The Wheel of Emotions

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What is the Wheel of Emotions?

The wheel of emotions is a comprehensive model that illustrates the complex landscape of human emotions. Psychologist Robert Plutchik developed this visual tool that depicts the relationships and variations between different emotions. Designers use it so they can effectively create emotionally resonant designs to build user trust and foster brand loyalty.  

Author and Human-Computer Interaction Expert, Professor Alan Dix explains the nature and importance of emotions and usability in design: 

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How to Understand the Wheel of Emotions in Design

The wheel of emotions plays a pivotal role in user experience design. It enables designers to appreciate and leverage the emotional regulation of their target audience. From there, designers can tap into users’ emotional responses to the solutions they design. Emotions are integral to the human experience in any case. Not only do they influence how users engage with a product or service, they’re also essential to users’ ability to understand what designers present to them in the first place.  

When designers understand and incorporate the emotional contexts of users, they can craft experiences through digital products and services that resonate on a much deeper, emotional level. For designers and design teams creating user experiences, emotion-driven design is therefore a key approach. The wheel of emotions helps them to identify the emotions they aim to evoke from users. It also allows them to create designs that trigger these emotional responses as users interact with their design work. 

Users can experience a wide range of emotions before they discover a solution and move on to engage in problem-solving. The approach of emotional design greatly boosts user satisfaction and fosters a stronger connection between the user and the product. Users need to feel good about themselves and their experience with the design offering in front of them. So, the content needs to reflect that, and keep the context in sharp focus. 

Professor Alan Dix explains how designers should keep the users’ context in mind: 

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The wheel of emotions also helps designers to create personalized user experiences. Personalization is a powerful tool in UX design. It allows users to feel that the brand sees them and understands them as individuals. The resulting positive emotional responses further enhance the overall experience. Users can feel that what they engage with is more of a user-centered design because it has them in mind.  

This emotional connection is what UX designers strive to understand and harness in their UX design process. To effectively decode this emotional labyrinth and put order to a list of emotions, they have a powerful tool. That tool, which they often turn to, is Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions.

Illustration of Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.

© Machine Elf 1735. Copyright terms and licence: Public Domain.

The Nature of the Wheel of Emotions

The wheel of emotions resembles a colorful flower. It comprises three main elements: primary emotions, opposites and combinations.  

1. Primary Emotions

At the core, the wheel of emotions consists of eight primary emotions, which are:  

●  Joy  

●   Trust  

●   Fear  

●   Surprise  

●   Sadness  

●   Disgust  

●   Anger  

●   Anticipation  

These are the primal emotions that humans experience in response to various situations and stimuli. Designers should note how those stimuli can refer to visual design and more. 

2. Opposites

Each primary emotion pairs with an opposite emotion. These opposing pairs are:  

●  Joy and Sadness  

●  Trust and Disgust  

●  Fear and Anger  

●  Surprise and Anticipation  

The model suggests that these emotions are polar opposites, and the physiological responses they evoke are contrasting.  

3. Combinations

The wheel of emotions also explores the concept of combined emotions. These come from the interplay of two primary emotions. For example, the combination of Joy and Trust results in Love, while Fear and Surprise contribute to the feeling of Awe. 

Intensity of Emotions

The wheel of emotions not only classifies emotions but also illustrates their intensity. As one moves from the center of the wheel towards the outer edge, the intensity of the emotion decreases, and vice versa. For instance, “Rage” at the center of the wheel signifies the highest intensity of the primary emotion “Anger.” 

Illustration of an Emotion Map of a Coffee Addict.

Google Adwords emotion map—in this case for a coffee addict.

© Shell Greenier, Fair Use

How Do Designers Leverage the Wheel of Emotions?

Emotion drives users’ actions, decisions and experiences. Basic emotions and core emotions are a large part of the everyday human world. They become especially important for designers and UX researchers in the context of user journeys.  To create meaningful, engaging and satisfying user experiences, designers must understand and incorporate users' emotions into the design process. This is where the wheel of emotions comes into play—namely as designers strive to:  

1. Establish Emotional Connections

The wheel of emotions is an instrument to help designers create experiences that foster emotional connections with users. Designers seek to understand the primary emotions and their interrelationships. From there, they can craft design solutions that meet users' needs and resonate with their emotions.  

