Emotion is an Integral Part of Design

People typically have the impression that something beautiful works better. For designers the question is, why does this happen? Professor Donald Norman has some answers.

Donald Norman is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego and a professor of Computer Science. He currently works with cognitive science in the domain of usability engineering and has a particular taste for the products we enjoy using (when the mind and heart come together).

In his book “Emotional Design,” Professor Norman develops three concepts that help us understand the levels of mental processing, to understand why emotions are essential for usability:

  1. Visceral
  2. Behavioral
  3. Reflective

Let’s delve deeper into each level, analyzing the main aspects we should consider when we design a software product.

First Level: Visceral – Generating First Impressions

The first of these levels is the Visceral, which is where first impressions are generated. Do you know the phrase “Do not judge a book by its cover”? When our brain sends responses to our body about how we should act in a certain situation, this situation is evaluated by a first glance. It’s through that initial glimpse that we generate an opinion and a reaction.

That reaction is based on our previous experiences and knowledge. It is something totally normal and unconscious, which allows us to use tools that we adopted during similar experiences in the past.

This aspect is directly related to the beauty of what we see. Everything that contains recognizable elements is more likely to be accepted. People look for symmetrical, geometric or simple shapes because they calms us and relax us rather than generating stress.

This is what allows us to accept or reject the things we encounter. As Donald Norman puts it:
“People perceive more-aesthetic designs to be easier to use than less-aesthetic designs.”

However, this is not an excuse to let ourselves be guided by our visceral state and to judge only by what we can see with the naked eye. We must take into account the next level of processing, the Behavioral.

Second Level: Behavioral – Unconscious Movement

In this state, our reactions are produced automatically. That is, we can react without analyzing each part of the process. For example, when we walk we make an endless number of movements, from the obvious that it is to take one step after another, to the internal and biological processes that are necessary to perform a motor movement. So, at this level we have the ability to perform an action unconsciously, which allows us to be relaxed and to act naturally without making any effort.

Therefore, this aspect is directly related to usability. How many times do you use objects without having to be aware of the process that’s entailed? Being able to get someone to use your product, without even having to analyze it, means that it is at the height of usability. For example, right now you are using the screen scroll to continue reading. Did you notice?

Again, in Professor Norman’s words…
“Behavioral design is all about use.”

But could we live in a world where everything is merely usable, without beauty in absolute?

Beauty is directly related to the emotional state of people. By observing something, we generate an opinion and react, but beauty makes us feel something.

On the other hand, Usability allows us to use an element in the most natural way possible. Most likely, if a product is not to our liking or it is impossible for us to fulfill our goal, we’ll stop using it out of frustration.

“Be clear about the goals that have to be met. They will guide the design and will establish the priorities to be taken into account.”

Agustin Sciotti, Junior UX Designer at Making Sense

The pleasure of using a good tool effectively refers to the feelings accompanying skilled accomplishment, and derives from the behavioral level.

Therefore, how are these two edges connected? And what should we prioritize? Is it possible to have beauty and usability? Both seem important.

Donald Norman explains it with a third level of mental processing, the Reflective.

Third Level: Reflective – Learning new things

This is where we analyze and take into account all aspects of what we are doing or using. That is, we gain the opportunity to learn new things from unknown situations. So it allows us to give a value to what we are evaluating. At this level, we find ourselves asking:

  • What do we expect from this object?
  • What are we looking for?
  • What is the OBJECTIVE?

It is then that the aggregate of beauty and usability come together. For example, we can expect a watch to look good to go to a party, to be innovative and showy, even if we do not know how the time is read because it is too complex to understand. In this case, the user’s goal is to demonstrate their status level.

But we can also be looking for a clock to know what time the food is ready. So we’re probably going to look for a specific type of watch, like a stopwatch.

Then, beauty and usability are two components that go hand-in-hand and influence the outcome in equal measure. However, it is necessary to know the user, their objectives and the context of use, to know what is to be prioritized and leave the user satisfied with what you are going to acquire.

Donald Norman brings up the example of a juicer whose aim is to spark conversation during a meeting. The object takes value as a sculpture, but it is also a squeezer, so functionality is sacrificed (making juice) to generate an innovative object and with a clear objective “to initiate a conversation in a meeting”.

“It’s not particularly beautiful, and it’s certainly not useful, but what a wonderful story it tells!”- Norman. 

So what are you willing to sacrifice for a design?

Beauty and usability may vary depending on the objectives, users, customers and the business, but the important thing is to be clear about the goals that have to be met. Your goals will guide the design and will establish the priorities to be taken into account.

If you haven’t read Professor Norman’s book or if you’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on one of his classes, I will be glad to share his Ted Talk were he exposes all these concepts. Enjoy!