Insights | By Howard Tiersky

How to Use Emotion to Drive Digital Business Results

How much do you think about emotion when architecting your digital channels? 

For many enterprises the answer is 'not much,' but in fact, emotion is the number one driver of business outcomes.

Many studies have shown that people tend to make purchase decisions based on emotion and then justify them rationally. In fact, many of the things we do on a given day are in search of the feelings we want to have, or avoidance of the feelings we don’t want to have. We wake up when the alarm rings because we don’t want that feeling of worrying about being late to work. When the boss yells at us, we reach for that Snickers bar because we want to change the way we are feeling by giving ourselves a nice sugar rush.

And when we buy something, we respond to a complex combination of emotional targets. A woman buying new shoes may want the feeling of rewarding herself, or perhaps it’s the confident feeling of looking stylish. In the same store, another woman may be using a coupon on shoes in the discount rack because she is seeking that feeling of being a savvy shopper who is saving money. In fact, when our stylish shoe-shopping woman looks at the price tag of her Miu Miu she may have a moment of emotional turmoil-- they do make her feel stylish, but they also may give her angst of having spent too much money. It may take a salesperson to remind her that the $600 price tag is actually $100 off the regular retail price-- these are a great deal! (plus they make her look stylish). Emotional storm resolved and the credit card comes out.

So how do we apply this to the digital world?

Everything we do at FROM starts from identifying the desired user behaviors. It is the user behaviors after all which lead to business outcomes. These may be purchases, renewals, up-sells, or cost-saving consumer behaviors such as resolving an issue via self-service rather than calling the call center. These behaviors are our success targets, and it's essential that any strategic digital project be very clear about who the users being targeted are, and what desired behaviors we are trying to drive.

But what triggers those desired behaviors? Most classically, user-centered design starts with the presumption that users come to us online because they want to "get something done" - they want to order a gift for their grandmother, pay a bill, rent a movie, or post a photo to social media, and our goal is to streamline their ability to achieve their goal. This is not wrong, but if we really want to understand what's going on in order to enable us to most effectively influence customer behavior, look beyond the raw "task" to the feeling the user is seeking. Yes, the user goes to the vending machine to buy the candy bar. The "task" is to buy a candy bar, but the feeling is the real goal. Why is this important? Because when our goal is to drive behaviors, we need to recognize that the emotional landscape of the customer is at the heart of their behavioral decision matrix.

This means we extensively study users to understand not just what they want to do, but which feelings they are trying to achieve and which feelings they want to avoid. For example customers booking a vacation may be after a few different feelings-- they may be looking to feel they are indulging in a luxurious reward that they deserve, they may be looking to "take care" of their spouse or kids by planning a trip that others will love, or they may be looking for excitement and adventure. But equally critical is to understand what emotions customers are trying to avoid. They may be trying to avoid feeling "ripped off," that they are overpaying, or avoid feeling the frustration that can be associated with travel or the process of booking travel. 

Usually, our research demonstrates different emotional segments and it's helpful to use further research to quantify the size of each of these segments so you can prioritize them.

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Now once you know that users are seeking specific emotions and also trying to avoid other emotions, what do you do with this behavior? Well, our goal is to create a digital experience that will evoke the emotions that customers desire and will avoid or neutralize those emotions which customers want to avoid. What attributes of an experience provoke emotion? Clearly, the world of messaging, imagery, and marketing copy is heavily focused on creating a "feeling," so that's a natural place to start. But in fact even more powerful is the interactive experience itself. If the marketing copy says you'll be "flying the friendly skies," but the site gives you an error message if you forget to put parentheses in your phone number when you enter it, that's not especially friendly.

We often think of a commerce site, for example, as having two functions — persuasion and transaction. First, we must create intent in the buyer to "decide" to move to purchase, and then once they do that, we have to not screw it up. In other words, we have to avoid doing something that makes them change their mind — such as creating emotions of frustration, confusion or uncertainty during the checkout process.

Frequent usability testing via task analysis or similar methods is a great way to observe first hand what types of emotions the current experience of your site or app are creating in customers.  If it's sub-optimal, the testing can very often reveal fairly straightforward adjustments that can improve the situation.

In summary, it helps to think of a chain that leads to value.

  • First, we create a digital platform, such as a website or app.
  • Users come to that platform and the interaction between the user and the platform, its content, interface, and functionality, yields an experience of some sort — good or bad.
  • That experience evokes emotions in the user — desired and/or undesired.
  • If we hit the right emotional recipe, the user proceeds to the behavior we want. If the emotions are off, we don’t get our desired behavior.
  • And those desired behaviors — purchase, upgrade, renewal, etc. — are what lead to business value.

A design process that merges ongoing user research to both understand their emotional targets and then to test hypothesized experience designs to see whether they are effective at evoking the desired emotions is the best process for optimizing an experience for business outcomes.