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.