Chapter 7. The Business of Emotional Design – Designing for Emotion

Chapter 7. The Business of Emotional Design

Now that you’ve learned the principles of emotional design and seen them applied with many familiar brands to great effect, you may be excited to put these methodologies into practice in your own work. But some of your colleagues may push back, perhaps unsure how it could be folded into your process, or unaware of the value emotional design brings to the user experience (and ultimately to companies).

In this chapter, I’ll share a model to guide how emotional design can fit into a fast-paced release schedule. I’ll also share some examples of emotional design that have created quantitative business outcomes like market adoption rate, company valuation, and capital invested. Having examples on hand will help you start conversations in your company about the value of emotional design.

You know how emotional design works. Now let’s bring your colleagues on board so you can put it into practice together.

Bringing Emotional Design into Your Process

It’s better to build something that a small number of users love, than a large number of users like.

Sam Altman, Y Combinator Chairman 

I’ve worked in and led many types of teams in agencies, in product companies, and in marketing organizations. Though the type of work varied, one thing didn’t: there’s always a sense of urgency to produce and ship as quickly as possible.

Speed is sacred, especially in teams following the popular Agile methodology for software development ( In software, we optimize for speed so we can find product-market fit. Will our customers like this? Does this solve their problems?

If Agile is the law of the land in your company, as you talk to your colleagues about bringing emotional design into your process you may hear, “That sounds nice, but we can add that after we build our MVP.” Sound familiar?

An MVP is the “minimum viable product,” or the simplest thing you could make that would let you get to market quickly to test your product with real customers.

Engineers and executives have promised me a hundred times that we’ll return to our emotional design ideas after we ship our MVP, but it almost never happens, as urgent tasks surface in each new iteration. This happens because there’s a flaw in our thinking about MVPs and what they should include.

In Chapter 1, I shared a model of the hierarchy of user needs. Our customers need functional, reliable, and usable products, but to create extraordinary experiences that create sustained business value—like those you’ll see later in this chapter—we need to also design for emotional engagement.

When creating an MVP of a site or product, the common approach is to focus on the bottom three layers of the pyramid: functionality, reliability, and usability. (In many cases, usability isn’t even a high priority in MVPs). Rushing to market and coming back later to add emotional engagement is a flawed approach, as it squanders the first impressions your customers have of your product. If their experience isn’t great the first time, they’re not coming back.

When we download an app to our phone and use it for the first time, we’ll delete it if the experience is poor. It’s rare to download the same app again for a second try. The same is true of almost anything on the web. If you don’t nail your first impression, you’re going to see very high churn rates.

That’s why emotional design shouldn’t be treated as a layer of the experience to add after you’ve gone to market. It should be integrated in manageable pieces with every iteration.

After reading the first edition of this book, Australian designer Jussi Pasanen created a clever modification of the hierarchy of needs diagram to help us reframe the way we think about MVPs and emotional design in an Agile process (Fig 7.1).

Fig 7.1: MVPs should be a vertical slice of the hierarchy of user needs, not limited to basic functionality (Diagram by Jussi Pasanen,

Each layer of the hierarchy—functionality, reliability, usability, and emotional design—should be included in every iteration of a product, even the MVP. With this approach we can still go to market quickly, but with products that people will actually want to use.

So how might we design for emotion in a sprint to build an MVP? Here’s an uncomplicated process that uses the tools from this book and won’t compromise your speed.

  • Step one: Consider the emotional needs of the customer. Are they first encountering your product with hesitations that could prevent their purchase, as we saw with 23andMe? Is inspiring trust important, as was true with Wealthsimple? Be scrappy and talk to a handful of potential users, then make an empathy map (see Chapter 4) to understand the emotions you’re designing for.
  • Step two: Map the customer journey—the steps they’ll go through to use your product. Consider where they might experience friction and where they might have a peak moment. Rapid prototyping and testing with users will help you see the customer journey more clearly and inform what you’ll build.
  • Step three: Design one peak moment in your MVP in the most critical part of the customer journey. Remember the peak-end rule (Chapter 3)—your moment will have maximum power if positioned at the end of an important step in the customer journey.
  • Step four: Consider how you might measure the impact of your peak moment. Metrics could include mentions on social platforms, customer support tickets, return sessions, time in product, customer retention, or task completion. Find the right metrics for your situation and monitor them carefully after launch. This data can help you illustrate to colleagues the role emotional design plays in your strategy.

It’s as straightforward as that. If you have the time to create a design persona in the early stages of your product, great, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Designing peak moments are a great place to start.

