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Three Levels of Don Norman Emotional Design: Why Designers Should Understand Them



Don Norman emotional design theories teach us about how designers create products that impact people’s feelings and willingness.

To be an excellent designer, it is not enough to learn how our users react, but we must understand why. Why are some users entertained by our services, while others are not? Why do some people share their good experiences while others do not?

Think about this for a while; when people are anxious, we know that they limit their decision processes, focusing on aspects directly related to a problem. This is the best way to escape from danger, but it is not ideal to think about new imaginative approaches to face a problem. Simultaneously, the research shows that when people are happy, their thinking processes expand and become more creative.

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In his fascinating book, Don Norman examines three design levels that catch how people emotionally react to visual experiences. Visceral design is how things look, feel, and sound. Behavioral design deals with how to get the items to work well and to make their functionality undoubtedly accessible. Reflective design is the meaning of things, messages, and products mature. 

Those are a must-have package of aesthetics in a product design. But, how do we make something more beneficial to use? Only by making it easier for people to find solutions to the problems they face. Still, it is true that, in a logical mind, our products should be functional. Yet, Don Norman says that our products must be attractive and have to be emotionally impactful.

Norman’s three design levels are also discussed by Virginia Postrel. The primary things in a harmonious design composition are functionality, purpose, and satisfaction. Designers should bring those compositions at the end of the process, as impressionists. While the functionality still needs to be there, it is an expectation rather than a unique selling point. Our products will automatically have meaning, pleasure, and aesthetics by combining attractiveness and functionality. In the end, we can create lasting satisfaction with our products or services for a long time.

Four Elements of Emotional Design

Emotional design can change the product’s functionality into memorable and lasting experiences. This typically shows four aspects:

1. Emotion and Memory Connectivity

It has been identified for a while that encountering emotion can influence how well we remember things. Like watching a tragic scene, we may also increase how well we remember something we’ve seen. 

According to the physiological aspect, when everything is more attractive, our brains are engaged with serotonin and dopamine because we are in a good state of mind. It will increase our working memory. If this happens, we can work through confusion and be more creative. Even when something isn’t easy to apply, it will become easier.

2. Aesthetic and Usability Effect

Aesthetic design is worth the investment. Visual designs that appeal to our clients have the side effects of making our site better designed and professional. The good effect is that they are more patient with minor issues.

Nevertheless, this effect is strongest when the aesthetics work to support and improve the design and functionality. Additionally, this effect often impacts user comments during their experience. As always, listen to what users say, and take their opinion into consideration.

3. Persuasive Emotion

Emotions also enable users to make quick decisions. They use cognition to understand and interpret their experience, and their feelings support decision-making. From the people’s perspective, users tend to do quick judgments. For instance, when seeing a design, their eyes will do much of the reflecting for them, and in a split second. 

UX designers have real empathy with their clients, simply because they want to help them fall in love with great designs. By increasing the user’s engagement, they will take the actions that designers desire them to make. The goal here is to design persuasively based on how users’ decision-making occurs.

4. Ownership Effect

Customers value more experiences where they feel a sense of personalized use. The experiences or products are an expansion of their impression. Still, it is necessary to remind yourself that the design work you do is legally owned by your customer or the company you work for. At the end of the project, you will have to turn over the entire work and its ownership.

In his work, Porteous (1976) suggested that the feeling of ownership can fulfill some of our basic necessities as a human: a feeling of control, a sense of self-worth, and stimulation. It can also make us feel closer to home and secure when we know we own something.

Then, How do We Transfer Emotional Design That Gives Positive Emotions?

The writer of The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman, has listed three design levels that designers can embrace to build positive emotions through the product design. These levels are also specified from the perspective of the cognitive aspect.

1. Visceral 

“I really want it. It looks marvelous, I will purchase it now.”

The most common aspect of visual design is the visceral design that makes our products look attractive. How the visceral design works with its personality and cultural values can affect how we perceive something naturally. It takes only a second to determine if the ‘look and feel’ of the products appeal to people. We can tell if the visceral quality is present by observing people’s first impressions. So, here are some examples of visceral implementation:

  • An uncluttered user interface (UI) design suggests smoothness and simplicity of use.
  • Using the right colors to catch the audience’s attention.
  • New product development to make the products more human-centric.

The visceral design aims to get inside the customer’s head and appeal to their emotions to enhance the user experience. The visceral design also affects the perception of our product’s credibility, trustworthiness, quality, interest, and easiness. Strong and positive visceral responses have the following advantages:

  • Visceral sets a positive meaning for every interaction.
  • Customers are more likely to forgive mistakes later on if the initial experience is overwhelmingly positive.
  • “Love at first sight” will boost the positive culture of the product.

The visceral design covers the customers’ awareness and feelings, and the product’s attractiveness.

2. Behavioral

“I can understand it. It makes me feel crafty.”

