Stop limiting your product designs to the digital space. Here’s why.

Emotional Appeal & Human Environment Design


Since the dot com boom, the internet has become an unstoppable force paving the way for super apps more intelligent and realistic than ever. Those who take advantage of the opportunity to create these apps have the power to disrupt traditional industries and help solve social and environmental issues. How’s that for dramatic?

Fiber internet, big data, AI, and virtual/augmented reality have had momentous effects on product and business success. These advancements can deliver personal, data-rich, and immersive user experiences through well-designed user interfaces on highly capable devices. Their experiences have become more powerful than real-life interactions.

Because of this we are continuously learning and adapting to meet the needs of app-reliant societal members in addition to meeting business goals of increasing user adoption, loyalty, and profitability. The cycle of user problems and feature development is a common process for meeting these needs and goals.

However, if this is enough to reach success, then why are so many apps failing to innovate and reach success?

Because this is not enough. Not even close.

It’s time to think differently or lose all of your people (users).

The Reality

What is the secret behind successful products from companies like Airbnb, Netflix, and Snapchat? How are these leaders driving user engagement, time devotion, and conversions through the ceiling? How do we model their success in order to prepare for the future as they have prepared?

Well, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do these companies implement popular pattern libraries?
  2. Are they implementing overused “premium” fonts?
  3. Do they have product experiences limited to the digital space?

No! Because they are innovating and understand the psychological power of utilizing environment models.

People will ditch your ancient 2D app experience for a product that offers an experience that extends beyond the digital space.

People prefer at-their-fingertip, instantly gratifying, enjoyable experiences from companies that empower their beliefs and ability to be successful in their material environment.

We are in the age of material and digital environment applications and consumers are demanding products that enhance their daily lives — enhance their reality. People prefer beautiful apps that make them feel the way they desire to feel.

Food for thought: How many terrible apps have you experienced? How many have used popular pattern libraries? Have you ever wondered if your app — that uses the same pattern library — reminds people of the terrible experiences they have had?

Answer: It reminds them of the terrible experience.

The future of product design is here

Do you have a technology vision of the future?

Successful companies do.

They create products that lead up to their vision of the future.

To visualize this: Imagine you’re taking a final exam in graduate school. First, you open the school’s app on 24-in upright tablet. Next, your watch pings you and you tap it to start the timed exam. The ipad pro next to you allows you to document your notes and arithmetic. You use the upright tablet to read through the exam and view videos and visuals. And whether you like it or not, your glasses are recording everything you’re doing to prevent cheating. This is a holistic environment experience.

A vision for the future guides intelligent and immersive product design. The vision helps designers create experiences that prepare people for future advancements.

This is where an environment model comes into play.

An environment model is a culmination of communication, psychology, and the digital and material environment with a goal to establish visceral appeal — create psychological connections with people.

In a nutshell, an environment model:

  1. Sets the stage for user experience across devices and device peripherals.
  2. Identifies user motives and desired behaviors.
  3. Guides user interface design by setting forth a visual of the user’s desired environment
  4. Blurs the lines between the digital and material environment.
  5. Creates visceral appeal and sets the stage for designing emotional appeal triggers.

If you’d prefer to get to the meat of the article skip to the “The Psychology: How our environment affects us” section.

Otherwise continue for the full effect.

The first leap in environment design — Interfaces

Material Design. Google’s Material Design has painted millions of applications since it’s launch — brightening apps with rich color, swift motion effects, and the concept of light and depth working together throughout an interface. With material, no longer do modals, drawers, and popups appear abruptly and intrusively. They artfully ease in and out of view. Imagine your home’s front door. How would you feel if you turned the doorknob and the door flung open? You might feel like you’re in the movie Poltergeist and run for the hills! Material brings the graceful swing of a door to interface design. This was the beginning of environment models design. If not the first hybrid of skeuomorphism and flat design to represent a natural reality virtually. Material design brought science from the real world environment to user interfaces.

But why was material design a huge success? Why did it gain interface adoption by the millions? After all, that’s a rate angel investors would go “goo goo gah gah” over. I believe the success is owed to the design. Material design created a virtual, slightly immersive environment that gave the illusion of depth to screen. It created a completely new experience, the experience closer to that of our natural environment — giving applications the power to make experiences that felt more lifelike and realistic. Google is successful because they took the first step toward designing to environments.

Not a fan of material design? Fair enough. But we all can admit there is something to take away from material design. Microsoft learned a lot from Google’s innovation.

Follow the leader, learn from the best

Microsoft’s take on material design — Fluent Design

Microsoft released their take on environment design in early May 2017. Fluent Design amps up depth and motion in user interfaces. Fluent Design was created to build a consistent experience between modern devices and virtual reality devices. An environment model of reality.

