Design for Positive Emotion

“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” – Steve Jobs

Thinking about Positive Emotion

From the last few weeks, I have been thinking over how to create better emotional experiences for people who use digital products. It turned out that I lacked a good vocabulary of emotions.

We want to make our users happy, or satisfied. Or we want to make them ‘feel good’. But it’s usually hard to think of positive emotions beyond this.

Give it a shot. Think about what words you would use instead of ‘happiness’ to express positive emotions. What are the different kinds of happiness? Take a few moments to think or write about all the words you can think of, with distinct meanings, but which all belong to the set of positive emotions.

And then, read on.

How many could you think about? This exercise has been done and some people could find three positive emotions, while others could find 20. This research paper describes the detail of no less than 25 positive emotions and what they mean in the context of product design. The work was done at the Delft institute of Positive Design and I turned to it to sharpen my own understanding of human emotions.

Positive Emotions Typology

Understanding People using Positive Emotions

Here is the idea – most humans optimize for a few recurring positive emotions. That is, most people have a preference for a specific emotion, and most of their behavior goes into actions which would produce that emotion.

(Note: I am using the emotion words here as outlined by the research presented above. I know meanings can be slippery. Also, I know all people experience all emotions, but we tend to optimize for a few preferred ones)

For example, competitive people optimize for the emotion of pride.

Pride Emotion

They enjoy scoreboards. They want to know if they are winning, if they are the best. They enjoy the idea of being measurably better than others. One would imagine these people to be sportspersons, salespeople, finance professionals, and maybe entrepreneurs. They would want to look at leaderboards, rankings, top 100 lists.

They might also enjoy the closer emotions of confidence and courage.


“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” – Thomas Edison

Similarly, it seems like creative people optimize for the positive emotion of inspiration. These people may be designers and artists, or researchers and scientists. They are not concerned about winning, but arriving at the right solution or a breakthrough idea, and they are willing to take pains to reach there.


This designer from Adobe seems to strengthen the hypothesis:


black magic moment“, “thousand things coming together” – these things very accurately describe a designer’s emotion.

Someone who gears their life towards having more of this emotion would turn out a very different person and professional from the one who is going for pride and victory. Some designers also show a marked preference for emotions of kindness and sympathy.

Kindness and Sympathy

The desire to experience these emotions might drive accessibility efforts of some product designers. For example, Alex from Todoist addressed some aspects of Spotify’s design:

These emotions may of course also be prime motivators of people who work in non-profits, or in industries which provide care for the sick.

So, when meeting someone new, it might be interesting to think about – what positive emotions does this person optimize for? What is the repetitive pattern in their actions which points to certain emotions? What gives them a kick and a high?

While this can be seen in individuals, I wonder if this also manifests in cultures and societies. For example, Indians can be seen to optimize for pride with the massive number of young students taking competitive exams. Same can be said of the USA with the focus on ‘the best’ and being ‘greatest‘. With the massive number of plastic surgeries done in Brazil to improve one’s looks, they might be optimizing for lust and desire.

Lust and Desire

Of course, I am using rather broad strokes here, but I simply want to communicate the idea of repetitive positive emotion as a lens to understand human behavior.

Understanding Experiences using Positive Emotions

Further reflections on positive emotions led me to the idea that the experiences which give us multiple positive emotions at the same time, and preferably with high intensity, will be more desirable and memorable.

One can think of a few examples:

Inspiration + Pride

Winning a competition to create something (Oscars, Masterchef, Grammys) might evoke this mix. You enjoy the inspiration of creating something, as well as the pride of being rewarded for it. This experience should be deeper than any of these two emotions alone.

Inspiration and Pride

This mix would feature in a hackathon, and maybe in a Nobel Prize too.

Relief + Joy

As a child, I was allowed freedom to roam around the neighbourhood in summers after high pressure examinations were over. Feeling these two at the same time made for some happy memories.

Relief and Joy

Worship + Energetic

Sufi dervishes demonstrate this combination. Devotional dance seems to be a much richer experience than only prayer or only dance.


Worship and Energetic

Admiration + Enchantment

Some paintings can ignite deep experiences by not only being visually enchanting, but also evoking admiration for the painter’s hard work and eye for detail.


Rembrandt Frame
Painting by a human. Taken from here

Enchantment and Admiration

This might explain why visual art is still appreciated, even when we have all sorts of technology based tools to capture visuals. Of course, we take the experience to another level when when we mix the power of technology to create visual stories with flying dragons.

One can think of more combinations, like ‘Lust’ + ‘Love’ (for a meaningful relationship)  and ‘Admiration’ + ‘Satisfaction’ (for an aesthetically pleasing functional product). I encourage you to think of products and experiences in terms of positive emotions or groups of positive emotions they evoke.

Designing for Positive Emotions

This is the hard part. How do we design so that we evoke the desired emotions in our users? While the exact method for this is not yet clear to me, there are some guide rails.

Building vocabulary and mental models on human emotions. If we lack the language to express our goals, it would of course be hard to achieve them. Trying to understand human emotions from the grouping presented above (or any other grouping you prefer) will help build a mental model of human emotions. This model would be strengthened by observing daily products and experiences and reflecting on which emotions they evoke, and which emotions do they seem to be designed for.

Thinking beyond jobs to be done. Thinking about the users’ key tasks and priorities is essential of course. We need to know where the core needs lie. But then we go beyond that. What do our users want to feel once the job is done? What emotion is fueling their drive to do that job? What emotions do we, as creators, want the users to feel?

If we have a solid mental model of what product features and qualities arouse which kind of positive emotions, and then we can link them to how our users think, we should be able to design deeply positive experiences for them.


  • All images which describe emotions in this article have been taken from the work done at the Delft Institute of Positive Design and they own the rights. I use them here only to share and illustrate my ideas.
  • There is also informative research done on negative emotions as well as the interplay of positive and negative emotions, but I have not studied them yet.

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