These steps are lean enough to fit into any Agile sprint and shouldn’t bloat your design process. If you and your team are in the habit of running quick design sprints, you’ll find it easy to fold these steps into your process. They’re not a huge time investment, either, so if you’re the only designer on a cross-functional team, you can certainly go through each of these steps on your own.

Don’t ask anyone for permission. Act like the expert you are and follow the process you know is essential to delivering the best design.

Step four of the above process is worth further mention because part of acting like a professional is knowing how your work helps your business succeed. Communicate regularly with colleagues about the value your work creates. If you can learn to think and speak about design not just in qualitative language (“the five customers we interviewed found our onboarding process much easier to follow”), but in terms of business outcomes (“we improved customer adoption by 22 percent”), your career trajectory will dramatically improve.

Knowing how emotional design has created real value for other companies is also helpful. Having a few case studies to reference in conversations with skeptics will help you bridge emotional design to something all your colleagues can understand: the success of a business.

Speaking to the Business Value of Emotional Design

We designers often make decisions based on our strong value system. We strive to design with a user-centric approach. We want to create things that are both usable and beautiful. We want our designs to work as a system across screens, devices, and channels to create an elegant, consistent user experience.

These values are largely qualitative. They’re squishy, hard to measure, but important. Our colleagues in engineering, product, marketing, sales, and executives with whom we partner daily think differently. Their values tend to be more quantitative and measurable. They want to track things like time to market, churn, adoption rate, company valuation, and Net Promoter Score.

These two ways of thinking aren’t contradictory but complementary. As such, whether the value system that guides our thinking is largely qualitative or quantitative, we’re better off if we’re able to speak about our work from both perspectives.

We’ve already seen some compelling stories of how emotional design played a major role in big business outcomes. Let’s revisit a few, but through the lens of business goals.

Category creation: Emotional design helped Headspace do something extremely difficult. They successfully defined a new meditation and mindfulness product category and attracted millions of users.

Customer acquisition and retention: Wealthsimple acquired customers by using emotional design to inspire trust in their platform, and they retain customers by mitigating fears that could cause investors to sell their holdings and close their accounts.

Session length and return rate: Duolingo created a sticky learning experience that uses rewards and unlock moments to increase the length of learning sessions and brings users back for new sessions.

Growth and market reach: Mailchimp differentiated itself in a crowded market by building a brand with a personality that attracts 14,000 customers to sign up every day ( Their high-five moment inspired countless customers to post on social media about their love for the brand.

Now that we’re starting to see the connections between emotional design and quantifiable business metrics, let’s look at two more case studies. The widespread success seen by messaging platform Slack and calendar app Sunrise are both thanks to their foundational investments in emotional design.

Slack: Stealing a market

Andrew Wilkinson, CEO of the design agency MetaLab, groaned as he read an email from Stewart Butterfield in July of 2013. Butterfield, cofounder of Flickr, was pivoting his video game company Glitch to create a new messaging product called Slack, and he wanted to hire MetaLab to design it.

Wilkinson knew the messaging app space was crowded and felt it was a problem that didn’t need solving yet again. Despite his skepticism around the product, he was a fan of Butterfield’s work and decided to take on the project anyway. Little did he know, it would go on to become their most successful project of all time (

Slack was already live by then and had regular users, but it was visually basic. Wilkinson described it as, “IRC in the browser. Barebones and stark.”

The MetaLab team helped Slack build a personality into the product that would differentiate it from competitors, all of which felt largely corporate and conservative. Wilkinson described competitors as HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey—a stiff approximation of humanity with rigid language. Slack, by contrast, is like TARS or CASE from Interstellar, quick-witted and, as cowriter of the movie Jonathan Nolan describes, even more human than the people they serve (, video).

By defining the personality, MetaLab was able to make design decisions that would bring life to the product and shape the emotional engagement that helped fuel its success. Wilkinson describes it best:

With Slack, a bubbly, bright UI, delightful interactions, and hilarious copywriting come together to create a personality. A personality which has triggered something powerful in its users: they care about it. They want to share it with others. It feels like a favorite coworker, not a tool or utility.
When you hear people talk about Slack they often say it’s “fun.” Using it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like slacking off, even when you’re using it to get stuff done. But when you look under the hood, it’s almost identical to every other chat app. You can create a room, add people, share files, and chat as a group or direct message one another. (

Those of us who used Slack early on and witnessed its growth will recall that it lived on the lips of influencers and was recommended by many. It made people feel cool to use it. It felt fun. Feelings like that are powerful—they drive adoption.

MetaLab delivered a design that was successfully differentiated from the competition. Upon the release of the newly designed product in 2015, the growth of Slack’s daily active users (DAUs) was meteoric (Fig 7.2).