Behavioral design is all about performance. According to Norman, the look doesn’t matter; what matters is performance. He affirms that visceral design is central for graphic designers. Metaphorically speaking, behavioral design is the bread and butter of usability designers. Behavioral design is perhaps the easiest to examine, as performance levels can be measured once the physical, for example:

  • The usable parts of a gadget (handles, buttons, grips, levers, switches, and keys) are modified or manipulated in some action. 
  • Find a contact and make a call quickly on a mobile screen.
  • The simplicity of typing on a small touchscreen device.
  • The enjoyment we feel when using a well-designed mobile phone.
  • The smoothness when discovering the products/services and subscribing to the website.

A visual design needs to highlight related functions that fulfill our needs that are acceptable and useful. In behavioral design “understanding comes after function.” The behavioral design has the following benefits, including:

  • It permits customers to feel a sense of self-reliance.
  • It cultivates trust and reliability by building a relationship between a customers’ actions and the expected value.
  • It encourages repeat reactions, as people are more willing to experience what brings them pleasure.

There are four components of good behavioral design: product function, effectiveness, performance, and usability. Importantly, to ensure a great behavioral design, we need to know our customers’ needs, for instance, by seeing how they interact with the design we produce. 

3. Reflective

“I am really satisfied. I love the services!”



A reflective design is how we feel after we have been interested in the experience. It is how we keep in mind the user experience itself and how it makes us think. It decides whether we need to explore that experience again or not. On top of the two levels, the reflective level is connected to intelligent cognition, where logic and decision-making occur. Below are the examples of a reflective level:

  • User’s perception of the device’s usefulness and ease of use.
  • How much they would enjoy the products and the levels of self-expressiveness of the services.

What’s more, Apple’s first version of their smartwatch had functional problems and usability issues. Still, those didn’t stop the company from generating the second-largest worldwide revenue in the watch business within the first year of retailing it. Anyway, the reflective level has the following benefits, including:

  • It helps users to share their experiences with other people.
  • It evokes a sense of satisfaction and uniqueness after using a product that spreads the product itself.

Powerful and positive reflective reactions may inspire the customers to give their experiences with others and evoke a sense of satisfaction and connection after using a product that spreads over the product. Their thoughts catch the product’s meaning, the decisions, the shareability, and the culture (Baker, 2019). Overall, by combining those three design levels in the right way, we can make a design:

  1. Appealing: catch the user’s attention and affect their perception.
  2. Effective: lead the user’s attention and make sure they find what they are looking for.
  3. Pleasurable: allow the user to appreciate your project design and have fun.
  4. Memorable: build a relationship with the customers and ensure a positive memory of you.

Briefly, the visceral design shows the appearance of the design. The behavioral level relates to how the product works. The reflective level relates to the long-term result of the design.

Tips for Augmenting the Emotional Impact

To create engaging experiences, the designers must develop proper and positive emotions for each level (visceral, behavioral, and reflective). We also need to reach a deep knowledge of the users through UX research. Here are 12 ways to make the emotional design works for you:

1. Give our Product or Services a Signature Personality

A mascot for clients to identify a company’s personality that suits its brand. Examples include “RRPeople” in a Presentation Design Service (RRGraph), M&M’s Spokescandies, Colonel Sanders (KFC), etc.

2. Expressive Imagery

Use images, illustrations, and animations that your users can demonstrate emotion and help them sympathize.

3. Have Your Design Engage Users as Characters 

Include personal touches in all projects, to reinforce the attractive illusion of treating users like old friends.

4. Positive Surprise 

Evoke positive emotional reactions by giving the users special offers and prizes from events.

5. User-friendly Tone

Use a friendly tone to speak with your users more humanly. Use empathy and encouragement through interactive UI. We can write appropriate terms, such as “Deliver your ideas through well-crafted slides” like a PowerPoint expert’s motto. Plus, use fonts and styles that suit the image you want to project.

6. Humor 

Laughter and joy are strong positive emotions that ease fear and evoke a sense of happiness.

7. Storytelling 

Helps people know their journey of the experience, build interactions, and recall their experiences even after using the product.

8. Use Color Advantageously

Netflix chose the combination of red and white colors as a standard for its design. Red symbolizes desire and energy, while white was apparently chosen as a neutral background. RRGraph Design has a yellow color that symbolizes warmth, cheerfulness, and passion.

To Conclude

Above all, embracing a creative and positive emotional engagement through a friendly design can reinforce your customer testimonials. Clearly, your design product should look different from competitors. It should also be a reliable and pleasurable part of users’ experiences.

Finally, people will love your products and tell others about them if the experience evokes lively visceral, behavioral, and reflective emotional design. Believe it, those three design levels will yield lasting, shareable, and engaging product experiences.

About the author

This article is written by Ulfah, an SEO Manager currently working for www.rrgraphdesign.com. Find her on LinkedIn.

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