Emotional design is about the story

By Randall Snare

The unsophisticated messenger draws a straight line between what they want to say and how they say it. The sophisticated one knows that the line is more of a web. They think about their audience and ask themselves: what resonates with whom I’m talking to? How can I move them? Convince them? Make them do the thing I want?

Before I give an example of some good messages, I want to talk about the marvellous human brain and an experiment in morality.

The trolley problem

The trolley problem outlines a simple scenario: there’s a trolley speeding down the tracks towards five people. You are on a bridge over the track and you see that if you pull a lever, you can change the trolley’s course. The problem though, is that the other track has one person on it. So if you pull the lever, you will save five people, but kill one. Would you do it?

When asked this question, most people say yes, they would pull the lever.

Then the question was changed slightly:

The trolley speeds down the track towards five people. There’s a man next to you on the bridge, above the track. If you push him down in front of the trolley, you’ll stop it. So if you push him, you’ll save five people, but kill one. Would you do it?

When asked this question — mathematically the exact same question — most people say no, they wouldn’t push the man off the bridge.

Why is that? The morality seems the same, but it feels different. If they both have the same outcome, then how could we possibly answer differently? The answer is that mental pictures inform your judgement. It’s about the way we ask the question, not the content of the question itself.

Visualisation is the key to action

Here’s the sciencey bit: there’s an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that considers options and makes decisions. Two guys from Harvard University, Joshua Greene and Elinor Amit, experimented on this area. They found that the more we can picture something, the more emotionally we respond to it.

The more emotionally you respond to something, the more you pay attention to it, do something with it, are called to action if you will.

Emotional design through story

Say you run a charity. The numbers of people you help may be big, and it may be something you want to publish (“We’ve saved half a million lives with our life saving programme!”). But statistics don’t form a mental image, and they won’t move your audience to action: to donate or to volunteer.

Here’s a numbers model, from the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

And here’s a story model, from Feeding America:

Say you sell mobile business solutions: You could list all the features of the business plan (5MB internet, 1500 landline minutes, etc etc), or you could show how the technologies you sell have changed businesses.

Here’s a facts model, from O2:

Here’s a story model, from Vodafone:

Disclaimer: we designed this for Vodafone, but it’s our blog, we can do what we want.

A list!

Some somewhat related lessons/sentences you’re allowed to use if you want:

  1. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean you should say it.
  2. It’s not the facts, it’s the way you package the facts.
  3. If you have an amazing multi-channel distribution plan for a boring message, it’s still boring.
  4. Statistics don’t mean as much as a story inside those statistics.