The adoption of environment design is continuing to grow and evolve. It’s successful because of the science, psychology, and research that led to the innovative design.

Snappy Case Study — Snapchat:

Open Snapchat on your phone. Notice the first screen you land on. It’s the camera and what you see is the real world in front of you. Swipe to the stories and notice the transition. The header contains the camera’s view until the very last second. This is Snap’s environment design. The movements are fluid, smooth, and intelligently force a user to navigate through the camera view to view stories. This experience brings the user’s real world reality into the product design, resulting in a more natural, addictive, and enjoyable experience — Snap is no longer an app, it’s part of your eyesight. It’s your tool for capturing reality and joining the reality of others. Additionally, this experience increases the likelihood of engagement with the camera.

(Coolest Mom Award goes to…)

Based on the experience of Snapchat, their environment model is supporting the following real-life activities in order to influence user behavior through emotional appeal:

  1. Real-life conversations happen in the moment and have various durations. When complete, they are embedded in your memory — not recorded on paper or a hard drive for visual recovery at a later date. It’s human; remember the necessary amount of information, not everything. Vanishing chats
  2. Share a window into your reality to those you wish were with you. After all, if they were with you, they would see the same thing — and remember what they find important. Stories
  3. Life is private, public, and personal when you choose. Direct messaging
  4. People love instant-gratification. Winning. And trophies. Gamification of memories through streaks
  5. People change, styles change, people love trying out different looks. It makes people feel invigorated. Filters
  6. Bonus: Connects to material environment through Snapchat Spectacles and user location map

Can you identify more environment designs in Snap? Leave a comment to share.

Why environment design is working: Material environment and hypnotic suggestibility

Two years ago, I started a new career as the first person on a two person UX startup team at an enterprise company—Widen…

The development-driven company needed help fostering design thinking and user experience into their everyday culture.

We created our first clickable prototypes in PowerPoint — hacky, but awesome — and recruited internal and external participants. We crafted usability study questions collaboratively and recorded sessions through GoToMeeting and Quicktime. We were truly a “Startup UX Team” in an enterprise company.

There was a lot to prove in order to get buy in from the leadership team. My colleague at the time, Libby Maurer, now Director of UX at HubSpot, and I knew that we needed to learn from the best in order to add power to our movement. This led us to the NN/g — Nielsen Norman Group Usability Week.

Event Experience

The experience was unforgettable. Before guests entered the conference, the atmosphere and energy of Vegas instilled a high level of excitement in everyone. When I arrived, I sensed a glow emanating from the people around me. This was not Chicago, San Francisco, or a tropical paradise. This was an educational event… yet it felt so right.

Maybe it was the smiles or the laughter and desire for socializing exhibited by everyone around me. Maybe it was the aromas of elegant dining that engulfed the halls. But perhaps my excitement, happiness, and desire to engage was the result of everything I was experiencing in the environment around me. I remember thinking to myself, “This is why people love Vegas! It’s so fun and exciting — people are so cool!”

An environment influences emotions and behaviors through hypnotic suggestibility

The event was full of invaluable knowledge and opportunities. But what made the experience worth the large investment? Why pay thousands of dollars when you can learn from affordable sites like Udacity and Udemy? Is it the overall experience — the environment — that is appealing?

Six months later, I was off to another Usability Week in Houston, Texas. The rush of excitement brought a grin to my face — six full days I couldn’t wait — the memories of friendly and intelligent industry experts, classy hor d’oeuvres at sound off, and the chance to network with like-minded professional lit me up.

But why was I feeling this way? Of course the fact that I would have the opportunity to gain immense knowledge in complex software design and interact with industry leaders was once again a dream come true and exciting in itself… But from a psychological and biological viewpoint, my feelings were a result of an endorphin and serotonin release triggered by an emotional appeal of a previously enjoyable experience. Revisiting the memories of an enjoyable environment experience triggered an emotional appeal.

While I was at the Houston event, I found myself feeling disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed by the experts and the knowledge I gained, but I was disappointed by the networking, dining, and social experience. The event took place in a hotel outside of the city that failed to foster a memorable experience. I missed the happiness emanating from fellow uxer’s and the excitement around UX that Vegas brought to the table.

The ah-ha moment: Great content, employees, and business practices are not enough to create a memorable experience that triggers an emotional appeal. The environment plays a huge role in human psychology and acceptance of your business or product. Your product’s content and value may be successful in one user interface and a complete failure in another.

Try it for yourself — trigger an emotional appeal

Think about your favorite park.

What memory comes to mind? How do you feel when you arrive? Do you enjoy the aroma of nature? How is the climate? Do the sounds of singing birds relax you?

How are you feeling now? Share in the comments below.

The takeaway: The experience of an environment affects us more than the motivation for being in the environment. This doesn’t make us less ambitious people, it makes us human — intelligent human beings — receptive to hypnotic suggestibility within an environment that influences our emotions and behaviors.

