Donald Norman’s 3 dimensions of emotional design

Emotional Design is both the title of a book by Donald Norman and of the concept it represents. The main issue discussed is that emotions have a crucial role in the human ability to understand the world, and how they learn new things.

For example, aesthetically pleasing objects appear to the user to be more effective, by virtue of their sensual appeal. This is due to the affinity the user feels for an object that appeals to them, due to the formation of an emotional connection [with the object].

Norman’s approach is based on classical ABC model of attitudes. However, Norman changed the concept to be suitable for application in design. The three dimensions have new names (visceral, behavioural and reflective level) and partially new content. In the book, Norman shows that design of most objects are perceived on all three levels (dimensions). Therefore a good design should address all three levels.

  • The Visceral level is obtained through intuition rather than from reasoning or observation. This level is influenced significantly by appearance, texture and sound of objects.
  • The Behavioural level refers to the actions or reactions of a person, usually in relation to the environment, to an object or person. Behaviour can be conscious or unconscious, overt or covert and voluntary or involuntary. This level is about functionality and is influenced by pleasure and effectiveness of use (accessibility and usability).
  • The Reflective level refers to the capability of quiet thought or contemplation. This level is influenced strongly by self-image, satisfaction, memory and the meaning of things. This level becomes more important as products mature.

Donald Norman - Emotional Design Venn Diagram

Norman postulates that these three dimensions are interwoven through any successful design and that it is not possible to have design without all three.

The three dimensions interweave both emotions and cognition. Emotion is a necessary part of life, affecting how you feel, how you behave and you think. Without emotions, Norman suggests any decision making would be impaired. Emotion passes judgement and gives continual feedback allowing you to make valuable decisions and is therefore key in any approach to successful design.

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