Fig 7.2: Slack’s daily active user numbers grew rapidly after the release of the newly designed product, despite the fact that a number of strong competitors had already claimed a big piece of the market.

In January 2019, Slack hit a major milestone: 10 million daily active users and 85 thousand paying customers. In April of the same year, Slack went public on the New York Stock Exchange with a market cap of roughly $13 billion. Not bad for a failed video game company that pivoted into an already crowded market.

There’s more to Slack’s incredible story. Atlassian saw Slack stealing the market from their product HipChat—which had been on the market since April of 2009 and was the leader in the workplace chat product space. They continued to iterate on the product, but in 2017, they introduced its replacement called Stride, which looked an awful lot like Slack ( They finally realized that HipChat didn’t have the appeal it needed to be competitive, and with Stride, they could make a fresh start with emotional design central to the product.

Unfortunately for Atlassian, it was too little too late. By then, Slack had captured a large part of the market and had a great deal of momentum. In July of 2018, Atlassian announced that they’d be sunsetting HipChat and Stride and were entering into a strategic partnership with Slack ( It was official. Slack had won.

Designing for emotion created real value for the company—billions of dollars of it—and helped drive unprecedented growth of monthly active users.

Here’s the moral of this story: design is rarely seen as a tool for creating durable competitive advantage, but that’s exactly what it was for Slack. Product design and clever use of personality differentiated their product, changing the trajectory of the company and the entire business chat app market.

Sunrise: Surviving and Succeeding with Emotion

The grueling personal investment required to be an entrepreneur is hard, but harder still is the process of convincing investors to make a capital investment, especially when competitors have long since laid claim to the market.

The team behind Sunrise, Jeremy Le Van and Pierre Valade, believed that the poorly designed calendaring apps native to our phones were ripe for disruption. They applied for a spot in Y Combinator (YC), the seed accelerator that’s helped launch over 2,000 companies, including Stripe, Airbnb, Instacart, and Dropbox.

Sunrise was entering an extremely crowded space, and they were competing with apps that were installed on every phone by default. Would thousands of people abandon the calendar integrated into their phone for a new product? Le Van and Valade thought so, but they were rejected from the program as investors were skeptical Sunrise could upend the status quo.

What those investors didn’t see was the unique approach that Sunrise would take to bring users to a new calendar platform. Color, a generous layout, elegant interactions, and profile photos that put faces to names all brought life, warmth, and personality to the product. Other calendar apps felt like cold utilities by comparison (Fig 7.3).

Fig 7.3: Sunrise pulled profile photos from Facebook and Google to create a calendar experience that was uniquely warm.

Despite being turned down by YC, Le Van and Valade built and launched Sunrise and began to build a strong user base with the warm, personable calendaring experience they knew was lacking from other apps. The cost to run the infrastructure was difficult for Le Van and Valade to carry without investment, and the product might have been shuttered if it weren’t for investors who recognized how Sunrise was delighting users unlike any competitor.

Mike Hirshland, cofounder of Resolute Ventures, offered some insight after making a seed-stage investment in Sunrise:

The biggest Consumer Internet successes typically have offered little or no real technology innovation. Rather, they addressed a real consumer problem with a product that users loved, grew rapidly, and ultimately built barriers [to competition] either by deeply entrenching themselves in a user’s daily life, and/or by creating network effects. Meanwhile, competitors with more interesting technical innovation but less compelling user experiences failed to get adoption.
The lesson for me is this: the first challenge for consumer facing businesses is to build an awesome product that users love. This is table stakes to winning the market, and, for me the sine qua non to making seed stage consumer investments. As a consequence, at Resolute we typically look for awesome product/user experience founders, and we often pick teams focused on delighting users over teams with more impressive or ambitious technical innovation.
Only time will tell, but we think their intense focus on delighting users is going to win. (

What Hirshland wrote could be said of most of the examples in this book. Focusing on delighting users in a meaningful way gives us unique advantage.

The bet Resolute Ventures made on the Sunrise experience was prescient. In 2015, Microsoft acquired the startup for $100 million, and brought many of the insights from the product into Outlook (

The lesson we can take away from Sunrise is that designing for emotion from the beginning has a cascading effect. Had Le Van and Valade launched a bare-bones calendaring app without incorporating thoughtful emotional design in their MVP, it’s unlikely their startup would have gotten the funding it needed to survive. Additionally, Microsoft probably wouldn’t have been interested in acquiring the product if it weren’t engaging users in a new and unique way.

With Sunrise, designing for emotion proved to be critical not just to business success, but also to survival.