In Emotion & Design: Attractive Things Work Better Norman discusses the relationship between affect and usability. The essay is his response to what he calls the “usable but ugly” critique to his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things. In the essay, Norman recognises that the book’s focus on usability lead some people to think that this was the most important of an object’s characteristics and sets to battle this notion by presenting some of his research on the relationship between affect and design. The conclusion of such research is simple: attractive things work better.
Norman supports this proposition drawing from experiments in the field of cognitive science, as well as with anecdotal evidence of his own experiences. Cognitive science tells us that negative affect (such as what one feels in a stressful situation) fosters concentration; it leads to “depth-first processing” and even tunnel vision. Conversely, positive affect (what we feel when we’re not in stressful situations) leads to breadth-first thinking, and is thus related to distraction. Norman provides an example of the latter when he tells us about the three teapots he owns: “The Nanna teapot for its elegance, or the tilting pot for its practicality. Design matters, but which design is preferable depends upon the occasion, the context, and above all, my mood.” He then sentences: “When I do make tea, I choose the pot that matches my mood, and when I do, the tea tastes superb.” When it comes to design, the takeaway of all of this seems to to be that objects need to account for the baggage the users bring with them at the time of operating them.
What is more, both pieces of evidence Norman emphasises point to what, in The Design of Everyday Things, he identifies as the basis of great design: a focus on experience (Norman, 10). Yet, if the answer to the presumed beauty vs. usability dilemma was there since the beginning, why did so many people get it wrong? And why did Norman feel the need to embark on a new strand of research to get some peace of mind?
That’s because, in the book, Norman’s treatment of the issue of experience is incomplete. Of experience, he says:
“Great designers produce pleasurable experiences. Experience: note the word. Engineers tend not to like it; it is too subjective. But when I ask them about their favorite automobile or test equipment, they will smile delightedly as they discuss the fit and finish, the sensation of power during acceleration, their ease of control while shifting or steering, or the wonderful feel of the knobs and switches on the instrument. Those are experiences.
Experience is critical, for it determines how fondly people remember their interactions. Was the overall experience positive, or was it frustrating and confusing? When our home technology behaves in an uninterpretable fashion we can become confused, frustrated, and even angry—all strong negative emotions. When there is understanding it can lead to a feeling of control, of mastery, and of satisfaction or even pride—all strong positive emotions. Cognition and emotion are tightly intertwined, which means that the designers must design with both in mind.”
In the excerpt above, Norman discusses experience mostly as a property of the physical object: based on how well-designed an object is, it has the potential to induce positive or negative affect. This is not the kind of affect that he discusses in his essay. In the essay, the kind of affect Norman talks about is mostly a property of the users and the situation they find themselves in: are they stressed? Are they relaxed? These are states of being that pertain only to people, i.e. users, not the object.
With this information in mind, I think we can resolve the supposed beauty vs. usability dilemma. We do so by using a relational definition of experience: the relationship between the physical object’s potential to induce a certain kind of affect, and the state of mind the target user is most likely to find herself in at the time of the interaction. Emergency doors can indeed produce positive affect if they are designed to help exit a place in a dangerous situation — they reduce stress. Thus, they should be attractive in a such a way that elicits appropriate use. In other situations, as with making tea in the morning, the possible interactions are less bound, and there are more opportunities to create emotional value through aesthetics.