Design Ethnography & Mood Maps

The purpose and use of mood maps.

Over the last years I have noticed that many books and articles talk about the usefulness (or not) of personas, delving a little into the actual production and design of the persona as well as defending it’s usage. Very few explicitly define some of the activities that occur within the design research phase. It was Jared Spool that mentioned the real value of personas being the actual process of engaging with users and developing empathy towards their circumstances and experience interacting with a product.1 The following article grew out of a conversation with Nathan Curtis of Eight Shapes (author of “Modular Web Design“) when I offered to contribute what I called a “Mood Map” to the Unify Documentation System. Let’s start.

Personas are to Persona Descriptions as Vacations are to Souvenir Picture Albums.

While people who didn’t go on the vacation can look through the album and think, “Boy, that must’ve been fun,” they’ll never get the full experience of what the actual vacation experience was. The album is just a remnant.
JM Spool, Personas are NOT a Document

The purpose of a Mood Map is to document and map the emotional states of a user [over time] so that it can guide the creation and communication of personas to stakeholders whilst also informing the design process itself. I’m not one for UX deliverables for their own sake, but this is one that carries a lot of weight with clients and also goes a ways towards offering ‘traceability’ for your personas.

This article will begin with a brief overview of design research, an overview of Mood Maps, when to use them, as well as when not. I will not address interpretive, phenomenological, or constructivist paradigms and how those may shape our views on design research or the particular tactics used to uncover user emotive states.

Design Ethnography

Design Ethnography is usually conducted to gain a deep understanding of the client’s target market in order to apply a customer-centered approach to the strategic development of the client’s brand in the context of a complex dynamic ecosystem that borders on chaos. In addition, ethnographic research seeks to reveal insights into how the target market shares information about their problem space and potential solutions with their immediate social cohort.

Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct and make meaning of their worlds and their lives are highly variable, locally specific as well as intersubjectively reflexive. One primary difference between ethnography and other methods of user research is that ethnography assumes that we must first discover what people actually do, the reasons they give for doing it, and just as importantly, how they feel while doing it, before we can assign to their actions and behaviors interpretations drawn from our own experiences.

Hassenzahl and Tractinsky, in User Experience – a Research Agenda state that “It has become obvious that the design for user experience needs to aim to satisfy human needs beyond the merely instrumental, and to focus on how to create positive experiences rather than just prevent usability problems.”2 In other words, the aim of experience design is not only to serve our practical needs and to help us reach practical goals, but also to give meaning and to contribute to the quality of our life.3

Besides taking into account the human needs, we must consider the affective and emotional aspects of the interaction, and the full nature of experience must be understood to capture the essence of user experience before we can undertake the task of designing a better, more emotionally positive experience.4

Findings from a design ethnography project will influence both near-term problem setting and experience design activities, as well as longer-term dynamic mediated social-systems development. During such study I seek to uncover pertinent insights about the target market’s experience enframing their goals, objectives, and perspectives as it directly relates to the client’s brand; and the role that these activities play with regards to interactions with their environment including context, family, friends, group, community and society.

Design Research & Mood Maps

By Design Research, I specifically mean in-situ interviews and observation sessions which are conducted to probe deeply into the lives, habits, and emotions of target consumers as it relates to a specific product or service. A cross-section of participants of a robust enough sample size must take part in the various activities to gain deeper understanding and to move beyond ‘design-by-anecdote;’ to elicit key joy and pain points that occur whilst these activities take place in context experiencing the brand in solving real life problems.

While there are a number of tactical activities a design researcher can engage in including interviews, journals, usability testing, focus groups, and task analysis (‘Doc’ Baty’s article in UX Matters is excellent: “User Research for Personas and Other Audience Models“) – one that is particularly good at gaining insight into the emotive aspects of a user’s experience is the Mood Map. It is important to remember that Mood Maps are an intermediate deliverable meant to provide meaningful insight for the creation of personas, not a final artifact. You may also choose to never show these to key stakeholders, but only include them in the appendix of a findings document after the research phase is done.

Another important point is that Mood Maps are best used for larger, more complicated user engagements or scenarios, not small directed tasks – logging into an application would not be an appropriate use of Mood Maps.

Phases and Emotions

The diagram above describes the emotional ups and downs identified by study participants as part of the design exercise conducted during in-home visits with participants. Note that the location of the study is less relevant than the importance of observing the participants in the most likely context in which they will engage in their experience with the brand’s product or service. During the exercise, participants are asked to name each of the phases they went through from framing their problem through exploration and finally (hopefully) problem solving, and to then assign a corresponding emotion to each phase.

