Despite all the technological advancements over the years, the workings of the human mind still remain extremely complex and difficult to understand. In the book “Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things”, Donald A. Norman distinguishes between three aspects (or levels) of the emotional system, that is, the sum of the parts responsible for emotion in the human mind, which are as follows: the visceral, behavioral and reflective levels. Each of these levels, while heavily connected and interwoven in the emotional system, influences design in its own specific way (Norman, 2004).
The Visceral Level
I remember it like today, the first time I bought an iPhone, and that was many years ago. I bought it on the internet and looked forward to arriving. Already with its white box in hand, I could see that it was different from every cell phone that had ever bought. I slowly lifted the lid and there it was. It was a black iPhone 4 made of glass, heavy and with a huge screen (by that time, it was big). It was just wonderful. I put it in my hands, turned it on, and slid my finger over its incredibly smooth, touchscreen. It was the most beautiful device I had ever put in my hands. That was my Visceral level acting.
Starting with the most basic level of processing, the Visceral level has to do with the basic mechanisms of protection of the affective system of people, responsible for quick judgments about the environment, checking is good or bad, safe or dangerous, for example. The Visceral level is directly connected to the motor system — this is what causes animals to fight or flee, or to relax, for instance.
The visceral system is related to unconscious thought, which allows you to respond quickly and subconsciously to events. Its responses give rise to the startle reflex for novel and unexpected events. Because it is at a level where the person has no conscious control, it presents immediate responses, producing an affective state, unaffected by the context or history of the situation. Visceral level response evaluates the event momentarily automatically, where no cause is attributed, as well as no blame nor credit.
A visceral reaction is triggered by an initial sensory experience. It is that first impression that sets the mood and initial framing for which you’ll explore everything else. Powerful and positive visceral reactions can set a positive context for every subsequent interaction, make the users are more likely to forgive faults down the line if the initial experience was overwhelmingly positive, and encourage positive socialization of the product (Baker, 2019).
This level of design refers to the perceptible qualities of the object and how they make the user feels. Also, Visceral design aims to get inside the user’s head and tug at their emotions either to improve the user experience (e.g., improving the general visual appeal) or to serve some business interest (e.g., emotionally blackmailing the user to make a purchase, to suit the business’s objectives) (Komninos, 2017).
Lastly, this level has nothing to do with how usable, effective, or understandable the product is. It is all about attraction or repulsion, and great designers use their aesthetic sensibilities to drive these visceral responses.
The Behavioral Level
When I was a child, I used to love writing stories on the typewriter I had at home. The keys were relatively hard to press, but they worked very well. The noise that those old typewriter type bar letters made was memorable. The keys on my MacBook also work well, although they are much more sensitive and lower. But there’s a keyboard I hate: the iPhone digital keyboard. The smartphone is amazing, but its keyboard is not. Constantly error during my typing, especially when I’m in a hurry to answer someone. Almost always mistake several letters. I definitely don’t get along with the keyboard, even with newer iPhones that have huge screens. Maybe it’s the lack of tactile feel, or the fat-finger problem because the keys are too small. Anyway, I always stress myself.
Once we have completely learned to perform an action, when we want to perform it again, the only thing we need to do is think about the goal itself and, almost entirely subconsciously, we will perform the action quite naturally. This is what happens after we learn to drive a car and practice for weeks. You simply get in the car, sit in the seat and everything else is done almost subconsciously — almost no effort is required at that time. You just need to pay conscious attention to the street and which direction to go. But even in that case, the actual control of the muscles is beneath conscious perception: concentrate on not hitting other cars and the hands automatically adjust (Norman, 2004).
Actions and analyses at this level are largely subconscious. Even though we are usually aware of our actions, we are often unaware of the details. When we speak, we often do not know what we are about to say until our conscious mind (the reflective part of the mind) hears ourselves uttering the words. When we play a sport, we are prepared for action, but our responses occur far too quickly for conscious control: it is the behavioral level that takes control.
The behavioral level has to do with usability properly, which basically refers to the practical and functional aspects of a product or any other useful object. The Behavioral design includes usability, product function, performance, and effectiveness of use. Unlike the visceral level, which has more subjective and particular characteristics of each person, the behavioral level can be easily tested. For example, you could check how long it takes a user to complete a task, or how many errors they make when trying to perform an action with a product.
Examples of experiences at the behavioral level include the ease of typing on a computer keyboard, the difficulty of typing on a small touchscreen device, and the enjoyment a gamer feels when they use a well-designed game controller.
When products enable us to complete our goals with the minimum of difficulty and with little call for conscious effort, the emotions are likely to be positive ones. In contrast, when products restrict us, force us to translate or adjust our goals according to their limitations, or simply make us pay close attention when we are using them, we are more inclined to experience some negative emotion (Komninos, 2017).
Powerful and positive behavioral reactions allow users to feel a sense of empowerment, cultivate trust and reliability by creating a direct correlation between a user’s actions and expected value, and also encourage repeat reactions, as people are more inclined to want to experience that delight again (Baker, 2019).
The Reflective Level
Unlike the other two levels, the reflexive level is linked to conscious cognition, where reasoning and conscious decision making takes place. Again, unlike unconscious thought, reflection at this level is deep and slow.
This level concerns the user experience itself. It is like feeling after going through an immersive experience of using a product, and how we remember the experience itself, determining whether or not we want to try that experience again (Norman, 2004).
It usually happens after the events happen, with a reflection on them, being able to evaluate the actions and results. The highest levels of emotions come from the reflective level, for this is where the causes are assigned and where predictions of the future occur.
Powerful and positive reflective reactions may encourage users to share their experiences with others and evoke a sense of pride and identity from using a product that extends beyond the product itself. Overall, the reflective emotional design captures the meaning of the product, the impact of thoughts, the share-ability of the experience, and the cultural impact (Baker, 2019).
The Bottom Line
The Don Norman’s three levels of design were introduced, which are the Visceral, Behavioral, and Reflective level of design. The Visceral level of design refers to attractiveness, pre-consciousness, initial impression and feelings. The Behavioral level has to do with usability, product function, performance, the effectiveness of use. The Reflective level refers to the meaning of product, the impact of thought, sharing the experience and cultural meaning. The three levels all combine to form the entire product experience.
Baker, J. (2019). The Art of Emotion — Norman’s 3 Levels of Emotional Design. https://medium.muz.li/the-art-of-emotion-normans-3-levels-of-emotional-design-88a1fb495b1d.
Komninos, A. (2017). Norman’s Three Levels of Design. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/norman-s-three-levels-of-design.