Catch the Feeling: Balancing Function with Emotion when Designing Complex Digital Sales Solutions


Inexperience. Loads of custom options. Products with highly complex configurations. Many things drive customers to reach for the assurance of another person’s voice during the purchasing process in an effort to make sure that everything turns out right.

“You have my word on it,” is the reinforcement they crave.

“Trust me,” is the voice of reason they need to hear.

This sort of personal, positive experience is great when it comes to in-person sales, but what do you do when commerce moves online? Is there any way to recreate a complex selling process like this as a self-service experience, especially for customers who are die-hard fans of high-touch, face-to-face interactions?

Even when presented with the benefits of new ways of making purchases—convenience, speed, greater access—some customers feel strongly that there’s no way to replace personal service. 

The impersonal nature of technology can present a problem for businesses, but it can be warmed by designing specifically for their customers’ emotional needs. With this mindset, you can create a truly delightful customer experience that will give people the confidence to hang-up their phones, cut out the showroom and start self-serving.

Let’s talk about emotions

Emotion can be a loaded word. You can’t really measure it. You can’t add it to your analytics and define it as a goal. But as human beings, emotion is something we deal with every day. It plays a key role in our decision making on purchases both small and large. And when it comes to your company’s customers, their emotional needs are present, and real, and are (or were, pre-pandemic) often addressed by that human contact on the sales floor, or the other side of the phone. For complex sales to be done well, and to be adopted successfully as a self-service experience, you must understand and use your customers’ emotional drivers as a key element that informs and influences what you design.

Okay, but which emotions?

To use emotion to drive a successful experience, we need to understand the basic needs and responses that are fulfilled for your customer in the face-to-face sales cycle.

Are they driven by human contact? Is it about the ability to ask any questions they want to? Is it about the confidence brought on by the fact that this salesperson has been their contact—maybe even a friend—for 15 years? Finding this information and cataloging it is the first step into your essential research, journey mapping, and persona building. It will enable you to dig into the underlying needs and emotions in this cycle and find ways to address it through the design of your guided selling experience. 

Once you understand those deeper needs and connections, the next step is to figure out how to design in a way that addresses those needs. For example you’ll want to explore questions such as:

  • How do you mimic that positive emotional response your customers have during an in-person sales cycle and allow them to successfully navigate their own complex product purchase online with the same satisfaction they would if working with one of your best sales reps?
  • What features, functions, and overall experience elements work best to meet those goals?
  • What can we do to make it work long-term?
  • How do you remove obstacles and create an experience that is effective, emotional, and brings them back time and time again?

I’m feeling things. Now what?

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to design for the complex selling experience, because no two people’s emotional drivers during the purchase process are alike. But there are some things to keep in mind to help deliver a positive emotional response, even in the most complex situations.

Seven key considerations when designing a complex product-selling experience:

