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Becoming Emotionally Intelligent About Design (Book Review)


Book cover of Emotionally Intelligent Design

A review of:

Emotionally Intelligent Design  

O’Reilly Media

About this book

by Pamela Pavliscak

Book Website

A good reference for UX theory

Primary audience: Designers who are new to the topic

Writing style: Matter of fact

Text density: Mostly text

287 pages, 7 chapters

Learn more about our book review guidelines


It’s one thing to be emotional. It’s another to be emotionally intelligent. In her new book, Pamela Pavliscak points out the limitations of emotional design (as defined by Don Norman and others) and looks forward instead to a new discipline she calls “emotionally intelligent design.” Combined with artificial intelligence, this new design field might become the most important and challenging one out there before we even realize it.

Currently, all of this is still a little fuzzy. Emotionally Intelligent Design: Rethinking How We Create Products does an excellent job of cataloging the tools that are out there now for reading emotion (called, collectively, “emotion AI”), reviewing the methods we can use to craft emotion, anticipating where all this might lead, and offering important things to think about before we all take this giant leap into the future.

In fact, that last point is one of the strongest in the book. Pavliscak offers some excellent guidelines, such as using multiple forms of user input, being minimally invasive, getting informed consent, addressing legal implications, and planning for failure. Personally, I wish someone had done something similar for social media before it took off.

Pavliscak puts emotionally intelligent design firmly within the Design Thinking tradition, going so far as to call her approach “design feeling.” Now, a lot of her recommendations are more along the lines of consciousness raising. At this point in the game, that may be just what is needed.

There are also many great examples of ways to make things more concrete. For example, a very important idea when it comes to emotions is the ability to identify a number of different ones (and not just simply positive and negative). The book goes over several models, like the famous Plutchik’s wheel, to help you do so. Sentence completion is another excellent, very practical method – in this case, to get at emotions directly from your users. This could be accomplished, for example, with simple statements like, “When I use X, I feel _____” or “Working with Y is …”

A colorful wheel shows a flower-like image with various negative and positive emotions, such as sadness, joy and acceptance.

Figure 1. Identifying emotions can be helped with tools like Robert Plutchik’s famous wheel of emotions (Credit: Robert Plutchik)

A particularly interesting and useful chapter is the one on interventions, or nudges, to drive behavior through the use of emotions. Examples of these include “peak endpoints” (the whimsical celebration screen in TurboTax when you complete your return, for example), surprises (like discounts or coupons), and intentional speed bumps (to cause the user to reflect – for example, before they sign up for or purchase something). The author also lists plenty of nudges to avoid: ludic loops (i.e., what keeps you scrolling through Facebook), overuse of “metrification” (e.g., followers, likes, and steps), and negative amplification (the tendency for the negative to draw more attention than the positive).

More importantly, Pavliscak encourages us to get out of our safety zones and try a different, more emotionally fitting, and creative approach. Emotion can be subtle, hidden, and hard to articulate. Instead of holding an ideation session in a boring old conference room, why not hold it at someone’s home or in a restaurant? Instead of white boards and Sharpies®, why not use LEGOs®, Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, and party favors?

Pavliscak wraps up her book with two challenging but well-done chapters that tackle the limitations of current design theory. She emphasizes its emphasis on speed and solving the immediate problem then moving on to the next one. She points out that this approach emphasizes simple ease and efficiency, and often ignores unintended consequences and larger impacts. Her solution is to tie in emotion – in particular, tying in deep, rich emotional experiences as we create a specific version of the future and develop real relationships with our customers. She ends by applying these ideas not just to commerce, but also to organizations (like the one you work for) and to overall public policy.

Emotionally Intelligent Design may not be for everyone. Pavliscak is definitely a futurist and some may find her approach a little too abstract or touchy-feely. That said, the book is very clearly written, with an engaging writing style and a deft touch of humor. Finally, she covers the topic in admirable breadth – both the positives and negatives of this brave new world, a world that might be here quicker than we think.