Touchy-feely toasters

Thursday, April 22, 2004

A new book argues that products should be designed around their users' emotions.

Designers and scientists are eager to place emotions at the centre of products and computing. International conferences organise around incorporating emotion into all aspects of design (1). Academics are devoted to researching 'funology' - 'a body of knowledge about fun': building enjoyment into our lives through design (2).

Scientists are developing systems that can respond to your emotional state, sensing when you are agitated and offering you a proverbial cup of tea, by calming you down, or slowing the speed of your computer game. The premise of the project - called Humaine, and funded from an £6million European Union (EU) grant - is that without our emotions, people can't function or operate - as one scientist puts it, 'we cannot act without our feelings being switched on' (3). This talk of automated emotional intervention conjures up nightmarish visions, of machines interfering in our inner lives.

Computer counselling might be a little far off for now. But a new book by one of the world's leading experts on ensuring that design is usable argues that in the future, we should judge successful design not just in terms of how it functions but also in terms of the emotions it evokes in us - and even the emotions it evokes in the products themselves. In Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things, Don Norman asks: 'Will my toaster ever get better, making toast the way I prefer, unless it has some pride? Machines will not be smart and sensible until they have both intelligence and emotions. Emotions enable us to translate intelligence into action.' (4) Imagine it: burnt toast again. 'Bad toaster! I'm going to package you up and send you to the counsellor straight away.'

Norman's book is the widely anticipated sequel to his bestseller The Design of Everyday Things, first published in 1988, in which Norman ably captured a rational, human-centred approach to solving design problems. However, his latest effort seems to offer the opposite approach: arguing that designers should become more preoccupied with our emotions, and the subconscious and irrational side to our behaviour. The premise of Emotional Design is that 'the emotional side of design may be more critical to a product's success than its practical elements' (5). Norman is correct here only if we lower our creative ambition. Without pushing for innovation in design, the designer must try to create an appeal in other ways. One of those ways, as Norman eulogises, is emotional appeal - which in itself is not a bad thing, but could easily become a substitute for good design.

And if designers can't come to terms with innovation, the likelihood is that this will trickle down in terms of how they view the needs of the end-user or customer. As we know, people are certainly complex, and difficult to predict. But now, more than ever, we need to respect people as capable of complexity, intelligence and rationality. Designing around emotional appeal can mean that harder problems that need solving are neglected.

Back in the late 1990s, Norman was among a small coterie of experts, including Jakob Nielsen, who railed against unusable products. They promoted human-centred design (HCD) - a methodology that places people at the centre of the design process, which is focused first and foremost on the end-user or customer's needs, rather than the needs of the producer. At a time when the internet was still in its infancy, these experts aimed much of their fire at bad product and software design, which in their eyes had disregarded the end user.

The much-quoted example of a mismatch of design versus the user is the videocassette recorder (VCR), which some people found almost impossible to programme. However, users' desire to video their favourite programmes or play movies meant that they learnt to overcome bad design - managing to work the machine, while disregarding complex features.

During the dotcom boom and bust, Norman's views found many followers - not only among designers, but also among their clients. With hindsight, the bursting of the internet bubble had more to do with badly thought-out business-models, than with hard-to-use interfaces. The movement that Norman helped to create has become more vocal over time - but this is as much to do with the weakness in business innovation as it is with the strength of new products that involve the customer in the design process. The outcome has been that clients are prepared to listen more to the ideas of customers and their advocates, than to promote their own ideas.

The call for emotional design is a further extension of HCD, but it comes with many more problems. For a start, eulogising the customer's subjective needs doesn't necessarily equal good design, which also requires a top-down systematic vision. In addition, designing around people's emotions can easily lead us to view people as needy, weak and emotionally dependent - and, as a consequence, less able to get what they want from products. Designing emotional fulfilment into products reinforces a view of people as vulnerable and in need of support.

In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman called for designers to solve problems from a user-centred perspective, which he termed 'behavioural design'. Now he argues that in order for products to work, designers must deal with two more aspects of design - the visceral and the reflective. 'Each of the three levels of design - visceral, behavioural, and reflective - plays its part in shaping your experience. Each is as important as the others, but each requires a different approach by the designer.' (6)

'Great technology does not need to console us - it should offer a lot more'

The visceral is to Norman 'all about immediate emotional impact. It has to feel good, look good' (7). And 'reflective' is the meaning a consumer invests in the product, or what the product advertises about the consumer. There is nothing new here for many designers. Good design has always been about innovation in function, as well as creating an ephemeral appeal in a product's unique aesthetic quality. There are many other factors that come into play here - brand, marketing, cost, notions of quality, and the ever-changing cultural perception of a product.

What is new is the aim to mould people and design around emotions. Interviewed in the Guardian recently, Norman said: 'We now know how to make products that work fine; how do we make products that make you smile?' (8) There are numerous examples of this: cars with smiley faces, and products with curves rather than sharp edges. Just take a look at the remodelled BMW Mini when it whizzes past - its design is a sentimental reflection of the Mini's past with comforting curves, and its front resembles a smiling face. The Mini has proved a popular success, along with other products such as the Apple iPod music player - and the 'reflective' aspect of these designs undoubtedly contributes to their popularity. But when Norman continues to explain the need for emotion in the future of computing and technology, he offers a more degraded sense of what technology can offer us.

Norman predicts that the future of computing and robotics is emotional: 'Future machines will need emotions for the same reason people do: the human emotional system plays an essential role in survival, social interaction and cooperation, and learning. Machines will need a form of emotion - machine emotion - when they face the same conditions, when they must operate continuously without any assistance from people in the complex, ever-changing world where new situations continually arise.... [T]hey won't be human emotions, mind you, but rather emotions that fit the needs of the machines themselves.' (9) Even so, Norman's vision here is that technology is supportive of our needs, instead of performing tasks that are out of the realm of human ability.

When we encounter these labour-saving robots in the home, he argues, they will comfort us: 'they will need to display their emotions, to have something analogous to facial expressions and body language.' (10)

Norman reminds us that in 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL - the artificially intelligent computer controlling the spaceship - went wrong, and used its emotions to protect itself from the advances of Dave Bowman. Of course, in the end Bowman got the better of HAL, and turned it off. But Norman's point is that with the future trends of integrated-location-base devices, network-aware devices and appliances, the computers of the future actually need emotions to protect themselves from themselves - and also from us.

But contrary to Norman's thesis, what is needed now is a stronger sense of ourselves as rational beings. In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman argued for a more rational focusing upon people's needs. Today, his calls for emotionalism negate much of his earlier work. Great technology does not need to console us, or calm us down - it should offer a lot more, by helping to transform our lives.

Norman is right that great design is about letting the user customise a product or service for his or her own ends. However, the focus on emotions implicitly assumes that people are too weak to comprehend what is important for them, and need instead to be cajoled or comforted. In Norman's vision, the designer will have a bigger role - but not in transforming society, just in counselling the people within it.


(1) Conference on Design and Emotion 2004

(2) Enjoyment and fun, on the York Usability Research website

(3) Machine rage is dead...long live emotional computing, Robin McKie, Observer, 11 April 2004

(4) Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, Donald Norman, Basic Books, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(5) Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, Donald Norman, Basic Books, 2004, p5 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(6) Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, Donald Norman, Basic Books, 2004, p65 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(7) Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, Donald Norman, Basic Books, 2004, p69 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(8) Emotional about design, Jack Schofield, Guardian, 11 March 2004

(9) Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, Donald Norman, Basic Books, 2004, p162 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(10) Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, Donald Norman, Basic Books, 2004, p163 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))