Essays & Articles


Emotional Design: People and Things


In my book Emotional Design, I proposed a framework for analyzing products in a holistic way to include their attractiveness, their behavior, and the image they present to the user — and of the owner. In this work on design, these different aspects of a product were identified with different levels of processing by people: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. These three levels translate into three different kinds of design. Visceral design refers primarily to that initial impact, to its appearance. Behavioral design is about look and feel — the total experience of using a product. And reflection is about ones thoughts afterwards, how it makes one feel, the image it portrays, the message it tells others about the owner’s taste.

Consider the Jacob Jensen alarm clock shown below: It ranks very high at the visceral and reflective levels. This clock is on exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern art, and we bought ours at the museum gift shop. It is attractive, and its reflective level is high: after all, there is that prestige of the Museum of Modern Art behind it.

Kara Coyne, Jakob Nielsen, and I decided to study the implications of the theory. In the preliminary reports below, Coyne actually ran the experiments. Nielsen and I advised and were observers at some of the sessions: I took the photographs.

NOTE: Far more information about the study will be presented at the NN/g UE 2003 seminars. Coyne will report upon the study and I will give the more background about the principles of emotional design (see the talk abstracts at ). Eventually, this will be published as a Nielsen Norman group report.

The three alarm clocks used in the study. What times do they show? From left to right: 5:06, with no distinction between AM and PM; 5:06 PM, and 11:02, AM, I think.

The Jacob Jensen alarm clock is quite attractive, so much so that it is for sale at the New York Museum of Modern Art. But this one item reveals all of the conflicts in design: appearance, functionality, prestige, and price. Beautiful, prestigious, yet unusable. And expensive for an alarm clock. We tested this alarm clock with a variety of people, all of whom had to evaluate its the appearance, usability, and overall desirability. Each tester judged three different items for each of the categories we studied: alarm clocks, digital cameras, espresso makers, cell phones, websites, vegetable peelers, and wine-bottle openers (i.e., corkscrews, although not all had screws). The three alarm clocks are shown in the figure.

The Jensen clock was a particularly interesting item because its striking appearance was matched by an equally striking lack of usability. This is clearly a design firm that focuses entirely upon appearance, and just as clearly, nobody at the Museum of Modern art had evidently ever tried to use it. One woman was so frustrated with her attempt to use the Jensen clock that we had to stop her from continuing. She was close to tears and we feared for her health, to say nothing of the contamination this would bring to the next category we wished to test. But even though she was extremely frustrated by her attempts to use the clock, she loved the looks. She kept coming back to it as we proceeded with other products. “I’m dying to buy this,” she said, “but I couldn’t. I couldn’t use it. I wouldn’t be able to buy it even if I wanted to. That’s too bad.”

This was bizarre, we thought to ourselves. Here is a product so bad that she was practically in tears as she struggled with it. She couldn’t even figure out the instruction manual, and in her frustrated state, she couldn’t even find the English section because it was buried behind multiple legal warnings (for a battery operated alarm clock?) and sections for multiple other languages. Instruction manuals, we rediscovered, are, on the whole, simply horrid. We believe this reflects a complete lack of interest on the part of these consumer product companies, because it isn’t that difficult to write manuals properly. The Society For Technical Communication is filled with excellent people with considerable experience in doing just this. But we could say the same about usability — lots of people know how to build usable products. The crime is not lack of knowledge, it is lack of application, and in many cases, lack of concern.

Still, this woman’s love/hate relationship with the clock was particularly puzzling. She kept looking at it: “The price is fine if you really like it. It looks like a quality clock. But I can’t figure out how to use it. I can’t even tell what time it is. I don’t know what the first thing to do with it.”

She just couldn’t keep away. A few minutes later she returned once more to the clock: “I could buy it and have someone else set it up for me, but , but no, then what would I do?”

One other woman, this one extremely competent with technology who figured out everything else quickly balked at the Jensen clock. “I didn’t even know how to read the time without the manual. Once you’ve read the manual it makes sense.”

But when told the price, she balked: “Sixty bucks!” she yelled, loudly. “No way. I like the concept. It would definitely be a good thing on the wall and people would ask about it. Cool looking. I have no problem with unique objects for decoration, but not for function.” Note the contrast: our first woman thought the price reasonable, even though she couldn’t use the clock. This person thought the price outrageous. But even so, she said, it wouldn’t be bad price for a wall clock, and as a wall clock, it wouldn’t matter if people couldn’t tell the time — it would make for conversation.

