Notes on Donald Norman’s book Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things

Donal Norman is an academic of cognitive science, computer science, design and usability engineering. His approach to user-centred design in his previous books was focused in usability, trying to figure out, from a scientific perspective, what makes something a good or bad design. He didn’t take emotions into account, only usability and functions from a logical, dispassionate way (as he states). Emotional design, represents a change of his viewpoint about how people relate with products. He now states that there are different emotional layers to consider, beyond the logical perspective of usability. In his opinion, emotions and cognition are thoroughly intertwined. So, the question arose: Can beauty and usability go together?

1. Attractive things work better

In this chapter Norman explains that the affective system works independently of the conscious thoughts, but that both are equally important and extremely related. Decision making that was believed to be a logical, rational process, was proved to be wrong by scientific studies that demonstrated how the affective system influences the decision by giving fast warning of what is good or bad. Moreover, research also showed that when people are relaxed and happy, they become more creative and more imaginative in problem solving situations. Attractive things work better because they make people feel good, thus people are more tolerant of minor difficulties and they think more creatively. Plus, they are willing to work harder to find the solution to what they are trying to do.

2. The multiple faces of emotion and design

Norman’s studies of emotions suggest that there are 3 level of the cognitive and emotional system for humans: Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective. These are response mechanisms that analyse and generate physical responses. The visceral is a biological level that reacts to certain things like temperature, shapes, lightning, textures, smells, etc. It is about appearance and touch&feel. Behavioural and reflective level are directly affected by culture. Behavioural is about function, performance and usability, whilst reflective is about interpretation, understanding and reasoning. The question is how to combine these 3 levels or 3 designs in one product. There is no clear answer to that question but it should be take into consideration that no product will never satisfy everyone.

Products must be attractive and pleasurable but also effective, understandable and appropriately priced. Products must strive for balance among the 3 levels.

3. Three levels of design: Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective

Each of the 3 levels of design (Visceral, behavioural and reflective) play its part in shaping the experience of use. Each is as important as the others, but each requires a different approach by the designer.

Visceral: People learn sometimes to overcome the visceral response of the body (to be in noisy places, to eat spicy food, etc.) when for instance a thing is viscerally negative, but reflectively positive (i.e. to ride a roller-coaster in an amusement parks). Effective visceral design requires the skills of the visual and graphic artists and industrial engineers.

Behavioural: What matters here is function, understandability, usability and physically feel. When designing for the behavioural level, the hardest is to understand the unarticulated needs of the user, because they don’t know what they need. Observation is the appropriate type of research for this situation, instead of focus groups, questionnaires or surveys which rely to much on the user opinion.

Reflective: There is nothing practical or biological about the this level. Attractiveness is to visceral, what beauty is to reflective. Beauty comes from conscious, it looks below the surface. The overall impact of a product comes through reflection (again, the example of the roller coaster), that is why costumer relationship plays a mayor role in the reflective level.

4. Fun and games

How to maintain excitement, interest and aesthetic pleasure for a long time? Like in music, literature and art, through the depth and richness of the things. That way, it is possible to perceive something different on each experience. Products that give joy over the pass of time usually follow these 3 steps: Enticement (make an emotional promise), Relationship (continually fulfil the promise) and Fulfilment (end the experience in a memorable way).

5. People, places and things

In chapter 5, the author refers to humans and the natural tendency to interpret emotions in people and objects. Computer anger is a case in point of how people humanise and interpret as animated something that is not. The reflective level is the one that relates past events and makes conclusions. People tend to blame the computer as if it was its fault, similarly to team work relationship. Moreover, the fact that computers do not express shame or blame makes it more frustrating. People naturally want to trust, but trust comes from experience and it must be earned. It implies reliance, confidence and integrity.

6. Emotional machines

Norman describes how in this time (back in 2004) machines have reasonable amount of intelligence but no emotions. He states that non-verbal feedback, facial expression and body language will be needed in robots in order to understand them better. Machines will not be smart and sensible until they have both intelligence and emotions. Emotions not necessarily similar to humans emotions, but any other way of affective system. He goes deeper imagining possible home-robots and how they should interact. He discusses their shapes and general behaviour. He mentions that robots should have at least these 3 emotions in order to improve their performance: Pride, fear and frustration.

7. The future of robots

In this final chapter, Norman analyses possible robots and the implications of their role in society. For instances, robots for highly risk missions, educational robots (tutors) and robots for medicine. The increase of the amount of robots doing regular jobs would led to unemployment, among other social problems. Norman concludes that if robots combine intelligence with emotions “The positive impact will be enormous. The negative consequences will also be significant”

Epilogue: We are all designer

Norman includes in this epilogue some of the comments that he received through a survey for his personal study of emotions. There are mainly quotes that evoke one or more of the emotional levels, whilst explaining a product that they love, hate or maintain a love/hate relation.


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