How to measure emotion in design

heart window(longish read – 15 mins)

Emotion in design matters.  A positive emotional experience with a product can be what sets that product apart from its competition.  Attachment to a product or brand is often the reason we chose one product over another, as the army of IPhone fans will attest to.

And whether we are trying to make emotions a big part of the experience we are creating,  like in Gaming for example or whether we just want our customers to feel safe and confident when doing mundane tasks like emailing, we still want our customers to feel something when they engage with that product.   Is it possible to measure that feeling? And what techniques in UX are available to do so? 

Designing for emotion
Emotion is a tricky area and it’s a difficult concept to deconstruct.  Can we actually design experiences so they create the emotions we want in our end users?  As I talked about it in previous blogs on Emotion in Design, we can certainly try.   We can do this by first understanding where and when the most emotional parts of our customers’ journeys occur and then by leaning into that space and designing for those emotional moments.

But how do we know if our designs  elicit the emotions we want to associate with that experience? What techniques can we use to measure emotion in user experience?

How can we measure emotion in design?

1.  Self- reported techniques: asking customers how they feel.
Sometimes, the direct approach, asking the customer to explicitly tell you how they feel about a product or a service, can be the most simple and straightforward way to understand their emotions.    How do we do this?

  • Asking customers directly:  If it’s a strong emotion that customers feel, such as anger or annoyance, often we can pick up on this immediately and we don’t need to resort to more indirect methods to uncover emotions.
  • Asking customers to rate the experience:.   The net promoter score (NPS) survey is a common tool to gauge how customers feel.  As is ‘star rating’ such as those we use in iTunes to rate Apps.   To better understand what specific emotion our customers associate with the experience, we often see ‘smiley faces’ rating, which can be a quick way to get a sense of what customers feel.   These ratings are also useful to benchmark sentiment over time.



2.  Uncovering implicit feelings: indirectly asking the customer how they feel and inferring feelings from the words they use.
Sometimes customers might find it difficult to know or verbalise how they feel.  Or they may not want to directly say how they felt about an experience.  There are some useful methods to uncover these not so obvious, feelings.

  • Using a metaphorical comparison. This is when we ask customers to tell us how they feel about a brand or an experience, by comparing it to something else.  For example, we ask customers if product X was a car, what type of car would it be and why is that?  These types of techniques help uncover characteristics (good and bad) that customers associate with a brand or a product.
  • Asking customers to project their feelings onto something else.   For example, this could be when at the end of a user test,  we give a customer a figure of a stick man with a thought bubble, and ask the participant to fill in what this figure would say about that product that person has just tested.stick man“What did I think about the experience I have just seen?”
  • Sentiment analysis: inferring feelings from words used.  This is when we attribute emotions or sentiment to words or key phrases that our customers use when talking about our brand.   An example of this would be to analyse what our customers are saying about our brand on Twitter.

3. Measuring non-conscious reactions: analysing customer’s physical responses

The techniques mentioned above rely on our customers being able to consciously verbalise how they experienced different emotions at different times whilst using the product.   However, emotions are often fleeting and sometimes we are not even conscious that we have experienced them.  Additionally, self-reported techniques can be subject to bias, subjective interpretation and error.   On the other hand, using techniques that measure physical reactions such as sweating, eye-movement and facial movements to infer emotional reactions might, therefore, be a more honest way to measure our customer’s emotional reaction to our designs.  What techniques can we use?

  • Eye-tracking.  This methodology has been used in UX Research for quite some time now.  Eye-tracking tracks the activity of the eye and through eye-tracking outputs such as heat maps and areas of interest, we can easily see what draws user attention and what doesn’t, which can be useful for design purposes.   Eye-tracking technologies can also capture users pupil dilation which can suggest whether the user is emotionally aroused by what they are seeing.


Of course, the big caveat with eye-tracking in general is that although it can tell you what a person is looking at, and perhaps hint at whether they feel emotional about it,  it doesn’t necessarily tell you why people look at in a design or what emotion they associate with that design.   In the example above, participants gave both pictures equal attention and we might assume they were equally interested in both and had similar feelings about both images.  However, when asked after the test which image they prefer, participants told us they felt much more positive about the person on the right.

EG wearable technologies:  With EEG headsets such as those offered by Emotive (image below),  a headset, which picks up on and measures the electric signals of the brain, is attached to the outside of a participants head while they engage with an experience.  This data is then interpreted by EEG research software which translates those different electric signals and patterns into different emotions that the participant is experiencing.  For example, it can show if the customer is bored, frustrated or excited.

emotive headset
emotive headset
  • Galvanic skin responses (GSR) If we get nervous or stressed, we sweat. If we get excited our heart rate increases as does our breath.  Galvanic skin response measures “a change in the electrical resistance of the skin caused by emotional stress, measurable with a sensitive galvanometer”.  This device is usually attached to our fingers.   It can be used to measure not what we react to but also importantly, the strength of that reaction.  It can tell us how strongly someone feels about the experience they were engaged in.
GSR image
GSR from iMotions
  • Facial recognition software:  Facial recognition software detects a person’s face and focuses on different points or features of the face such as the eyes and the mouth.  Based on small movements on the face and how the features change as a result of that movement e.g our mouth widens when we smile,  the software attributes a different emotion to each expression we make.   Using this technique, the software can pinpoint what emotions (such as happiness, sadness, anger) we feel at different junctures, as we engage with an experience.
facial recognition
Facial recognition from iMotions

Emotional Measurement becoming more mainstream 

These techniques that record physical reactions may have been quite specialised in the past but now with smart technologies and keener pricing, these types of specialised  techniques seem to be more mainstream in UX research these days.   I haven’t had the opportunity to use all of them yet but I think, for the right project, they could afford us some useful additional insights.   In particular, I think an interesting combination to trial could be using facial recognition, galvanic skin response and eye-tracking.  This could give us an idea of what users look at, hint at the emotion they experienced while engaging with the producand alsoso tell us the intensity of that emotion.

A cautionary note

happy faceHowever, just as self reported techniques to measure emotion can sometimes be bias and subjective,  biological measurement techniques have their limitations too.   The issues with non- conscious measurement techniques are that first off, they assume that emotions always elicit a corresponding physiological response and the second assumption is that the algorithms they have developed are sufficient to match that response with any given emotion.

But what happens if we experience an emotion and there is no corresponding  physiological response?  Emotions can sometimes be very subtle; for example when we have a gut instinct or feeling regarding something,  does that have a corresponding physical response?  Furthermore the  exact nature  of emotion itself still remain something of a mystery; when does an emotion become an emotion?  Is it when we consciously feel that emotion or even prior to that feeling?

The advice here would be, as per any well planned research project, to adopt a mixed methodology approach, for example using eye-tracking and self-report techniques.  Having both would help uncover the true picture of what is going on.

But emotion still matters

theatre masks of emotion happy and sadHowever, we do know that  the more emotional an experience, the more we both remember it and the more we connect with it  (for better or worse).   If we want our customers to truly value our brand, we need to look to forge emotional connections with them so they are more invested in our experiences.



Don Norman and his (revised) book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’

Emotive “brainware” homepage

Imotions Biometric research homepage









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