2. Drive User Actions and Loyalty

Emotional design, which the wheel of emotions guides, can elicit strong feelings. These are ones that can drive user actions and foster loyalty. Products that evoke positive emotions are ones that users are more likely to use repeatedly. That naturally leads to increased user engagement and loyalty.  

3. Enhance User Experience

The wheel of emotions helps designers to understand the nuances of emotions. This enables designers to create products and services that deliver enriched user experiences. Designers therefore use the wheel as an “emotional palette.” That way, they can blend different emotions to create various levels of emotional response. From there, they can enhance the overall user experience.  

4. Address Emotional Nuances

While the wheel of emotions provides a comprehensive framework, it doesn't encapsulate all emotional nuances. However, it does serve as a solid starting point. Designers can then explore additional emotional design tools to capture these nuances. It’s vital for designers to recognize the many shades of emotions that can feature in a user or customer journey. 

A vital consideration is the seven key factors of UX, as this video explains in detail: 

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Examples of the Wheel of Emotions in UX Design

UX designers employ the wheel of emotions in various ways to improve user experiences. 

A notable example is the use of gamification elements in UX design. These elements include leaderboards or badges. They tap into users' feelings of achievement and pride. Such elements reach these individuals at the right stages of their user flows and are important contextual features. The positive feelings they elicit can greatly enhance these users’ engagement with the product and keep them enthusiastic to come back for more.  

Many brands exhibit a solid understanding of the wheel of emotions in their designs. The following are some examples: 

  • Facebook's “Reactions” feature is a prime real-world example. Instead of the single “Like” button, users can express a range of emotions like “Love,” “Care,” “Haha,” “Wow,” “Sad” and “Angry.” This feature caters to the diverse emotional responses of users. It offers a fine-tuned means of response, far beyond the basic Like or lack thereof that a Facebook user might notice from friends. Therefore, it enhances the overall user experience. 

Screenshot or image showing Facebook's Reactions feature in use.

Facebook’s Reactions feature affords users a fine-tuned way to respond appropriately to what they find on the platform.

© Elise Moreau, Fair Use

  • Spotify's “Moods” feature categorizes music based on different emotions, allowing users to choose music that resonates with their current emotional state.  

  • “Zombies, Run!” is an app that runners can enjoy a good scare from—to outrun a zombie apocalypse scenario. Note that here, negative emotion (fear) is the key to get users going on their user journey. 

  • Project management app Trello also utilizes the wheel effectively. When users accomplish a task, they move it to the “Done” card. This triggers feelings of achievement and motivation for them to continue to use the app. 

Image of Trello screen showing Done card or feature in use.

Trello’s “Done” card gives users a boost, knowing that they have achieved something.

© Trello, Fair Use

  • Google, too, leverages emotional design in numerous ways. These range from their playful and surprising Google Doodles to their humorous error messages. These elements evoke surprise and joy from users. They therefore transform potential points of frustration into moments of delight.  

It’s essential that designers remember they need a thorough understanding of the target users’ emotional contexts to incorporate emotional design. Designers need to determine which emotions they want to elicit and devise strategies to evoke these emotions effectively. They can do this in a variety of ways. They can personalize messages, use visually appealing elements, offer promotions, vary media with micro-interactions, and employ a human and natural tone in communications.  

Practical Tips To Integrate the Wheel of Emotions into UX Design

It takes a series of steps for designers to apply the wheel of emotions in their design work. These begin when designers strive to understand the user's emotional landscape. The culmination of the steps is when designers create emotionally resonant designs. To implement the wheel of emotions well therefore takes careful planning and consideration—namely for designers to:  

  1. Understand users: Designers should conduct thorough user research to understand the target users' emotional contexts. This could involve user interviews, surveys or observational studies.  

  1. Define emotional responses they desire: Now, designers need to identify the emotions they want to elicit. They also must find out how these align with their overall UX goals.  

