Emotional content design

Dominic Warren
5 min readDec 6, 2017
Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

It’s repeated plenty of times, but we know that people don’t read online like they would a printed page. People only read around 20 to 28% of a webpage. So we have to be concise and as clear as possible. However, we also have to be human — and part of being human is emotion.

It depends on what service you’re writing for, but how the user feels when using it has a huge effect on their outcome. Writing for ‘users first’ also means writing with emotions in mind.

If the user books a meeting with a funeral director, witty content with puns galore wouldn’t be appropriate. Oppositely, if you’re ordering tickets to Glastonbury, then formal, stuffy language isn’t right for your audience.

What are they feeling?

Content can be a joyful part of the process, but it’s also a functional part of the design. It should encourage and guide the user, showing them what they need to do and how to do it.

Your content isn’t working if it’s:

· aggravating the user

· stopping them from doing what they need or want to

· blaming them

When online, most users probably feel frustrated. For example, if they’re trying to insure their car, then making it easy is what’s important. Content plays a big part in this. If you can make your content guide the user with as few words as possible, you’re saving them time. They can then move forward easily.

Let’s take that example: you’re insuring your car after receiving a renewal notice. You’ve shopped around to see if there’s anything cheaper available. You’re probably already fairly fed up. Searching the different insurance and comparison sites takes time. You’re constantly entering the same information.

Suddenly you’re hit with technical jargon.

Jargon: no one knows what you’re saying.

You can’t work out what it means. You can’t think of a relevant example in your life that might help explain it. It’s not written in plain English and there’s no help text. Where do you go from here?

Working in insurance, I’ve found some users will probably go ahead anyway. If they want to buy something, they’ll buy it. Price is a big factor in people’s decision-making, but they may not fully understand what’s included and what’s covered.

However I’ve found other users will drop off, especially with services that are drowning in legality. They don’t want to risk agreeing to something they don’t understand. They’re worried that it’ll come back to haunt them, such as invalidating their claim.

This is much like the UX principle ‘the reservoir of goodwill’. This is the amount of effort a user will put into doing something. The slightest misunderstanding, or hint something doesn’t work, can have negative effects. They’ll soon drop off and try a different service instead.

Emotion is action

With all that in mind, we often think it’s easiest to ignore emotion in our writing, making it as plain as possible. In some instances this would be appropriate. However, emotion is what engages our audience and pushes them to do something.

The word emotion comes from the Latin ‘emovere’.

Source: Google

It’s made up of two parts:

· e means ‘out’

· movere means ‘move’

(Source: Oxford Dictionary)

So, emotion is rooted in the idea of movement. This makes sense as emotions are what encourage us to do things. Our writing can motivate users to want to do something, or even avoid it.

If they’re encouraged and supported positively then the user will want to complete the task.

The same idea works if the user is experiencing negative emotions. If they’re anxious or fearful of the outcome then they’ll avoid it and not complete the task.

However, whether the task you want them to do is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is another issue. The idea of ‘ethically questionable’ content is another subject for another time.

Emotional design

Designers consider emotion as well. In Don Norman’s book Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things he explains the 3 principles:

· visceral is “what nature does”

· reflective is “all about the message… the meaning of the product or its use; evoking personal remembrance”

· behavioural is “all about use… function comes first”

But how can these translate into content writing?


Visceral is our first reactions when we encounter a page or service. So make sure content is consistent and correct, such as no spelling errors. When users first land on a page they usually scan it in the F-shaped pattern. You’ll find the first things they notice are any spelling errors or inconsistent formatting.

You should provide consistently good, easy-to-scan content. Then users shouldn’t have any problems understanding.


Reflective is when the service impacts on the user’s life in some way after they’ve used it. This is how they feel when they’re not using it, or the values they associate with it.

If your content is simple and clear, then it’ll be helpful and so the user will feel good. Once they’ve finished, you want them to look back on the service kindly. Maybe even recommend it to their friends.


Usability is the basis of behavioural and content is crucial to this. The content needs to be informative and direct them. If it isn’t task-orientated then the user won’t know what to do, so they’ll think usability is poor.

You can think of the 3 principles of emotional design when writing. Using these can shape your voice and tone appropriately.

In summary

Emotions are a crucial consideration when writing content for the web. You should comfort users, not patronise them. They need to know what to do and how to do it. Anything else isn’t a priority.

You also need to make sure content is clear and easy-to-understand so they don’t feel stressed or worried. Making the user feel positive will encourage them to complete the task and feel good about doing so.

Like all content writing, you should be thinking about ‘users first’. That includes their emotions.