The diagram represents an average of participant responses. The exercise tends to uncover some important variations based on a number of factors, including each participant’s individual personality, profile, as well as emotional relationship with the brand – or a competitor’s. These variations are described in the “participants’ emotions” section for each phase which the researcher is encouraged to heavily document, photograph, and take notes.

Cycle of Exploration

Exploration is not a linear state, but rather a cycle of activities such as “imagine,” “research,” or “try-on,” each with a particular cognitive posture (I encourage you to identify more, for instance “ask,” “validation seeking,” as potential social postures a user could engage in).

It is important to reflect upon each of the phases of the user engagement and attempt to identify the dominant activity. During a study of this type people instinctively begin to combat the uncertainty of indecision by considering the circumstances of their goal and limiting their options based on various contextual constraints – the term ‘satisficing‘ is used to describe this. If it is possible to have the participants verbalize their thought process, it will aid in providing you with a richer understanding of their emotional reaction to a particular phase. These verbalizations should be captured and presented with Mood Maps made for each participant, some of which may end up in the personas as guiding insights for design consideration.

In presenting the findings, it is important to tell a complete narrative based on an aggregation of the findings before delving into particular anecdotes about any specific participant. An aggregate view uncovers both the joyous as well as the frustrating aspects of the interactions, which may highlight unknown, or at the very least, un-discovered, weaknesses in the user experience which can be marked for further exploration.


By way of my friend ‘Doc’ Baty, I stumbled upon a blog post by Bruce Timkin which shows another way to visualize the aggregated Mood Maps: an Experience Wheel, like the one he found at Lego. Although it is unclear what research, activities, or methods are used to arrive at the Experience Wheel it’s still an interesting way to visualize the total user experience in phases.


1. Chapman, J. Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy. Earthscan Ltd, UK, 2005.

2. Hassenzahl, M. and Tractinsky, N.. User Experience – a Research Agenda”. Behaviour and Information Technology 25, 2, 91-97, (2006).

3. Hassenzahl, M. and Roto, V. Being and doing: A perspective on User Experience and its measurement. Interfaces, 72, 10-12, (2007).

4. Desmet, P.M.A. Designing Emotions (PhD dissertation) Delft: Delft University of Technology, 2002.

Will Evans

Will Evans is Director, User Experience Practice Lead for Twin Technologies with 14 years industry experience in presentation layer and user experience design. His experiences includes directing UX for AIR Worldwide, UX Architect for social media site, and UX Architect responsible for the interaction design of He worked at Lotus/IBM where he was the senior information architect, and for Curl - a DARPA-funded MIT project when he was at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Will holds masters degrees in business administration, human-computer interaction and cognitive psychology. His interests have focused on design, information architecture, human factors and information visualization. He earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics and philosophy.

9 comments on this article

  1. Ira Laefsky on

    Capturing the connection between emotion and content (displayed on the web or otherwise) could provide a valuable clue to the decision making processes (both affective and cognitive) that are occurring as a user evaluates displayed material.

  2. Will,

    What I really like about this technique is that it provides the designer with such a rich insight into the user’s context, and their emotional and mental stance with respect the problem space, without any real overhead in terms of research.

    So I love the efficiency and the economy of the technique.

    I’m interested in whether you think these would work with audience segmentation types other than personas. It seems suited to models that are already structured around a lifecycle, but can equally provide an insight into simple demographic and psychographic audience segmentations.


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  4. Ira Laefsky on

    The “Stages and Emotions” Chart you did For Project Completion has Interesting Crossovers and Connections with Models of Emotions in various Stages of Information Seeking Behavior.

    –Ira Laefsky

  5. Will,

    Good stuff man! I’m intrigued by a couple things: what the moods are in relation to; and what else might be added to the cycle of exploration.

    Moods: it would be interesting to come up with a set of social moods for use in social media. addressing the generic question “how does this make feel, socially?” and perhaps including mood relations like: invited, welcomed, excluded, bored, fascinated, attracted, and so on.

    Cycle of Exploration: i’m not sure i understand how “imagine,” “research,” and “try-on” are related, but you suggest coming up with others, so how about: imagine, anticipate, expect, reflect, want, recommend, own? Again, it would be interesting to socialize this, and craft a few reflections that touch on common social interactions: recommending, rating, reviewing, sharing, commenting, etc. Insofar as those are social acts a user might engage in around the brand/product experience.

    Don’t know if I grasped the cycles, but it’s intriguing. And in either case, seems to suggest you’re hoping to tease out the user’s disposition.


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