The Emotion Archive: Finding global empathy in a challenging time

“We are all in this together.” It’s a phrase one commonly hears nowadays. And while it may be a bit of a COVID-19 cliché, there’s truth to it. When we listen to someone’s pandemic story, we can almost always relate. Regardless of where we live or how old we are, many of the emotions we experience are largely the same: we all miss our former lives, we are all trying to make do with what we have, and we’re all reevaluating this next normal. Empathy is currently in large supply but sometimes it can be hard to see.

It was with this in mind that we created the Emotion Archive, as part of McKinsey's COVID Response Center, which features an online collection of tools, interactive visuals, interviews with leaders and practical resources to help organizations and communities respond to and recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Earlier this year, we introduced a series of articles focused on ethnographic research called The New Possible. The series features digital diaries—many submitted as videos—from 122 people in 22 cities across eight countries. Each submission was written or recorded during two weeks in the late spring of 2020. Participants responded to prompts about their home life, their finances, global outlooks, and personal situations. By answering simple questions like “How are you doing?,” our participants revealed intimate and relatable perspectives. Although their lives are all different—their languages, situations, and demographics varied—their emotions were largely the same.




As we made our way through the comments, we were struck by the range of personalities that emerged and, simultaneously, by the similar feelings shared across borders. We quickly knew we wanted to create a visual library for these thoughts, stories, and emotions to be stored and shared. But how?

Creating the Emotion Archive: Our process

The Emotion Archive team was given access to all 155 hours of footage from The New Possible series, which another McKinsey Design team broke into roughly 800 text snippets. While the raw data was organized, the emotional content and the subject matter of participants’ comments was not yet identified.

This is when the hard work began. To build a data set, we leaned on colleagues from around the world to help. Our design team manually identified the emotions within each comment while in parallel, data scientists analyzed all the text data for noun sentiment, which allowed us to identify the subject matter more precisely. The comments were then randomly distributed between our team to tag the emotions, assigning each comment in the library up to three emotions from a list of 16 different options. We used Dr. Robert Plutchik’s “Wheel of Emotions,” which defines eight primary emotions (joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation) as well as their derivatives—for example, ecstasy is a stronger form of joy, and serenity is weaker. Classifying comments in this way involves judgment—reviewers might classify comments differently—but we did our best to mitigate any bias by anonymizing comments and randomizing them across demographics and geographies.

Process 1


The Emotion Archive is one of the most dynamic team efforts I have ever been a part of. Through the collective labors of our developers, engineers, video editors, copywriters, and leadership, we built something that demonstrates the incredible power of collaborative design.




Telling a story that’s bigger than us

The Emotion Archive is an ambitious project: our goal was always to accurately represent participants’ experiences. As such, our design process struck a balance between presenting the objective data and letting our contributors’ stories speak for themselves. Because of the intimate subject matter, we were also cognizant of privacy concerns—each participant was asked at various stages of the project if their words and videos could be used.


Color explorations and accessibility concerns when designing a full color spectrum. Each comment can also be tagged with up to 3 emotions/colors.


The comments and videos shared via the Emotion Archive are humbling and direct, but most of all, they are relatable. Hearing about parents struggling with remote education, of families bonding over roasting marshmallows, of rediscovering the joy of cooking, of grieving after losing a beloved family member—these stories are the most important artifacts to collect from this pandemic.

In relating to these personal stories and analyzing their content, I found solace in one thing: during this crisis, people were not focused on anger, disgust, or sadness—they accepted their new reality and chose a new possible. I thank them for allowing my team to help tell their story.


Special thanks to our entire Emotion Archive team: Brenden Brusberg, Joe Chiellini, Jean-Baptiste Coumau, Mary Delaney, Dan Grund, Priya Harish, Dale Jacques, Radis Jensethawat, Juan Jimenez, Sarah Jones, Sabrina Kennedy, Stan Li, Felipe Macia, Ashok Mohanty, Thomas Newton, Anna Obed, Anand Patel, Marco Rojas, Josh Rosenfield, Jeff Salazar, Derek Straka, Alanna Weiss, Katherine Willhoite, John Wilwol, Yue Wu, Lillian Zhu

The Emotion Archive
The Emotion Archive
 Illustration of McKinsey's COVID Response Center by Yue Wu, Aug 2020


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