Emotional Design, by Donald Norman

Posted: March 10, 2005 at 8:24 pm in nonfiction

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I go back and forth on my feelings about Donald Norman. I think that his observation of The Design of Everyday Things was a really important insight in understanding how omnipresent the role of design is. I liked his idea of information appliances in The Invisible Computer. But I’ve always been left a little bit annoyed at how simplistic his analysis tends to be. Alas, Emotional Design continues in that vein.

Interestingly, Emotional Design ties into Blink and Sources of Power. In the prologue, Norman is trying to establish that “emotion is a necessary part of life” and then states “The affective system makes judgments and quickly helps you determine which things in the environment are dangerous or safe, good or bad.” Sounds an awful lot like thin-slicing to me. His ideas also share characteristics of Bloom’s inner-judges in Global Brain, as Norman refers to research showing that “positive emotions are critical to learning, curiosity, and creative thought” and anxiety tends to narrow thought processes, much like the Bloom’s inner-judges help reward creative behavior with positive emotion and vice versa.

So there’s not much that’s new to me in Emotional Design. I did like his partition of thought and design into the visceral (pre-conscious initial reactions), behavioral (learned structures corresponding to our experiences (which I think is essentially the same idea as cognitive subroutines)), and reflective (conscious thought, generalizations and recursion). He spends some time delving into how the three levels interact in design; for a good chef’s knife, it’s satisfying on the visceral level (“Ooh, shiny!”), behavioral level (it performs consistently and precisely), and reflective level (appreciating how its form follows its function). More importantly, he addresses situations where the three levels are in conflict, where something is viscerally attractive, but reflectively repugnant, like junk food, or viscerally repugnant and reflectively attractive, like most of modern art.

The rest of the book kind of meanders around discussing various aspects of this three-level approach to design, and then takes a bizarre turn into making the case for machine emotions. I think he’s trying to make the point that machines need to have the ability to learn autonomously and be able to express their inner state more effectively. In other words, we know that we get cranky when we get hungry. He suggests that machines should become cranky when they’re low on power, so that those interacting with them, whether machine or human, could know what’s going on internally. I think this is stupid – a power gauge is a much easier thing to read. I also think that the ability for a machine to learn reflectively, in the manner of the cognitive subroutines that I am suggesting as a model for our brains, is a far more difficult problem than Norman suspects.

There’s not a lot here. I finished the book yesterday, and it’s already pretty much completely faded from my consciousness. I’m glad I got it from the library, because I would have felt gypped if I’d bought it. It is encouraging in one sense – I think I have enough ideas from my blog in various forms to write a far more interesting and thought-provoking book. Now I just need to buckle down.

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