Don Norman is something of a hero in the design community but is rarely known outside of it. Known by many designers as the father of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) field, his work has spanned academic and professional pursuits of greater volume than most. Of his many theories and publications, the Three Levels of Design may be the most popular (after Norman Doors of course).
Visceral Design is usually summarized as your ‘gut feeling’. Much of this is shaped by past experience or assumptions. When I was younger, I volunteered in many food drives. It was often a miserable job in the midwest as the weather always managed to drift snow or dump rain in the exact window in which we worked. Trudging in from that experience, a wet and huddled mass of people were greeted with a wall of warmth and of two distinct scents: economy coffee and the sugary whiff of day-old donuts.
Decades later, I still look for the box of donuts when I smell coffee.
This is the visceral experience. Things that take you somewhere instantly without input from your conscious mind. It can be either the strongest ally or fiercest enemy to what your design is trying to do and should be considered at the first base level of design. Would your design cause an unfavorable reaction with the target audience based on similarities to past experience?
Behavioral Design encompasses the actual use of your designed element. In the case of a touch panel, that use is pretty obvious and linear. However, in the case of a motion sensor that queues some action, the behavior impact may not be as immediately clear. In both cases, Behavioral Design research should comprise how people will use it and feel about it while using it. Is it easy to use? Is it a dated graphic style? Are there buttons that don’t need to be there? Do these buttons even belong on this page? These are all things that a user will experience as a result of your Behavioral Design, so they need to be considered in the design phase of the project. A designer should constantly be asking ‘Is this how a person would use my product? Would they be happy with it if they did? Why?’
Reflective Design is the most nuanced of the three levels. Reflective design occurs after the experience is over. If you are one of the 70% of Americans that have been to Disneyland, take a moment. Close your eyes and think back to that experience. As you remembered, things that came back to you were probably somewhat visceral: the smell of a thousand other people’s sunscreen or the joy on your child’s face as they met their heroes. Maybe you remembered that moment the log flume jerked to begin its journey downhill. As you open your eyes, you’re left with a particular sentiment (positive or negative) about Disneyland. What you’re left with is your Reflective Perception. Other examples of this are the day after a great concert or even thinking back to fighting the Norman Door in the lobby of your new office. As we reflect back on these products/experiences, what do we feel?
Bringing It All Together
These three levels are the root of every experience. Nothing we design will be exempted from this processing, so we should consider them in every endeavor. There are some good experiences in the world and there are some incredible ones. What separates the two? I would argue that nearly all experiences that aren’t incredible aren’t respecting the Three Levels of Design. Maybe your product relies too heavily on the form than the function which leads people to have a bad reflective opinion of the value. Maybe you’ve opened an Executive Briefing Center half a mile from an active dump and the smells in summer cut your ROI in half when people react viscerally stepping out of the car. Without refining all three levels, your experience won’t reach the level of success that it could.
Each of us is vitally concerned with the experience that our customers have. Whether your customer is your staff, renters, coworkers, friends and family, or even community, you endeavor to serve their needs to build your business. Delivering anything less than the most optimal experience doesn’t serve your purpose or theirs. However, if you can explore all three Levels of Design, you can be confident that this will be your biggest win yet.
Author’s Note: Don Norman has published several truly excellent books. This article discusses a single theory of hundreds. I highly recommend that you consider purchasing ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ by Don Norman if you’re interested in exploring this subject further.