Our studies lead us to suspect that just as we might be able to classify products along three dimensions of attractiveness (visceral), functional and usable (behavioral) and high in prestige (reflective), we can also classify people along these dimensions. Visceral level people will be strongly biased toward appearance, behavioral people towards function, usability, and how much the feel in control during use. And Reflective level people (who would seldom admit to be one), are heavily biased by brand name, by prestige, and by the value a product brings to their self-image – hence the sale of high-priced whiskey, watches,, automobiles, and home furnishings.

The second woman was clearly behavioral. In all the objects she tested, she rated them first on how well they performed, how comfortable she was using them. But then, she stated quite clearly, that if the product passed her initial tests, she would be willing to pay extra for something attractive. In the case of the clock, the behavioral test was waived because she treated it as a work of art, not a functional device, and as art, it didn’t matter if the time was readable. For that, her criterion was different: calling it a conversation piece allowed it to be judged reflectively.

Our Jacob Jensen lover was what I would call a Reflective Level shopper: Image and brand meant a lot to her. Before she knew the brands, but was simply allowed to look and pick up the three peelers, she pronounced the OXO Peeler to be superior. When she was told the brand names (EKCO, Martha Stewart, and OXO) she picked up the Martha Stewart peeler and expressed surprise. “This is Martha? She really knows what she is doing in the kitchen. I’m surprised she chose this handle. It isn’t as good as this one (OXO), and the blade wobbles. Still, maybe, … “

We then asked her to peel an entire carrot with each of the three peelers. The EKCO was first. She hated it: “it hurts,” she said. I’m really curious to use the Martha Stewart one, because she must have done it well. I know she must.”

The Martha Stewart peeler was second. But it really didn’t work well at all: “this is awful,” she complained, “I can’t believe this is a Martha Stewart. This is a Martha Stewart one? She (Martha) did not use it, believe me.”

Brand perception here dominates – or tries to, but in the face of obvious deficits, it fails.

Using the OXO, she said “see, this lets you have control. It doesn’t hurt your feelings.” And then, she went back to the Martha Stewart “I’m surprised she had that handle. And it was so dull.”

(We later discovered that we had inadvertently performed a natural experiment. This particular peeler was indeed dull, even though it was brand new. The dullness, however, allowed us to pit the power its brand against its poor performance — brand almost won. Later, we purchased a new sample of the Martha Stewart peeler that worked much better.)

Even after we moved her to the alarm clocks she kept persevering: “I am really shocked that was a Martha Stewart. I mean, it was useless. It isn’t rocket science, it’s just a potato peeler. You would think she would get it right.”

All products have multiple dimensions on which they need to be evaluated. Moreover, we buy different products for different purposes. An alarm clock or vegetable peeler is primarily meant to be functional. A wall clock could be functional as well as decorative, helping establish the style and image of the room. Some products are purchased primarily for their appearance, such as a flower vase or picture. Some primarily for image, such as an expensive watch or car.

If you want an alarm clock, function dominates, and here the Jensen falls down completely. It is incredibly difficult to use, and the way by which it encodes AM versus PM is so subtle that one of us (me) discovered it only after considerable study of the clock, using the manual, and then had to point it out to the other two of us (Nielsen and Coyne), who had not figured it out — and we consider ourselves highly skilled experts at products and technology.

But take the woman who thought that it would be a great wall clock. Here is where the appearance and the reflective value dominate. So what if people couldn’t tell what time it is, it would make for great conversations.

Mind you, even vegetable peelers fall into this category, because although one would think that functionality should rule the day, the Martha Stewart peeler attracted considerable interest just because of the brand. At least one person rejected it immediately once he heard the brand name, even before he tried it, before he knew the price. Image matters, even in something as mundane as a peeler, even if it is mostly stored in the drawer. One man, looking at the three peelers, said of the Martha Stewart peeler, “I would only buy this if I were displaying my kitchen tools, hanging them on hooks on the wall”.

The Three Vegetable Peelers. Left is generic (made by EKCO), middle is by Martha Stewart, and right is by OXO.

Products differ in their appeal on the three design dimensions, but so too do people and situations. Vegetable peelers are primarily bought for their behavioral aspects. Wall clocks might be bought for their visceral appeal, or their reflective image. Some people are behavioral, emphasizing the behavioral level in their choices. Some are visceral, going by appearances. Some are reflective, considering what others will think — although it is the rare person who will admit to this trait.

These distinctions are the essence of our findings. Design is complex business, not only because the products themselves are complex but because of the complexity of people and their needs.

The FrancisFrancis! Espresso maker was a great test of appearance: “it makes me smile. Oh, I want to touch it,” said one person as we raised the sheet to reveal this product.

Making a cup of espresso with one of the other espresso makers