We have an instinct for seeking out environments with certain qualities that make us feel the way we desire to feel.

The Psychology: How our environment affects us

An environment can:

  1. Foster or discourage social behavior.
  2. Influence behavior and motivation to act.
  3. Influence mood, stress, and perception.

The secret: A user interface, an app environment, has the same psychological effects on humans

The secret to the mega-giants success is their superior experience that supports emotional appeals and hypnotic suggestibility through clearly designed environment models. They have successfully modeled their environment to support the goals of their targeted users.

The closer an application can get to the reality it is trying to model, the better.

Applications that model an environment suitable to their target users, result in supporting the same positive psychological effects as the natural material environment the user prefers. Success is supported through a visceral appeal that the environment model emanates through the product design’s user interface and attracts people to use the application. Once a person experiences the app the experience builds and triggers an emotional appeal which results in higher user engagement and adoption.

This is a huge design thinking differentiator that top companies have implemented into their apps. Besides Snapchat, look at Netflix.

Quick Flick Case Study: Netflix dominated the entertainment industry by bringing the enjoyable experience of going to the movie theaters directly to their customers homes. Netflix removed all of the negative influences of the movie theater environment. Why wait in line and sit next to people you don’t know if you can have the same exact experience at a more comfortable and affordable location — your home?

Movie theaters have responded to the presence of Netflix by changing the the design of the movie theater environment to create an experience that is closer to being at home. No longer do you sit next to hundreds of people in tight quarters –now theaters have large reclining chairs. No longer do you have to dine before going to the theater — theaters provide a dining experience.

How can you design an environment model?

Your application has an environment model waiting to be discovered. But where do you start? For example purposes, I created a fictitious company and performed a mini-research study to present a simple process.

Environment Model Design: Picnic Perfect Research Study

Picnics can be a lot of fun (most of the time). It’s a social event that can build relationships, facilitate philosophical conversations, and boost creativity. And a fictitious app “Picnic Perfect” has a mission to help picnic lovers find the best spot to have a memorable picnic. But before they begin moving forward with development they want to make sure their app is on target and appealing in order to stand out from the competition.

To help Picnic Perfect set a strong path to success, we’ve selected two of the “Top 15 Picnic Parks in the World” to discover whether one park environment is desired over another — based on visceral appeal.

Compare and Contrast: Park A and Park B

Park A has bright green grass and shrubbery, plenty of space to lounge, vivid blue skies, less people, and appears to be slightly romantic with the historic architecture in the background. While Park B has more people, a cityscape in the background, cloudy skies, plenty of forestry, and appears to be a louder social environment. Both options support picnics, encourage socializing, provide greenery, and have architectural views.

Does one of the parks have a stronger visceral appeal than the other? If so, why?

To gain data, I created a simple two question survey around a motivation to have a picnic. Before we dive in, take the survey for yourself or answer the questions in the comments section.



  1. Which park do you choose?
  2. Why did you choose this park over the other?

Survey Results

Park A was preferred by 39 of the 53 participants — or 73.58%. Whereas Park B was preferred by 14 of 53 participants — or 26.42%.

Results current as of Jul 24, 2017

Winning environment: Park A

Nearly 74% chose Park A because it matched their motivation for having a picnic. The photo of the park portrayed a spacious, uncrowded green space with historic architecture to gaze upon while having a peaceful, relaxing, picnic.

On the other side, Park B fell short with just 14 votes. Why? Because this environment supports different social behaviors, resulting in a failure to establish a visceral appeal to the majority. It’s safe to conclude that those who chose this park are looking for a cool, energetic place to meet new people and have fun — their desired social behavior differs from the majority who are looking for a relaxing, peaceful setting.

Picnic Perfect designed an environment model based on Park A because the environment set the stage for an app experience that can trigger an emotional appeal. As a result, the user experience team discovered ways to make the application feel more realistic and engaging:

  1. 360 views of parks
  2. Map view (GPS enabled)
  3. Filter by mood
  4. Real-time park data for visibility in crowd level
  5. Recommended parks/activities based on user activity
  6. Connect with Spotify to recommend music based on mood and setting


Products are becoming more lifelike — extensions to daily life. Successful products, now, and in the future will utilize environment models. Because environment models set the stage for designing cross device experiences that blur the lines between the material and digital environments in order to trigger emotional appeal . Emotional appeal drives user adoption, engagement, and profitability.

Furthermore, technology advancements like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality are driving interface designs to extend beyond the digital space and encouraging utilization of the world around us. The successful inclusion of environment models enhance the psychological enjoyability of products.

It’s up to you to empower your application.

Design an environment, create an experience, connect with your people.

Now that you’re familiar with human psychology and environment design, can you identify how your product can benefit from an environment model?


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