  1. Balance function with flash. It can be tempting to amplify emotional triggers in an online selling experience with alluring imagery, compelling text or glowing promises. But being too flashy can sometimes do more harm than good. You need to focus on enablement of the experience first and foremost. Don’t make the experience of buying the center of attention—always focus on your product and keep the process as simple as possible. But remember, simple does not mean plain. Simplicity means the quality of being easy to understand or do, and that’s just what we want in a self-service situation. Simplicity can be anything from a basic image or line item with a one-click process, or it can be a sophisticated 3D model, if that’s what the customer needs to make the right decision. The point being that focusing on simplicity can often lead to exactly the emotional satisfaction you’re striving to deliver in your digital sales experience.
  2. Make sure the interface works the way a user expects. Always follow user experience and user interface best practices. In other words, don’t show a button that behaves like a toggle. Don’t sacrifice functionality by trying to get too creative when a simple solution will do. If an interaction doesn’t behave the way a customer expects it to, they may get frustrated and simply leave. At minimum, these sorts of unintuitive features will erode the all-important confidence that customers need to feel during this experience—the type of confidence they would usually feel from a phone call or showroom visit. Easy to use and easy to understand are key to successfully enabling the complex buying process online and solid user-experience design will help ensure you meet these expectations.
  3. Help move the user forward. People associate emotions and feelings of connection with positive experiences, the ability to understand what’s next, and the confidence of knowing what to expect. Think of ways you can mimic that in your design. Is part of the reason this customer values the face-to-face sales cycle due to the fact that his or her salesperson asks relevant questions and guides the customer to the right product? If so, consider a guided selling experience using language the customer is familiar with, including the added assurance and ability to ask a question or chat with a salesperson if needed. Is the reason another customer prefers a higher-contact sales cycle because the complex elements of the purchase all have to work together, and it’s really easy to make a mistake? Maybe consider a design with deep visualization elements, or even 3D modeling capabilities, so they can build their solution on the fly and get feedback from the system if they choose the wrong part.
  4. Context matters. To understand the true conditions in which your customers are using your guided selling experience, you need to drill down with as many industry- and audience-specific questions as you can. Does this customer often try to complete purchases while on a job site, with heavy work gloves and a lot of background noise? Are they using a mobile device or is this something they do at their desk? Is your customer doing the purchasing directly, or is the office administrator doing it in the purchaser’s stead, and needing to get feedback from others during the process? How easy is it for someone on a job site to use 3D modeling on a mobile device? If any of these sorts of questions lead to an obstacle that could affect the guided selling process, think about whether you can break the process down into separate parts that can be completed indvidually, or ensure easy transfer of progress from one device to another without having to start from scratch.
  5. Sometimes you still need human contact, even in self-service. There is always going to come a time when elements of the in-person experience simply can’t be automated or self-guided. Sometimes, you need a human to review a document, or answer a question, or point something out in a model that might work better if done another way. You can’t always distill a real, live human’s years of experience into automated responses from even the most advanced guided selling tool. In this case, don’t forget to enable collaboration at key points in the experience—whether it’s a quick email, a chat link, virtually assisted product configuration, or even fully sharable documents with comments and versioning to give an added human touch when nothing else will do. Those aspects of collaboration don’t negate the self-service aspect, but they do allow customers to help themselves first, and access more in-depth help only when needed.
  6. Get personal. Often, customers who are most fond of the high-touch sales experience are those who value the connections they make with suppliers, clients and colleagues. They like knowing that the person they are dealing with, either in-person, on the phone, or even online, knows their needs, their history, likes and dislikes. Through data, AI and customizable selling processes, it’s possible to weave some of that personal touch into a guided selling experience. Use your customers’ past purchases, their behavior on your website, location, demographics, or any other information you collect, to populate suggestions, tips and messages throughout their guided experience. Sometimes it’s as simple as showing a customer that you remember their name, or welcome them back where they left off, to create a small piece of a friendly, high-touch experience in online commerce.
  7. Always get feedback, always test—and it’s okay to admit that you don’t get it right every time. Emotions can be tricky things. As designers, it doesn’t always matter how well we know our customers. Never settle for “good enough.” Continually conduct iterative user testing and incorporate feedback into your design process, especially for complex selling situations. It can only make the design better and the emotional connection stronger. Convene a customer feedback panel to test big and small concepts alike, and to validate the emotional responses you are generating. Not sure if what you’re doing will get you the right results from your guided selling feature? Ask your panel. Unsure if the iconography in your 3D modeling design communicates the right message? Ask the panel. No need for big set-up or weeks of prep. Once your panel is established, just reach out and get some feedback, iterate, adjust, and move on to the next challenge.

Why emotions work

Complex selling scenarios almost always benefit from the emotional connection customers get from their salespeople. Whether it’s an extra boost of confidence from that human connection, or the security a customer might feel thanks to their years-long relationship with a salesperson, customers relish face-to-face, high-touch scenarios because of that emotional resonance. Building an experience that mimics this connection in a valuable and scalable way depends on your ability to find, define, and understand the emotional needs of your customers. Done properly, this will create a positive attachment with your customers, where your self-service option itself becomes the object of their affection. Successful guided sales experiences not only save time and offer convenience, but also provide a different type of connection – one based on a job well done.