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Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things

In Emotional Design, author Don Norman explores the way in which we make decisions and therefore how we choose and interact with products.

He breaks down the brain processes and how we experience things into 3 states of consciousness.

The first is the visceral level; the “gut” reaction to how something looks or feels. This occurs completely subconsciously and is controlled by the primal part of our brains. The epitome of this kind of design is one that makes someone say “I want that!” only then to be followed by “what does it do?”

The second is the behavioral level; In terms of design it refers to usability, functionality, and performance.  A product may be completely beautiful, but if it is a pain to use, causes frustration, or falls short of its intended functionality, the product has failed on the behavioral level.

The third is the reflective level; our highest levels of consciousness where we contemplate, reason, reflect upon self-image.  A product that appeals to this level might trigger a memory, act as a conversation piece, or reflect one’s social/political views.

By looking at how a product or experience affects each of these levels we can design things better.

These ideas don’t exactly seem novel to me. And although I feel like he went off on many tangents including proposing endowing robots with emotion (seriously, way too much robot talk), I did feel it helpful to stop and articulate these levels and really consider how I experience products I choose.

The thing I kept coming back to while reading this was the iPhone. Love it or hate it, it’s ubiquitous and kind of a standard. Whether this is because it was really the first of its kind, the first to have multi-touch, or the power and joy of all those apps, I feel, for me at least, a big part of its appeal is that it is absolutely stunning. Visually the 4S has simple lines, is sleek, and the black/silver/ glass combo is modern. In Norman’s terms it appeals to my visceral level.

But here’s the thing. It’s fragile. Glass breaks really easily, the polished metal scratches. So what do people(myself included) do when they get one? They get a case, covering up and thus negating all that beautiful design. So can something really be considered good design if you have to immediately buy something extra to make sure it doesn’t break?

This shows, to me at least, how when you start looking at your products through Norman’s levels, you see just how complex all three interact. The iPhone is expensive and I am always scared it will fall and break. So it has a strike in the behavioral level (I’m anxious every time I’m holding it) and reflective level(it costs too much) But ultimately the appeal on the visceral level and the functionality on the behavioral level win out.

We’ll see where I stand when it actually does break.

7 comments to Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things

  • Nancy

    On Ira Flato’s Science Friday yesterday, he interviewed the guy who makes the gorilla glass (at Corning) for the iphone.. Fascinating story.
    There are so many examples of things that are breathtakingly beautiful but don’t work properly… like the tiny tiny graphics on almost anything these days, but esp on electronic equipment, small and in the same color plastic.
    CAses also help you differentiate your phone.
    I think there’s got to be an interface revolution around organization…how things don’t really work together now… in all the devices. How size matters… its not really fun to search on the iPhone ..screen’s just too small. Or am I just too old?

  • Valerie Chen

    I was really glad to see you bring up the iPhone in reference to this article. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how I hardly know a single person who doesn’t have a smartphone (usually an iPhone) with a cracked glass front display or back. No one I know has bothered to get the glass replaced, but it seems almost ludicrous to invest in having such an expensive piece of technology and then operate it in a partially destroyed state. If everyone is running around with a shattered phone, there must be something flawed in the design (even though the iPhone has been continually heralded for its design). A person I went to high school with has even started his own small business repairing iPhones, and his most common service is replacing the glass. I don’t own an iPhone myself so I’m not as tapped into this world, so I wonder if the new iPhone 5 has addressed this issue. I saw this post on Reddit a day or two ago, where a person embraced his/her shattered phone by coloring in the cracks with highlighters. You can see the image here: ( It looks pretty great and is an interesting take on the state of things.

  • Liz Khoo

    There’s definitely a distinction between things that we love more vs. less as they get older, iPhones and most other technologies falling into the latter category. (I think Norman talks about this distinction but I read the book a while ago and have kind of forgotten 🙂

    I think the love it/hate it arguments do distill into personal taste and values. How often do I want to keep upgrading my phone when I know it just becomes more electronic waste, which is a big and ongoing problem.