  1. Use appropriate design elements: Designers use colors, shapes, typography, imagery and other visual design elements that can trigger the desired emotional responses.  

  1. Test and iterate: Designers conduct user testing to gauge the effectiveness of their emotional design. It’s vital to gather feedback and make necessary adjustments to better align with the users' emotional contexts.  

  1. Consider cultural differences: It’s important to be mindful of cultural differences in emotional responses. What elicits joy in one culture might evoke a different emotion in another.  

Professor Alan Dix explains the need to consider culture in design: 

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  1. Practice ethical design: Another essential consideration is to prioritize the users' best interests and not exploit or manipulate users.  

  1. Include emotional design in all aspects of the user journey: Emotional design isn’t just about the specific aspects of the design. It’s something for designers to incorporate throughout the entire user journey for a holistic and emotionally resonant experience.  

What Should Designers Consider in Particular with the Wheel of Emotions?

While the wheel of emotions can significantly enhance UX design, it is not without its risks. One key consideration is the complexity and subjectivity of emotions. While the wheel provides a generalized model of human emotions, individual emotional responses can vary significantly. This can be because of personal experiences, cultural backgrounds and current emotional states. Also, the nature of the context is important to bear in mind. Are users likely to be in a stressful environment—or even a potentially hazardous one? What is appropriate for the moment in which they access the digital product or service? 

Also, while positive emotions generally enhance user engagement, it’s useful to remember the potential suitability of negative emotions. These can also play a critical role in certain contexts. For instance, fear can be an effective motivator in specific situations, and can include warning users about potential risks or mistakes. Depending on the context—such as fear in “Zombies, Run!”—negative emotions can be an important factor in the user experience. Designers need to consider the context, implement it well and show empathy for their users. 

Images from the Zombies, Run! app shown on two mobile screens.

Zombies, Run! leverages the scare factor to drive users to run for fitness.

© Jon Mundy, Fair Use

Designers must also remember to consider ethical implications when they tap into their users’ emotional responses. They should always seek to leverage emotional design to enhance user experiences and benefit their users.  

Overall, the wheel of emotions is a powerful tool in the world of UX design, mirroring the powerful experience-driving status of the emotions it reflects. It provides a comprehensive framework for designers to understand and integrate suitable human emotions into the design process. When designers harness the power of emotional design, they can achieve powerful objectives. Not only can they create products and services that meet users' needs. They can also create ones that connect with these users on an emotional level. That is a large part of what will lead to enriched user experiences and increased engagement. 

Learn More about The Wheel of Emotions

Take our course Emotional Design: How to Make Products People Will Love.

Read our Putting Some Emotion into Your Design: Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions piece for additional important insights.

Find some more information in Using emotional design to improve your UX by Marie Jehanne.

Consult Optimizing Emotional Engagement In Web Design Through Metrics by Shell Greenier for additional in-depth insights.

Read The Emotion Wheel: What It Is and How To Use It [+PDF] by Hokuma Karimova, MA for many important additional insights.

Questions related to Wheel of Emotions

Which primary emotions does the Wheel of Emotions highlight?

The Wheel of Emotions identifies eight primary emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. These emotions serve as the foundation for more complex and nuanced feelings. Plutchik's theory also explores how primary emotions combine to form secondary emotions. For example, anticipation and joy combine to create optimism, while fear and surprise merge into awe. The Wheel of Emotions provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the vast spectrum of human emotions and their evolutionary significance. It highlights the primary role emotions play in our survival, decision-making and interpersonal relationships. When designers recognize and understand these primary emotions, they can craft experiences that deeply resonate with users, enhancing emotional engagement and empathy in design. 

Take our Master Class How To Design With UX That Users Love To Convert Through with Talia Wolf, Founder, GetUplift. 

Are there any cultural biases in the Wheel of Emotions?

