Testing the User Experience: Consumer Emotions and Brand Success

October 19, 2009

The key to creating brand loyalty is developing a consistent and salient brand perception through the association of specific emotional experiences with a product or service. A classic example of this is the emotion of wonder and happiness people associate with The Walt Disney Company’s films and theme parks. By crafting amazing experiences for the people who enjoy their products, Disney has created such a favorable association, leading consumers to feel they can trust the brand and know what kind of experience to expect from a visit to a park, hotel, or movie theater. People can appreciate their intense focus on the user experience, whether watching Mary Poppins, meeting characters like Goofy and Minnie Mouse for the first time as a child, shown in Figure 1, or watching Toy Story characters leap to life in the amazing and spellbinding zoetrope at the California Adventure theme park.

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Figure 1—The Disney experience
Disney experience

There are plenty of other companies that work to establish their brands by intentionally pairing a positive emotional experience with products. Those that do it well tend to be very successful. Companies like Apple, Toyota, Nintendo, and YouTube have all achieved something very much like what Disney has done—creating a brand perception in the market that inspires confidence, trust, and cultish loyalty.

The key to creating this kind of brand following is crafting rich emotional experiences through product design. Video game companies like Nintendo provide excellent examples, because game design focuses entirely on creating an emotional experience. Nintendo’s track record of consistently crafting quality experiences has resulted in a powerful brand. Founded as a playing card company, the 120-year-old gaming giant has established such a powerful brand franchise that the public greets every new game announcement with near-rabid enthusiasm. Nintendo’s sales numbers and revenues have begun to eclipse the rest of the game industry, in terms of both game sales and total revenue.

Within the product design industry, a user experience philosophy has definitely begun to guide design, but research methodologies have continued to focus largely on usability rather than establishing new ways of measuring consumers’ emotional experience. As we know from the study of usability, design best practices can help create an intended experience, but can never ensure it. Therefore, experience testing is an essential part of the UX design process to ensure a product or service does not create an unintended experience that users will associate with the brand.

There are very effective methods available for measuring users’ emotional experience—both subjective and objective. In this article, we will discuss both approaches to measuring emotional experience to help you tap into this important aspect of user experience.

Subjective Measures

Subjective measures can be a very effective way to tap into the emotional experience that is associated with a product. Typically, the easiest way to do this is simply to inquire about it. When user researchers apply the technique skillfully, interviewing can be a very effective method of understanding emotional experiences. We consistently use this method, in conjunction with other methods, to acquire data about users’ perceived emotional experience. Direct communication can yield a wealth of information.

However, as a form of self-report, interviews are notoriously unreliable, for a variety of reasons, including participant reactivity and reminiscence effects. However, they can still be enormously valuable when evaluating the emotional qualities of a user experience. Despite some inaccuracies, what a participant remembers and reports during a user research session is likely to be very similar to what he or she would tell friends and family—assuming the participant isn’t outright lying to please the researcher. What you learn through interviewing can be a good indicator of the word-of-mouth brand perception experience with your product generates.

To minimize any distortions that would result from reactivity, or what some people call the observer effect, we commonly engage in a series of communication strategies that help us to get the best subjective data possible. Primary among these strategies is establishing objectivity. This involves informing participants that you did not design the product or user interface and that you are an impartial researcher the company has brought in, because you can be objective. This helps you avoid situations in which participants want to avoid providing negative feedback about a product to spare your feelings.

An essential strategy involves building rapport with participants. Rapport-building involves taking time to get to know participants and helping them feel as though they know you as well. Establishing rapport helps participants to open up and speak freely, elaborating on their thoughts and experiences rather than quickly answering questions, then clamming up. If you want to learn more about these communication strategies, read our blog post “How to Listen to the User and Hear the Experience.”

Another self-report method includes questionnaires, which give you the choice of gathering either qualitative data, through essay-style questions, or quantitative data, in the form of Likert scales. While questionnaires can be helpful in ensuring that your data gathering is consistent and systematic, they provide little opportunity for digging deeply into the user experience. Typically, we use questionnaires only when we are gathering data from a very large sample size—100 or more respondents. Other self-report methods like automated telephone polls aren’t very useful for exploring user experience, but you can use them to measure existing brand perception in the market.

Objective Measures

Objective measures can mean the difference between obtaining an accurate measure of participants’ emotional experience or your getting just a superficial idea of their opinions. The key to getting an objective measure of emotion is the ability to recognize emotional states through direct observation. Research has shown that you can reliably perceive participants’ emotions by observing their involuntary facial expressions. Other ways of recognizing emotions include observing posture, body language, vocal tone, and gestures. To learn more about our observation techniques, read our blog post “How to Observe the User and Tap into the Experience.” User researchers can easily make observations regarding a person’s emotional state during a session, documenting their observations and searching for patterns across the study sample. The challenge with observing emotional states is doing it in a systematic way.