  • Ilwon Yoon

    I have a similar experience related to iphone 4,and think that it is the one of the best epitome for explaining 3 state of how we react to a product. About 3 years ago, I decided to purchase a smartphone, but there was only a brand in my mind, apple. The simplistic design and intuitive iOS UI design had been intrigued me to have one after all of argument in my mind regarding to the high cost of monthly fee. Once I got it, it took my time much more what cell phone used to be, for instance like shooting texts or calling someone. Also, I fully enjoyed its design all the times regardless of having fear of breaking it or being stolen before it stopped working properly. Of course, widely known issue of iphone of losing signal did bother me whenever it dropped a call. At some point, my tolerance to the uncomfortable overcame the satisfaction of design, and that was the time I’d decided to switch apple iphone to Android. At that time I argued with myself about “design” and “functionality”. And the android phone in my hand obviously proved that the functionality had won the game. But this is not the end of the story. Although I am satisfied with my Android at some degree, I find myself that I am missing the unique design of iPhone which is hilarious.
    I wouldn’t say that this subconscious attraction to beautiful design will be same for everybody, but it’s more than what it look like.

    Lastly, one of my friend who is so into fashion was saying that “Once you are only seeking for comfortableness in your fashion which means that you are getting old, and losing your beauty of it.”

    ATT iphone has chronic issue with losing signal all the times, but it wasn’t a big deal for me since I simply enjoy the product. And here is the thing. Once it

  • Christina

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I think the iPhone is gorgeous and I love the way it feels “naked”. But I ALWAYS have the case on. Every now and then when I’m at home, or if I’m plugging it into a speaker doc (that’s another design issue), I’ll take the case off. I’m reminded of how beautiful it is, and what a shame it is that I have to cover it. What IS the point of having such a beautiful piece of technology if you don’t get to experience it? I guess I could just leave the case off. If it gets scratched, it gets scratched. Is that any uglier than the bulky case I have on it? I guess not. But the real concern is dropping it and having it break. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m kind of obsessed with my phone. It’s always in my hand, next to my computer, or in my pocket with my hand on it. I would go nuts if it broke and I had to go without it for a day.

    On the other hand, maybe this is similar to the way, for example, someone might not wear their most beautiful / favorite pair of shoes every day. Or their most expensive piece of jewelry, etc. If we did wear/use our most prized possessions every day, would they still be as precious? I guess these things are called material items for a reason. It’s the material/physical object that make them what they are. So maybe they should be taken care of?

    Liz brings up another interesting issue – upgrading. I was at a friend’s apartment the other day and the building has one of those communal party rooms. In the room is a doc for your iphone so that you can play music over the speakers. FAIL. The doc is too short for the newer iPhones! I found this to be so interesting. What a flaw. Same thing with the speaker docs that you can’t plug into with a case on. I’m amazed this didn’t come up at all in the design process.

  • jz1149

    Examples of emotion in design history abound. As web designers, if we’re aiming to create a usable interface, it’s the same as a chef striving to make edible food. After all, personality is the platform for emotion.But showing emotion in design has real risk. Some people won’t get it. Some people will even hate it. What I think is the most important is trust. Trust is a gut feeling more than a rational process, and visual design affects emotions in a very powerful way, perhaps more than any other stimuli.

  • Mack

    It’s hilarious how many articles on the internet are written every time a new iphone comes out, both applauding and bashing simultaneously everything that Apple had been working on in the past X months. In reality there will always be things that work, and things that don’t work as well. They’re cramming so many things into such a small little box, that it would be impossible to create something perfect.

    Chairs, for example, should be designed with comfort in mind. Style also plays a role, as it has to look good. Chairs though, have fewer hangups and things to screw up, wires to cross, etc. I’m not one to normally cut slack for gigantic corporations, but I think the challenge is crazy. There will always be things that dont’ work correctly because of this cycle we’re in.

    Why don’t they just make the body out of something that is meant to break and be replaced; the same enclosure that is used now, just make it be easier to replace yourself. Actually, I know the answer to that question – it’s because a lot of people just buy new phones if they crack theirs.

    The reason why we have phones like iphones, that break like iphones, is because of the cycles of production and mean-time-before-failure. The idea that things are programmed to break over time and are meant to be replaced has taken over how they are designed and produced.