Nuances of Positive Emotions in Design

Promotor: Prof. Dr. Pieter Desmet 피터 데스멧
Co-Promotor: Dr. Anna Pohlmeyer 안나 폴마이어

Some products are routinely described by the feeling ‘nice’, but what lies beneath that rather opaque word?

In design research, various approaches and frameworks of user experience have been developed to support designers to generate a particular experience. When it comes to user emotions in the frameworks, the most commonly used dimension is valance: an experience can be positive, pleasurable, enjoyable or negative, unpleasant, disturbing (e.g. Hassenzahl, 2006; Jordan, 1999; Norman, 2004). However, there is more than the basic pleasure-displeasure distinction. We can for example, be proud of using an eco-friendly detergent, be all aflutter in anticipation of a planned trip looking at a boarding pass, or have a feeling of cathartic relief while playing a role-playing game on a mobile phone. Desmet (2012) claimed that product pleasure is more nuanced than valance, and showed that people can experience at least 25 different positive emotions while using a product or a service such as desire, kindness, confidence, and fascination. Although these emotions are all pleasurable, each is different from one another in terms of feelings, eliciting conditions and how they influence people’s thoughts and actions (Frijda, 2007).
Some people are more aware of these nuances and can better articulate their emotional states than others. This ability is called emotional granularity. Emotional granularity reflects the degree to which a person is able to interpret and report one’s own and others’ emotions with precision and specificity (Lindquist & Barrett, 2008). For example, at a given moment, an individual with high emotional granularity would report with a distinct emotion word such as a feeling of interest to represent a distinct experience. In contrast, those lower in granularity tend to report in a broad manner with a general term such as happiness or feeling good.
Contrary to negative emotions, positive emotions are relatively few and somewhat undifferentiated (Fredrickson, 2003). For example, joy, amusement and serenity are not easily distinguished from one another in terms of facial expressions as they all result in a smile (Ekman, 2003). Similarly, action-tendency, another component of emotional experiences (Ellsworth & Smith, 1988; Frijda, 2007), is less specific and obvious for positive emotions than for negative ones. In contrast, we can readily identify the differences between negative emotions such as anger, sadness, or fear by observing behavioral manifestations. Moreover, when recalling past pleasant experiences, people’s self-reports of subjective experience show a great degree of blending (Ellsworth & Smith, 1988). This implies that it comes less natural for people to have positive than to have negative emotional granularity.
For designers however, I believe that it is especially relevant to have high positive emotional granularity because their intentions are usually to evoke positive emotions with their designs. I propose that discerning nuances between positive emotions can be useful in design processes, thus it is for designers worthwhile developing positive emotional granularity. Perhaps, a designer with high positive emotional granularity would be able to deliberately specify the design intentions in terms of emotional impact. For example, he/she may design for joy to stimulate playful interactions, and he/she may try to evoke interest to stimulate focused and explorative interactions. Desmet (2012) found that not all design students have a developed emotional granularity, and thus those lower in granularity would not be able to have an explicit notion of what emotion to design for. Additionally, emotional granularity is known to be associated with empathy (Mayer & Salovey, 1993). This implies that emotional granularity would help designers to empathize with users’ complex emotional responses so that they could get a deep understanding of users’ needs, values, and aspirations.
Despite the potential value of positive emotional granularity, in design research and education there has been little attention to its practical implications. Traditionally, design research has focused on general pleasure or displeasure, ignoring nuances between distinct positive emotions. Although general emotion theorists have studied these differences, their theories predominantly focus on negative emotions (Fredrickson, 1998; 2003). As a consequence, the ways to support designers to be aware of the nuances of positive emotions, and its impact in design processes have remained unexplored.

Research aim and main research questions

This research aims to develop an understanding of how positive emotional granularity can contribute to a design process by exploring the ways of facilitating positive emotional granularity and investigating its impact. The main research question of this project is “How does a nuanced understanding of positive emotions affect design activities?” This main question entails three consecutive research questions:

  1. What are the opportunities to work with positive emotional granularity in a product development process?
  2. How can positive emotional granularity be facilitated?
  3. How does positive emotional granularity contribute to a design process?


  • Desmet, P. M. A. (2012). Faces of product pleasure: 25 positive emotions in human-product interactions. International Journal of Design, 6(2), 1–29.
  • Ekman, P. (2003). Sixteen enjoyable emotions. Emotion Researcher, 18(2), 6–7.
  • Ellsworth, P. C., & Smith, C. A. (1988). Shades of Joy: Patterns of Appraisal Differentiating Pleasant Emotions. Cognition & Emotion, 2(4), 301–331.
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What Good Are Positive Emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300–319.
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The Value of Positive Emotions-The emerging science of positive psychology is coming to understand why it’s good to feel good. American Scientist, 91, 330–335.
  • Frijda, N. H. (2007). The Laws of Emotion. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
  • Hassenzahl, M. (2006). Hedonic, emotional, and experiential perspectives on product quality. Encyclopedia of human computer interaction, 266–272.
  • Jordan, P. W. (1999). Pleasure with Products: Human factors for Body, Mind and Soul. Human Factors in Product Design: Current Practice and Future Trends, 206–217.
  • Lane, R. D., Quinlan, D. M., Schwartz, G. E., Walker, P. A., & Zeitlin, S. B. (1990). The Levels of Emotional Awareness Scale: A Cognitive-Developmental Measure of Emotion. JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY ASSESSMENT, 55(1-2), 124–134. doi:10.1080/00223891.1990.9674052
  • Lindquist, K. A., & Barrett, L. F. (2008). Emotional complexity. Handbook of emotions, 513–530.
  • Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1993). The intelligence of emotional intelligence. Intelligence, 17(4), 433–442.
  • Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.