Paul Ekman’s method of studying facial expressions, which is called behavioral coding, is the most reliable way of systematically documenting observed emotions, or affect display. Behavioral coding is a method of transforming qualitative data into quantitative data through the application of a system of operational definitions of behavior. Applying this method to emotions involves building a system of predefined behaviors that indicate particular emotional states—such as a smile or frown—then documenting behavioral codes as the behaviors occur or while reviewing a video of a session. Subsequent analysis can provide a frequency count for each behavior, the proportions of different emotions that occurred—for example, 58% happiness, 32% frustration, 10% disgust—and even associate specific emotions with specific parts of a user interface, so you can see what aspects of your product generate positive or negative emotions. Traditionally, behavioral coding has been time consuming and expensive, but new technologies have begun to reduce these constraints.

Combined Measures

When we don’t have the time and budget to apply the actual behavioral coding technique to measure emotional experience, we use a less systematic method. We combine both objective and subjective measures of emotion to get a general feel for the overall user experience, while noting any instances of specific negative emotions—especially frustration, which usually indicates a usability problem. Specifically, we observe nonverbal indicators of emotion, then inquire about them.

For example, if we see someone’s face light up with a smile and observe a contraction of the muscles around the eyes—the inferior portion of the orbicularis oculi—indicating happiness, and this is accompanied by an engaged, forward-leaning posture, we document the response and say something like You seem like you’re enjoying that. The participant will either verbally verify the emotion—Yeah, that’s really cool—or deny it—Actually, I was just thinking of something funny that happened the other day. In the event that participants verify observed emotions, we like to dig deeper with questions like What do you like about it? There can be a tradeoff with this method, because emotional labeling can be leading, so it’s important to engage in this kind of exchange judiciously.

Using this approach, we can easily incorporate an experience testing component in any usability test with little added expense. However, a user interface that has significant usability problems usually does not provide the best data on participants’ emotional experience of a brand, because participants experience mainly frustration. In fact, you can add these measures to almost any form of user research—from ethnography to in-depth interviews—to obtain information about participants’ emotional experience. They can be invaluable in identifying pain points during need-finding, as well as in ensuring you don’t lose the positive aspects of any existing experience.


Creating a positive emotional experience through users’ interaction with a well-designed product or service is a key goal of user-centered design. Consistently creating a similar experience for products under a given brand associates that experience with the brand. By paying close attention to the emotions we elicit through design, we can build a positive perception of any brand. Because consumers associate our brands with higher perceived value, this creates a following in the market, increases the likelihood of consumers recommending a product to a friend, and engenders durable loyalty.

By identifying the specific emotions people experience while interacting with products, user researchers can contribute to companies’ understanding of emotional experience and help ensure they create positive brand perception. Approaches to understanding emotional experience can range from the very objective and systematic—like behavioral coding—to the subjective and informal—like interviewing. With these kinds of methods available, there’s no reason why emotion-focused experience testing can’t be more prevalent. It’s important for the UX industry to utilize these methods to create products that offer more compelling emotional experiences. Don’t you want more engaging and outright fun products to be available in the market? Bringing these useful methods into common practice can help us achieve that. 

Principal Researcher and Co-Founder at Metric Lab

Redwood City, California, USA

Demetrius MadrigalDemetrius truly believes in the power of user research—when it is done well. With a background in experimental psychology, Demetrius performed research within a university setting, as well as at NASA Ames Research Center before co-founding Metric Lab with long-time collaborator, Bryan McClain. At Metric Lab, Demetrius enjoys innovating powerful user research methods and working on exciting projects—ranging from consumer electronics with companies like Microsoft and Kodak to modernization efforts with the U.S. Army. Demetrius is constantly thinking of new methods and tools to make user research faster, less costly, and more accurate. His training in advanced communication helps him to understand and connect with users, tapping into the experience that lies beneath the surface.  Read More

Principal Researcher and Co-Founder at Metric Lab

Redwood City, California, USA

Bryan McClainBryan is passionate about connecting with people and understanding their experiences and perspectives. Bryan co-founded Metric Lab with Demetrius Madrigal after doing research at NASA Ames Research Center for five years. While at NASA, Bryan worked on a variety of research studies, encompassing communication and human factors and interacting with hundreds of participants. As a part of his background in communication research, he received extensive training in communication methods, including certification-level training in police hostage negotiation. Bryan uses his extensive training in advanced communication methods in UX research to help ensure maximum accuracy and detail in user feedback. Bryan enjoys innovating user research methods that integrate communication skills, working with such companies as eBay, Kodak, Microsoft, and BAE Systems.  Read More

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