Yes, the Wheel of Emotions does have potential cultural biases. It's based on the premise that there are eight primary emotions that all humans universally experience. However, the way different cultures express and perceive emotions can vary significantly. For instance, some cultures may place a higher value on emotions like joy and trust, encouraging their open expression, while others might prioritize restraint and view the public display of such emotions less favorably. Moreover, the concept of secondary emotions, which Plutchik suggests arise from combinations of primary emotions, may also not align perfectly across cultures due to different emotional vocabularies and societal norms. This highlights the importance of considering cultural context when professionals apply psychological theories like the Wheel of Emotions in global research and design practices. Designers must be aware of these cultural nuances to create experiences that resonate with a diverse audience, and ensure that their work is inclusive and sensitive to the emotional realities of users from various cultural backgrounds. 

Professor Alan Dix explains how designers should consider their users’ culture: 

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Copyright holder: Tommi Vainikainen _ Appearance time: 2:56 - 3:03 Copyright license and terms: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Copyright holder: Maik Meid _ Appearance time: 2:56 - 3:03 Copyright license and terms: CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons _ Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Norge_93.jpg

Copyright holder: Paju _ Appearance time: 2:56 - 3:03 Copyright license and terms: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons _ Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kaivokselan_kaivokset_kyltti.jpg

Copyright holder: Tiia Monto _ Appearance time: 2:56 - 3:03 Copyright license and terms: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons _ Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turku_-_harbour_sign.jpg

 

How do UX researchers measure emotions using the Wheel of Emotions?

UX researchers use the wheel of emotions to measure emotions by observing and interpreting how users react to a product or experience. This involves identifying the primary emotions—joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger and disgust—that users may feel during interaction. Researchers conduct user tests, surveys and interviews to gather qualitative and quantitative data on these emotional responses. For instance, they might ask users to rate their feelings using scales tied to the emotions on the wheel or observe facial expressions and body language during usability testing to infer emotional states. They also use tools like eye tracking and physiological measurements (heart rate, skin conductance) to capture emotional reactions more objectively. By analyzing this data, UX researchers can understand not just what users are feeling but why they are feeling these emotions. This insight helps to refine products to enhance user satisfaction and engagement as it aligns design decisions with the emotional needs and expectations of the target audience. 

Take our Master Class How To Conduct Effective User Interviews with Joshua Seiden, Co-Author of Lean UX and Founder of Seiden Consulting.

What innovations in emotion AI involve the Wheel of Emotions?

Innovations in emotion AI involving the Wheel of Emotions have significantly advanced the way machines interpret human emotions. By integrating Plutchik's model, which identifies eight primary emotions, emotion AI technologies can now analyze emotional data with greater nuance. For example, sentiment analysis tools use the Wheel of Emotions to evaluate text from social media or customer feedback. They identify the underlying emotional states expressed in the words. Similarly, facial recognition software can detect subtle facial expressions corresponding to the primary emotions, enabling machines to respond to human feelings more accurately. These innovations are not just about understanding emotions in isolation but also about recognizing the complexity of emotional experiences by considering the intensity and combinations of basic emotions. This approach allows for more personalized and emotionally aware interactions between humans and technology. So, it improves user experience in applications that range from customer service chatbots to mental health assessment tools. 

AI Product Designer Ioana Teleanu describes the limitations of AI regarding designing for human emotions and more: 

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What role does the Wheel of Emotions play in the creation of emotional design?

The Wheel of Emotions plays a crucial role in creating emotional design by serving as a guide for designers to understand and invoke specific emotional responses in users. As designers leverage the eight primary emotions—joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust—they can tailor experiences that evoke the desired feelings, enhancing user engagement and connection with the product. For instance, to use colors, imagery and interactions that trigger joy can make an app more engaging and enjoyable to use. Similarly, to incorporate elements that evoke trust, such as clear information and user-friendly interfaces, can enhance the credibility of a website. If designers understand the nuances of human emotions, it also helps them to address and mitigate negative feelings, such as frustration or confusion, by creating more intuitive and user-centric designs. Thus, the Wheel of Emotions acts as a valuable tool in the emotional design process, and enables designers to craft experiences that resonate deeply with users on an emotional level. 

