Emotional app design
rawpixel / Pixabay

It’s no longer enough for apps to perform a function: now, to be successful, they must create an enjoyable experience that appeals to their users’ emotions.

Make an app emotional, not rational

When dealing with partners and investors, we keep things rational: what are the specifications, how does our product compare with what’s already in the market, and, most importantly, how does it satisfy the needs of its users. But things become a lot less clear-cut once a product is launched.

Consumers can be notoriously irrational when it comes to their purchasing decisions, with aesthetic often exerting a high influence on how an individual feels about something. Potential customers may compare prices and specs, but there are already emotive factors at play, particularly when a user is deciding between two options.

If you imagine browsing a video streaming service, you might halt over a film’s poster that interests you. The synopsis, all-star cast, and five-star review could justify your decision to watch the film, but it was the emotional attraction to the thumbnail that attracted you in the first place – and although these images might be indicative of the genre, they never give away enough information to create an informed decision. The descriptive text on its own, although informative, doesn’t have the same effect of creating intrigue and excitement.

You get the idea.

An app’s emotional design is therefore the difference between your users accessing and engaging. Dull or crowded interfaces are impersonal, unpleasant to use, and quickly forgotten. On the other hand, attractive designs that encourage more positive sentiments are more enjoyable – and, therefore, prompt happier associations. A well-liked app is used repeatedly and shared with peers.

How to hook your users with from the get-go with design?

App color scheme
ptra / Pixabay
  1. First off, consider your color scheme.

Before your user even has a chance to interact with your app, they will be able to take in your ethos from your site or your icon in the application store. Even if you prefer white space for its clean look, text, headers, and menus will all need colors to stand out:

  • black is traditional;
  • blue is reliable and professional;
  • pink is modern, excited, young;
  • green is vibrant and often associated with being eco-friendly;
  • purple is bold or regal;
  • red prompts a rise in feelings, particularly anger, anxiety, and hunger,
  • yellow is active, refreshing, and invigorating.

Consider the emotion you are trying to convey to your users: that pop of color is the first thing that gets them receptive to how you want them to feel.

  1. Pick your visuals to convey an emotion without words.

Remember that film poster? Maybe the blood-covered girl in the woods wearing a tattered vest and holding a length of chain spoke to you in a way that the heroine gazing up at a rough and rugged man against the backdrop of the Wild West did not.

Images can frame a narrative – the grinning adventurers on a travel app, the simple clasped hands on a dating site – and imply a story that the user can also become a part of. Images can also be active (our adventure group hiking, for example) or passive. Active images promote movement and action, whereas still images are much more contemplative and relaxing.

The style of the visuals is just as important. Classy artistic photos might appeal to home-buyers, for example, but perhaps you’d rather capture the fun and laissez-faire attitude of twelve-to-seventeen-year-olds with quirky sketches and animations. Are they aspirational? Relatable? Intriguing? Experiment with different images and see how, regardless of what your text says, they change how you are perceived as a brand.

Interaction for emotional engagement

We know that scrolling isn’t enough: the big social media apps flourish not just in the consumption of images and bite-sized commentary but in the way that users can interact with other people’s posts, whether that’s a like, a share, or a comment.

Why do these interactions matter so much in creating an emotional connection? Well, these interactions with a thumb press imitate the real-life social interactions we have that create and maintain our relationships. They are not users in a vacuum: they are contributing to others’ sense of satisfaction and sharing their opinions in support or opposition.

Emotionally intelligent design isn’t limited to likes and shares. Users are engaged by the human aspect of apps, including the team behind the brand. You may have noticed that generic 404 error pages (“Page Not Found”) have been replaced by quirky messages, such as “Sorry, we can’t find what you’re looking for.” It’s a more personable touch. “Yes” buttons are now more likely to be “Okay!” or “Got it!”

Being less formal creates a sense of togetherness, rather than an uneven “business” and “customer” relationship.

Personalizing the display and the content

Whether it’s products based on previous purchases, location-based services, or recommendations from similar accounts, personalization is key for most app users. Apps without personalization can quickly become redundant: they have little new to offer or are so generic that it’s difficult for a user to find what they want. Cue frustration and the user abandoning the app.

Personalization can begin from the get-go from the user side of things, such as picking an avatar, a color scheme, or even something as simple as greeting them on-screen with their name.

Recommendations can be suggested based on what’s currently popular in your user base, and once the user has accepted or rejected their choices more can be presented. With a personalized experience, users are more likely to interact with the app: because it shows them content they like and because they’re curious as to what will be suggested next. The feel-good factor of an app tailoring itself to you also can’t be denied.


With almost 4 million apps to choose from in the Play Store, and 2 million on the App Store, any new app will be competing for attention in a saturated market. Gimmicks might entice a user for a while, but it is the psychology of emotional investment that will keep them opening and interacting.