Emotion First Design: aligning content delivery with meaning-seeking emotions

Alastair Somerville
4 min readJun 24, 2020
Emotion first postcard with 3 sections — Affirm, Associate and Accommodate
New workshop postcard

This post was originally created for my Emotion First website on 23/6/2020

This is one example of Emotion First design and it comes out of Healthcare.

Being diagnosed with an illness or arriving in a hospital and being told about a family member’s diagnosis is, as everyone knows, emotionally hard.

However, it is not that emotion is simply an end reaction to tragic knowledge.

  • Emotion is meaning-seeking and action-enabling.
  • Emotion is the start not the end of the experience.
  • How you support that is important.

The image above is a workshop postcard and was developed for practical discussions of how organisations can practically help.

There are three parts:

  1. Affirm
  2. Associate
  3. Accommodate

These are the process for guiding a person respectfully thru their emotional experience and help them, in time, find a satifactory conclusion. In these terms, it is not about happy or sad but completed or uncompleted journeys.

I’ll explain the process.


Affirm — from cut up postcard — validate emotions

The first step in this Emotion First design process is to affirm the person’s right to be emotional. Denying or refuting their sense of the moment, here and now, is not helpful.

Emotion is meaning-seeking. At this moment, things are going wrong. Even if the diagnosis is positive, there is still a change of state for the person. How they imagined the future has shifted. Emotion is trying to find what that means to the person.


Associate — link person to question-forming

Emotion is action-enabling. It constricts cognition in order to allow an action to be taken. However, that means the underlying decision or choice made may not be the best option for the person.

Particularly with healthcare choices, people may not have a wide experience or knowledge of what is a good choice. This lack of knowledge is then further tightened by the emotional constriction. Choices can be made but they may be regretted.

As with Affirm, the key here is not to impose your sense of meaning onto the moment.

A person may be rushing towards an unwise choice but their ability to critique or analyse it may not be available.

What can help is to help them form better questions about what to do. Delay the decision to act by creating friction and offering questions that other people in a similar situation have found useful (or regretted not asking).

You are trying to associate the person with a community of people. Help them by showing them they are not alone. Emotion is used to enable fast actions in situations that feel critical to an individual. Making them feel part of a society helps. Not your empathy but the empathy of people with similar lived experiences.

This is not about offering a single question but a range. The person is trying to find what works for them, with their previous experiences and sense of self. Emotion will help them find a question that aligns with that sense. Offering questions helps guide a person.


Accommodate — provide solutions now the person is affirmed and understands what to ask

Finally, having grounded a person by affirming their emotions and associating them with questions relevant to their sense of self, you can start accommodating their needs.

A person feels respected and feels that they know what they need to ask for.

Now you can offer solutions that the person can respond to.

Offering information or action too quickly can be unhelpful and be rejected.

Aligning the offer of assistance with the way that emotions are trying to make sense of the situation is human-centered approach.

Affirm, Associate and Accommodate is one way that Emotion First design can work.

It is important because it only works if you recognise what emotions are doing for the person and how their timing is part of meaning-making and action-taking.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX