulnerability they show in this moment offers a natural point of emotional engagement that other tech companies competing for the same talent miss out on.

Perhaps the most compelling moment of transparency on this page comes further down, where they share the results of their biannual employee survey that shows obvious areas for improvement (Fig 5.5).

Fig 5.5: In a strong moment of transparency, Stripe publishes results of their biannual employee survey on their Jobs page, revealing the areas where they’re doing well and where they still need improvement.

Why would Stripe show all this in the area of their site where they’re trying to attract the best and brightest to their company? Simple: talented people interview with a lot of companies and recognize when something’s being covered up. With radical transparency, Stripe shows candidates that they are honest with employees and foster an environment where everyone can grow together.

By designing for transparency, Stripe strengthens their recruiting efforts and creates a culture of accountability that influences product design decisions which influence customer perceptions as well.

Present a challenge (and constant rewards)

If you’ve ever used Duolingo to learn a language, you know that it’s designed to be a bit addictive. Learning a new language requires memorization, lots of practice, and stamina to put in the time to achieve mastery. To help us succeed in our quest to learn new languages, Duolingo offers constant positive feedback, rewards, and a method that might seem counterproductive to learning: locked areas of their app (Fig 5.6).

Fig 5.6: Duolingo locks portions of their language courses until a user achieves mastery of prior units. The unlock moments in their app trigger a dopamine release in our brains to encourage us to keep learning.

“Unlocking” moments give us a little hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that motivates us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure once achieved. This builds a habit: the more we unlock, the more we want to push forward and do it again.

Duolingo want us to want to continue on our learning journey, so they lock portions until we’ve earned access. By breaking the learning process into discrete sections, they make an otherwise daunting task more approachable and challenge us to complete more units today than yesterday. With each unlock, we feel a sense of reinforcing pleasure that motivates us to keep learning.

There Is No Formula

There are so many ways to design moments of emotional resonance into the user experience, regardless of your line of business.

We always want to be conscious of the timing of emotional engagement. Just as I’m not keen to accept hugs before coffee in the mornings, we can’t expect to get positive reactions from our customers when we’re overly clever during the low points of the customer journey. Mind the hierarchy of needs. Ensure you’ve addressed functionality, reliability, and usability before you layer on emotional engagement.

The peak-end rule reminds us that timing plays a major role in shaping the memory of experiences. Use it to your advantage to find your high-five moment as Mailchimp has.

The experiences you design can tell stories that form memories and drive action; they can unlock exciting new things, motivate with challenges, and they can offer moments of honesty that make people feel like they’re talking with real human beings. No doubt you’ll find new ways to build moments, too.

The examples we saw in this chapter use emotional design to engage an audience in the best of times, but what do we do when people harbor mistrust of our brand, are fearful, or when we’ve made a mistake? In the next chapter, we’ll learn how to design for more difficult circumstances.