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Heart in Mind: The Impact of Unconscious Emotional Motivators

Roy Bendor Cohen
April 27, 2021

Let’s try a simple exercise: Think about a new product you recently purchased and were excited to use right away. Make sure it’s something you knew you had very little chance of returning.

What did you do with the packaging that the product came in?

You most likely threw it away, right?

That is, unless it was an iPhone or Apple product. Of late, social media has been ignited by thousands of people who all have the same thing in common– they have old iPhone boxes collecting dust somewhere in their household. The best part is that most of them never even realized that others were doing the same thing or even questioned their own motivation behind this behavior.

Whether you’re guilty of it or not, you’re likely pondering why this is the case.

Although there’s no single right answer, there is an overarching fact: consumer behavior and attitudes towards products are often influenced by the subconscious and rely on emotional factors that move beyond functionality alone.

Businesses that really understand their customers’ emotions and unconscious motivators have capitalized massively. Apple, Harley Davidson, and Patagonia are just a few examples of companies who have done a stellar job at designing for their target audience while keeping emotions at the top of mind (and heart).

We’ll unwrap what it means to focus on emotions and all the difference that this human-centric approach can make for your business cycle - from product design and development to customer support.  

Design Impacts Feelings, and Feelings Should Impact Design

While Apple products surely offer the value of performing their functions, they have become a status symbol because of Apple’s marketing and design superiority. People who buy Apple products feel certain emotions when they unwrap a new product, use it and are seen using it. An iPhone has become a symbol of a lifestyle and culture that appeals to the human needs of feeling respected by others and feeling like part of a group. In essence, it becomes a marker of one’s identity.

The goal of marketing is to persuade people to buy, remember or share a product. When it comes to emotional marketing, the tactics directly play on how people feel, which very much relies on knowing your customer. This includes the psychology of color, personas, stories, and ideals, to name a few factors.

In fact, nearly two-thirds of customers will buy a product simply based on what it looks like and how they viscerally react to seeing it. The customer experience is just another form of experience. Since people can rarely recall how they felt at every moment when they experienced something, there has to be an intense moment that can leave a mark on their memory (i.e. unwrapping a brand new iPhone out of a pristine and cleanly designed box that becomes a keepsake in itself).

As Barbara Fredickson and Daniel Kahneman described in their “peak-end rule,” people are most likely to remember the apex of their emotion, as well as the end of an experience (be it negative or positive) rather than all the emotions throughout. So, it’s paramount to find out how customers feel. Since their desires are often unconscious, and therefore, unbeknownst even to them, you’ll have to make inferences based on their behaviors. You can observe reactions and utilize analytics to help you better know your customer and assess how they’re feeling in order to accomplish user-centric design.

People Have Unconscious Emotional Motivators

How do you define something that someone does when they may not even be aware they are doing it? Unconscious motivators vary greatly and depend on changing factors like where a customer is on their journey, the industry, and the customer segment in which they belong, for example.

Depending on a customer’s goals or current status in life, they may value one emotion over another and choose a product that meets their specific need. For example, Waze is a navigational app that provides information beyond just directions. For a working father, its value may lie in the fact that it provides the exact time when he can expect to be home, helping to minimize uncertainty and plan dinner with his family.

For a driving enthusiast, it may be the preferred GPS tool because of its ability to alert that there are police nearby so drivers know to slow down and avoid getting a speeding ticket. Again, Waze addresses the under the surface psychological mechanism to diminish its users’ level of uncertainty. Despite the fact that the app’s main purpose is to navigate, its value proposition is dependent on its user’s intentions and interpretation, driven by psychological motivators (no pun intended).

Many companies are addressing emotions, desires and challenges by defining their target audience in terms of personas, or fictional characters that represent a user type. At Q Behavioral Thinking, our research helps segment audiences and goes even further to provide deep insight into common psychological phenomena (such as the need to reduce uncertainty, to name one). With this knowledge, we aid businesses in being able to accurately consider and address specifics of each persona and/or customer segment.

Data-Driven Meets Human-Directed

With the rise of data and digital experiences, businesses are more equipped than ever to be able to design the ideal experience. As competition increases, emotional motivators become even more critical in determining the success or failure of a product or service.

To reap the benefits of designing with the heart in mind, remember the following:

  • Have the awareness that it isn’t just about function or collection of the product. People value meaning and the way they feel when interacting with your product or service.
  • Seek “2nd order” explanations of why people like or use a product. These are their psychological and often subconscious emotional motivators. Dig below the surface to ask the questions that aren’t obvious or in direct relation to function only.
  • Integrate different types of research methods and data sources to infer the “psychological why.”

Our team at Q Behavioral Thinking utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to understand the underlying motivators of human behavior. We can help your business at any step of your journey, including: product development, support, growth strategy, UX design, and more.

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