Notes for (Get Emotional! Connecting Products and People in the Digital World)

Presenter(s):  Patricia Palmer

Date-Time:  August 15, 2019 @ 1:40 PM

Key Takeaways

Emotions are powerful.  They help people to connect.  They can change one’s perspective, and they dominate decision making.  Creating storylines mindful of emotion and connection elevate user curiosity, engagement, and connection toward a product.  Work with the power of three – words, interactions, and visuals – to create amazing experiences.


Patricia Palmer, Director of UX at TIAA, started her talk by recalling a childhood memory of the way others close to her described her as sensitive (as a negative), and that emotion was a sign of weakness.  At the same time, she saw the way her little brother “flip around emotions left and right” and get what he needed, and from this learned emotion is in fact powerful.  Her presentation covered the “why, how, and what” to think about when creating experiences that embrace emotion, make connections, build confidence, and encourage engagement.

She underscores why emotions matter:  Products become more relatable; Value becomes transparent and fosters connection; and People become more engaged and curious.

Emotions affect our decision-making and even memory.  They connect people to places and things.  By tapping into what people feel about a product, you can make that product more relatable.  With greater connection to a product, people become more engaged and curious.

Palmer played “The Power of Words,” a YouTube video by Andrea Gardner.  The video starts with an old man sitting alone on a piece of cardboard in a plaza, with a hand written cardboard sign and tin cup at his side.  A touching piano score by Giles Lamb plays in the background.  We see the man’s sign: “I’m blind, please help.”  People walk by, and few toss him any coins until a young woman stops and rewrites his sign.  Suddenly, coins from passersby begin pouring in.  What did she write on the new sign?  “It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.”  The video closes with the caption, “Change your words.  Change your world.”  With a lump in our throats, the message sinks in:  just changing the words (with emotional connection) had great impact.

Palmer notes that emotion helps people relate.  People are enlightened and begin to connect.  Curiosity and engagement are a natural result.

Emotion can change our perception and effect memory.  Palmer challenged the audience to think about a moment they had to display their work on a wall and have it critiqued – that feeling of sweat and anxiety.  Her point: emotion helps us remember things and can change our perspective.

She also notes that emotion dominates decision making.  In terms of words, ad campaigns with purely emotional content performed about twice as well (31%) as ads with only rational content (16%).  Interestingly, Palmer points out that the way a company tends to buy product is through fact (rational).

In terms of interactions, a 2016 Nielsen study found that ads prompting a strong emotional reaction resulted in an average 23% bump in sales.

And in terms of visuals, Apple computer found that when it introduced the colorful iMac computer, sales boomed, even though those fancy cabinets contained the same hardware and software as Apple’s other models, ones that were not selling particularly well.

So, how do you “get emotional” in digital experiences?

You identify all the moments that matter – the point in the experience that makes someone pause and think.  Discover the emotions people may feel in each “moment,” and brainstorm what is needed to support the emotion in each moment.  Focus on the emotional shift, the emotions that matter – in other words, that point in which the user asks themselves, “what does this product do for me?”

Palmer circles back to “The Power of Words” video and breaks it down with respect to the change in wording.  The man sits in a plaza asking people for help – not relatable.  People walked by with little regard – little connection.  A few responded by tossing him some coins but most just walked by – low engagement.   When the young woman rewrote his sign from an emotional point of view, the isolated man became relatable.  People had more empathy and compassion.  Many began to give money.

So, what do emotional designs look like?

Palmer answers with a story in which she challenged her team with online content that used a typical product approach: factual design, descriptive, not mindful of emotion.  The website was uninteresting and boring.  Customers were confused and skeptical and skipped over actions desired by the company.   Palmer challenged her team to incorporate emotion.  She deliberately required them to do this quickly (in 10 minutes) to avoid labored contemplation.  After a couple rounds, her team produced a redesign that incorporated emotion – that focused on what the product/service did for the customer.  For example, they changed the title from “TIAA Traditional” to “Live confidently every day!” and a heading for customer benefits from “Why TIAA Traditional?” to “Gain comfort for life with TIAA Traditional annuity.”  The redesign inspired optimism, importance, comfort, and curiosity.  The team significantly enhanced customer connection with the product and the desired response while using the website.

A couple key takeaways from the exercise were to:  “invite the customer in” using a storyline or words mindful of emotion, and be clear about it (about your message).

Palmer discussed the power of three – words, interactions, and visuals.

Words fuel emotions.  Recall the video discussed above.

Interactions bring comfort and delight to experiences.

Make it comfortable to move through the storyline.  Remove any jarring effects in user interactions.   Keep the user oriented – here is where you are – through effective use of smooth transitions.  Find the moment in the experience when you can move the emotion along by giving the user little cues that orient and propel, keeping them happy, confident, and worry free.  Do this through the lens of emotion that makes a product relatable.

Visuals (hierarchy, content, white space, etc.) bring cohesion to the story.

To illustrate, Palmer displayed a slide that only contained the quote, “Believe in something.  Even if it means sacrificing everything.”  Moderately interesting.  She then showed a second slide that contained a screenshot of a September 2018 tweet by Colin Kaepernick.  The tweet was a black & white close-up of Kaepernick’s face looking directly into the camera, with the same “Believe in something…” quote above superimposed onto the image.  Powerful.  Adding the visual (in this instance, an image of Kaepernick) makes content pop.

The power of emotion makes products become more relatable.  Value becomes transparent, allowing people to connect.  People become more engaged and curious.

Emotion is powerful.

Palmer closes her presentation with a quote by Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Palmer fielded several questions in Q&A.

How do you use emotion to turn around bad perception or connotation associated with a brand?  Focus on the true benefits of a product/service – what they mean to the customer.  Focus on the moments that matter – that mental shift, that pause, when the user asks themselves what the product can do for them.  Be honest in doing so.  If the emotion is negative at that point of mental shift (that pause), turn it positive.  If the emotional response is positive, elevate to delight.

How do you use emotion in a large enterprise, like Stibo?  In response, Palmer observed that Stibo did a good job with interactions on screen.  She liked the way Stibo gave the user a feeling of delight in letting them know they were on track, or in the right spot.  She emphasized if there is anything you can do to offer a customer delight, do so.  For example, the “green checks” are an effective visual cue that signal success, and they are everywhere.  So, consider adding a visual treatment [e.g., motion, floating hearts, or bubbles] to add delight.

How do you navigate (or gauge) different emotional reactions to content?  Focus on what gets the user curious.  Anything above “curious” (confident, happy, delight) – as opposed to below (skeptical, confused, etc.) – is great.  Get real with where the user is at now.

Another asked about measuring cognitive load.  Palmer referenced her studies with Mark Mulvey.  During usability testing, Palmer and Mulvey saw positive lift with emotional design and saw users pause during their experience.  People have this moment when they stop [and ask themselves what the product will do for them].  They designed a website that was free flowing (i.e., cut page “reloads” as users moved from tab to tab).  While there are no hard numbers yet, this website design (free-flowing, no page reloads, minimal cognitive load) yielded customer satisfaction that was through the roof.