Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things

By Donald A. Norman  |  Finished: 19th February 2011  |  Back to library

Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things

You’ve heard of a book written by someone who’s hugely respected in something like design, technology, UX, information architecture, or media theory – you know, that esteemed nexus of post-Web 2.0 credibility. You check out the reviews and of course they’re all positive. Why wouldn’t they be? Remember, this person is a genius. So you wave your mouse around, click some buttons, type some numbers, and a few days later the book arrives in your letterbox. It’s time to disconnect from the internet and do some actual reading.

It goes without saying that you’re going to learn a lot from reading this book. Maybe you’ll come across some valuable new insights or even – hey, let’s not be pessimistic here – have your mind blown. Maybe the book will be conceptually dense and even hard to get through. And in a way you hope it will, because then you’ll really know you’re learning something.

The first few chapters go by and you get to the halfway point. You’re noticing that the book has dropped off a bit and wonder when it’ll get back on track. But before long you know that it won’t be able to. You know this because you recognise the pattern – the book has stopped being about what it was supposed to be about, and is now about nothing but “the future”. People will use the mobile internet more! Computers will get smaller! We can already buy robots to use as vacuum cleaners! Tomorrow’s phones will replace our wallets! And, um, touchscreens!

As the reader you’re a bit jaded when it comes to this stuff. For one thing you already read a lot about it on the internet. And the material you read on the internet is pretty current, while this book is, what, a year old already, maybe even two years? In internet time, that’s pretty out of date. A lot of what it said was the future is now the present – it’s already happened – and while this is testament to the author’s prescience, it doesn’t make for a particularly enlightening reading experience.

“Emotional Design”, in case you haven’t guessed, is one of these books. Don Norman is best known for the classic The Design of Everyday Things and this is intended as a counterweight to that book’s message that function and usability, not emotion, are at the core of successful products.

It starts out well, explaining the affective system and how it influences the way we use design artefacts. Sensory stimuli change our emotional state and make us either intensely focused or relaxed and creative. Loud fire alarms and red flashing lights don’t make us want to sit around and discuss poetry – they just make us want to get out of there, and we focus on nothing else until we do that. This is an extreme example, but the affective system plays a part in every interaction we have with products and technologies.

Unfortunately Norman seems to decide at some point that the finer details of this subject are best left for his academic papers and that this book should take a different tack. Hence the latter third being mainly about what might happen in the future – emotional robots, that sort of thing. And that’s where its appeal drops off for me.

Books about the future are interesting the moment they’re written, because the future is still unknown. They’re also interesting when they become old enough that their predictions hint at some lost parallel history. But they can be quite boring when they’re somewhere in between – too old to be current, but still too new to have historical curiosity. Too much of “Emotional Design” falls into this gap.

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