red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Emotional Design:
Why we love (or hate) everyday things

Donald A. Norman
New York: Basic Books/Perseus ©2004


Drive through the uniformly gray concrete-and-glass business districts of even the most modest-sized city in the United States or flip the switch on the standard beige box of a desktop computer and you probably don't see any relationship between 'emotion' and 'design' that could be called 'good.' Most likely, you wonder, is there any relationship at all? Despite the oxymoronic title of this book, the author shows a connection and makes it a most positive one at that.

Emotional Design turns out to be an expansion of Donald Norman's earlier book, The Design of Everyday Things, in which his "intention was not to denigrate aesthetics or emotion." Rather, he "simply wanted to elevate usability to its proper place in the design world, alongside beauty and function." But Norman's professional colleagues roundly criticized his early single-minded emphasis on usability, saying, "If we were to follow Norman's prescription, our designs would all be usable — but they would also be ugly."

Stung by the criticism, Norman used it to challenge himself. Open to the opportunity to revisit his ideas, he started again, with the results explored in Emotional Design: "Usable designs are not necessarily enjoyable to use. And...an attractive design is not necessarily the most efficient," states Norman. He goes on to ask and investigate: "But must these attributes be in conflict? Can beauty and brains, pleasure and usability, go hand in hand?"

Through many examples and anecdotes, Norman convincingly argues "that the emotional side of design may be more critical to a product's success than its practical elements." He speaks to both the professional designer and the average user of everyday things, doing his best to illuminate the world of each to the other.

"In creating a product, a designer has many factors to consider: the choice of material, the manufacturing method, the way the product is marketed, cost and practicality, and how easy the product is to use, to understand. But what many people don't realize is that there is also a strong emotional component to how products are designed and put to use."

Why should we care? Because it's the emotional connection that can often predict a product's success or failure. But beyond the interesting and engaging inventions that might result from such an infusion of fun, emotion — particularly positive emotion — also expands creativity and innovation; it makes work worth doing and life worth living.

"We cognitive scientists now understand that emotion is a necessary part of life," says Norman, "affecting how you feel, how you behave, and how you think. Indeed, emotion makes you smart. That's the lesson of my current research. Without emotions, your decision-making ability would be impaired. Emotion is always passing judgments, presenting you with immediate information about the world: here is potential danger; there is potential comfort; this is nice, that bad.... The surprise is that we now have evidence that aesthetically pleasing objects enable you to work better."

Norman distinguishes between emotion and affect (emphasis on the first syllable), with affect regarded as a "formal psychological term that refers to an observable state" of an emotion that "influences behavior or action." Such usage shows Norman-the-cognitive-scientist in action. Throughout the book, he weaves design principles identified as visceral (design focused on appearance), behavioral (dealing with pleasure and effectiveness of use), and reflective ("design [that] considers the rationalization and intellectualization of a product") with research findings from cognitive science. The combination effectively — and readably — carries us through Emotional Design.

"One finding particularly intrigued me," writes Norman. "The psychologist Alice Isen and her colleagues have shown that being happy broadens the thought processes and facilitates creative thinking. Isen discovered that when people were asked to solve difficult problems, ones that required unusual 'out of the box' thinking, they did much better when they had just been given a small gift — not much of a gift, but enough to make them feel good. When you feel good, Isen discovered, you are better at brainstorming, at examining multiple alternatives. And it doesn't take much to make people feel good. All Isen had to do was ask people to watch a few minutes of a comedy film or receive a small bag of candy."

That little nugget ought to be enough to encourage anyone to read this book and find out how to bring a bit of fun into the items and processes we use every day at home, at work, at play. Norman finishes off by making the connection between people and machine, discussing "the future of robots" and reminding us that "we are all designers. We manipulate the environment, the better to serve our needs. We select what items to own, which to have around us. We build, buy, arrange, and restructure: all this is a form of design."

Norman started his career writing about memory, attention, and how people think and learn. As computers appeared, he began investigating human-computer interaction and user-centered design. Out of that came stints at Apple Computer and Hewlett Packard, and the formation of a consulting firm, the Nielsen Norman group, with colleague and well-known computer usability guru Jakob Nielsen. Norman now splits his time between the computer science department at Northwestern University and the Nielsen Norman group. What an excellent deal for the rest of us!

 

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