Take our Master Class Emotional Design: Evoke Emotional Responses Through Design with Susan Weinschenk, Chief Behavioral Scientist and CEO, The Team W, Inc., and Guthrie Weinschenk, Guthrie Weinschenk is a Behavioral Economist and the COO of The Team W, Inc.

What are the limitations of the Wheel of Emotions?

The Wheel of Emotions, while a powerful tool for understanding human emotions, has its limitations. First, it may oversimplify the complexity and range of human emotions by categorizing them into just eight primary emotions. This can lead to a reductionist view, which ignores the nuanced ways individuals experience and express emotions differently. Second, some question the Wheel's universality as it might not fully account for cultural differences in emotional expression and perception. Emotions that one culture may consider primary might be less significant or subject to different interpretation in another. Third, the model focuses mainly on individual emotions and does not extensively address how social contexts or relationships influence emotions. Lastly, the Wheel of Emotions is less specific about the transitions between emotions and the intensity levels within each emotion, which can vary widely among individuals. Despite these limitations, it remains a valuable framework for initiating discussions on emotional intelligence and design, though designers should use it with an understanding of its boundaries and in conjunction with other theories of emotion. 

Professor Alan Dix explains useful points about the nature of experience and design in this video: 

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How is the Wheel of Emotions evolving with advancements in technology and psychology?

As technology and psychology advance, the Wheel of Emotions is evolving to become more nuanced and culturally inclusive. Innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning enable a deeper analysis of emotional data, leading to a more refined understanding of emotions beyond the basic eight that Plutchik identified. For example, emotion AI can now detect subtleties in human expressions and speech patterns, offering insights into complex emotional states and their triggers. In psychology, research into cultural differences in emotional expression is prompting an expansion of the Wheel to include emotions that may be specific to certain cultures or more universally experienced than previously thought. Moreover, the integration of neuroscientific findings is enhancing our understanding of the biological underpinnings of emotions, contributing to a more comprehensive model that accounts for the complexity of human emotional experience. Together, these advancements are enriching the Wheel of Emotions, and so make it a more versatile tool for exploring the intricate landscape of human emotions in design, therapy, and personal development. 

Take our Master Class The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in UX with Darren Hood, UX Designer, Author, Speaker and Podcaster.

In what ways can individuals use the Wheel of Emotions to improve communication skills?

Individuals can use the Wheel of Emotions to improve communication skills by enhancing emotional awareness and empathy. Recognizing the eight primary emotions on the Wheel—joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust—helps individuals better understand their own emotional responses and articulate their feelings more clearly. This self-awareness allows for more effective expression of emotions, reducing misunderstandings and fostering clearer communication. Additionally, if they identify these emotions in others, individuals can develop greater empathy, enabling them to respond more appropriately and sensitively in social interactions. The Wheel also encourages reflection on how different emotions interact, and so helps individuals anticipate and manage emotional reactions in themselves and others. By applying insights from the Wheel of Emotions, people can navigate conversations more effectively. This can lead to more meaningful and constructive relationships both personally and professionally. 

Take our Master Class How To Design With UX That Users Love To Convert Through with Talia Wolf, Founder, GetUplift.

What are highly cited scientific publications on the subject of the Wheel of Emotions?

Butkutė, D. (2023). Exploring Emotional Awareness through User Experience Design (Master’s thesis). Linköping University.

This publication by Deimantė Butkutė is influential for its innovative approach to enhancing emotional awareness and vocabulary through user experience design in a mobile application. By addressing the lack of emotional vocabulary and confidence in understanding emotions among young people, the study offers valuable insights into improving self-awareness and well-being. The development of an interactive prototype to facilitate learning emotional definitions, connections, and practical applications signifies a significant step towards empowering users to enhance their emotional intelligence. This work not only contributes to the field of user experience design but also highlights the importance of emotional awareness in personal development and mental health. 

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Literature on the Wheel of Emotions

Here’s the entire UX literature on the Wheel of Emotions by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about the Wheel of Emotions

Take a deep dive into Wheel of Emotions with our course Emotional Design — How to Make Products People Will Love .

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