Curve editor, Belinda Stening, spoke to the Californian based author, cognitive scientist and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, about emotional design and his work with clients in a broad range of industries.

What is emotional design?

The point of emotional design is that emotions play a central part in all our lives. Emotions are complex. There are at least three levels that are important to designers.

The bottom level I call ‘visceral design’. Visceral design is about appearance. This taps the ‘pre-wired’ biological aspects of emotion. Completely subconscious. It is why, for example, we like bright colours and dislike heights and darkness. Why we like sweet tastes and dislike bitter ones.

The middle level, I call ‘behavioural design’, which is about function and operation: the ‘feel’ of a product. This is where expectations play a major role in the way we expect a response when we push a button or pick up something, or even caress it in our hands. The behavioural level is subconscious and learned.

The highest level is reflection or ‘reflective design’. This is about self image. It is about the message that we send to ourselves and to others when we see or interact with a particular design. This is where branding is so important and where artistic values come to the fore.

To give an example, on the cover of my book is the Philippe Starck juicer. At a visceral level this juicer often causes revulsion. It looks like a menacing, monstrous insect or a science fiction monster.

At the behavioural level it actually works. You can make orange juice. But that’s not what it’s about. This is really a reflective piece. It’s a piece of art, it’s a piece to display and to say ‘hey this is from Philippe Starck’. For example, in my house, I keep it in my living room not in my kitchen.

How have others responded to your work in this area?

It’s been amazingly good. The part that pleases me the most is the extremely wide variety of industries that have made use of it. I have worked with clients in everything from advertising to automobiles to candy.

When I work with people I emphasise the three dimensions that they must be concerned with. These include artistic talent – for the appearance, and the usability communities so that the behavioural aspects of the product are understood and intelligible. The marketing and advertising community are relevant to the reflective aspects of the design.

Each community is somewhat different. For a candy manufacturer that I worked with we took a very different approach.  This client had a really wonderful high quality chocolate that was packaged in a way that made it look inexpensive.

My suggestion to them was that they sell it in much smaller pieces and wrap it more elegantly, and raise the price. This would send the message that this was high quality chocolate. As it stood, few knew that it was so good!

As you can see, this is a branding example. Branding is the shorthand that tells you about the quality and reputation of a product. The reputation is what is important. Difficult to get. Difficult to maintain.

Here was a company that was throwing away its opportunity to have a reputation for high quality by making it look like an inexpensive, low quality product.

How do you measure a potential user’s emotional responses to a product or a brand?

For the visceral responses we can do this by testing people’s responses to prototypes. The behavioural responses can only be tested through usage.

The usability community does have a wide variety of ways of testing behavioural responses – rapid prototyping schemes, or what is called the Wizard of Oz scheme.

Can you explain that process?

The Wizard of Oz technique in design involves making a simple, fake prototype, but acting as if it were real. Smoke and mirrors – or more often, clever use of computers and hidden people with hidden microphones and other gadgets.

Take a simple card or paper mock-up of the product and by using ‘smoke and mirrors’ make it look as if it’s really working. If the person pushes a cardboard button, someone behind the scenes quickly does whatever it takes to make the product look like it actually does something.

The only way to test responses or emotions at the behavioural level is by watching people’s behaviour.

The reflective level can be tested through focus groups because these reveal people’s conscious beliefs and rationalisations. Focus groups are a bad way to get at the other two aspects of design.

Is emotional design linked to personalising products in any way?

I believe that we have the strongest commitment and love for things we have personalised for ourselves – made our own. This is not the same as going to the automotive dealer and being able to select one out of twenty options, or using the preferences in a software package. This is much deeper.

This is about taking your mobile phone and painting it with your favourite designs. It is about decorating your home to suit your needs. It is about your favourite chair, even though it might be old and scruffy, or your treasured photograph or teacup, even if ripped or chipped.

How do changes in societies affect emotions?

There are, as I mentioned, different levels of emotions. The visceral and behavioural are relatively fixed in time and relatively unaffected by culture and by events.

But the reflective side is highly sensitive to culture, it varies from culture to culture even within the same country. It can change dramatically with world events, or for that matter, with the opinions of others.

Teenagers inhabit a different culture than their parents, even though they live in the same home.

Designing for the behavioural is challenging because it is difficult to make complex devices easy to use and understandable. But designing for the reflective side is the most difficult because it varies so much across people and then, can change so rapidly, even within the same individual.  

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