Humans are deeply emotional creatures. A warm handshake can make a stranger seem kinder, while a white room can feel sterile regardless of whether or not it’s actually clean. We might not always be conscious of it, but the world around us is designed and that design affects our feelings and actions in big ways. This is important when talking about emotional design.

All design makes people feel, whether it is what we intend for them to feel or not. So, essentially all design is emotional design.

Why trust matters in design

That becomes even more important when you’re dealing with sensitive data. When building the software for SanDisk’s iXpand, our team was tasked with developing a storage and file transfer system that moved users’ precious vacation photos, home videos, and carefully curated music collections. The data we all collect and keep on our phones is deeply sentimental content.

So in this case our design team’s goal was to find a way to nudge users to entrust iXpand with some of their most treasured memories. We started the app off with an introductory walkthrough designed to eliminate confusion by focusing attention on one feature at a time. In another circumstance we might have used arrows on the screen to point out various app features. This arrow style is used with a lot of success in some apps, but because many of the iXpand users were newer to using smartphones, we knew it was important to keep things simple and direct user attention carefully.

Also, anytime the app needed to access information our UX team made sure to be upfront about it with the user and clearly explain why the app was asking for this information. The iPhone’s OS will automatically inform users anytime a new app needs access to information or permissions. Our research found this can make less technologically comfortable users feel nervous and unsure of the intentions of the app. Simply by being forthcoming with the ask, the design avoids any misunderstanding about what it was trying to do. The app has to access important information, and so it’s critical that users know SanDisk takes that responsibility seriously.  

Understanding users

In order to design apps that resonate with users, we have to learn more about the user’s mindset — what motivates them and what they hope to do while using the product. Once we know our users we can design the right emotional experience.

For iXpand that meant creating an easy to use navigation system with a crisp, clean look that also radiated warmth and made users feel understood. In order to do that, we really had to understand the user. We are always on the lookout for new ways to understand the people we design for. That’s why we only move forward with a design once the feedback points in a single direction. Any mixed feedback sends us back to the drawing board again and again. We will continue to rework the UX and design until everyone agrees.

Before we started getting feedback, we didn’t know exactly what the users should be feeling. We had to keep an open mind until we knew exactly how people would be using the app and what they needed out of it. 

We didn’t go into the project with pre-determined goals of how we wanted people to feel. One important aspect of our process at Mokriya is that we always take a listen-first approach.

That means asking for feedback and then reworking the design over and over again until it hits just the right notes. We have to really get to know who the people currently using the app were — and how they currently feel about the product.

For iXpand, that meant we had to ask user questions about which features they loved, and which they hated. Where was the app falling short for them? Succeeding? Why did they buy the product in the first place? Did the app do what they needed it to do? And what was the experience along the way?

The questions never end. Through tester interviews, Noel and the rest of our team waded through mixed feedback. Mixed because it turned out our user base was filled with very different people.

Designing for a diverse user base

It’s hard enough to create an app that looks and feels right for one demographic, let alone two. But that’s exactly what many designers are tasked with. For the iXpand user base, that meant one group that was extremely comfortable with technology and one that was often apprehensive with learning new apps. This meant the design had to be all things to all people and make it look seamless. Talk about a high wire act.

Design contributes immensely to these gut reactions, and always has. The hallmark of great product design is to create a product that people want to use. For apps, the only way to rise above the noise and generate great word-of-mouth buzz is to create something extraordinary. 

The hallmark of great product design is to create a product that people want to use.

We, as humans, want to talk about what we love and why it’s amazing. We want to talk about what we hate and why it sucks.

Design has a lot of power, but only when it’s targeting user demographics just right. We had to offer plentiful instruction for one group while not irritating the other group with an overly long tutorial. Our visual design had to be clean yet warm, friendly but not cheesy, sophisticated but not intimidating. And it had to be powerful to everyone who glimpsed it.

For the background photos, our design team chose tinted lifestyle photos that capture everyday moments. We wanted users to feel inspired when they used the app. After all, the purpose of the app is to free up space so users can create more memories. Why not remind them of that?

If you’re interested in learning more about how Mokriya designed for two different demographics, we take an in-depth look in our recently published piece on designing for extreme users.

Every product requires a unique approach depending on the needs of the user and the purpose of the product. When it comes to emotions we might be powerfully irrational creatures, but that doesn’t have to work against us. Creating an enjoyable user experience requires a deep understanding of the way color, layout, typography, and many other visual aspects of the app interact with a user’s subconscious. It’s not a simple task, by any means, but when you do it well, when you manage to create a powerful piece of software that users love, all that hard work is well worth it.

About Tricina Elliker

Tricina Elliker is a regular contributing writer to Mokriya, based in Portland, Oregon. She's been writing about science and tech since 2008 and received her MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University in 2013.