The Three Levels of Emotional Design

To design positive emotional experiences you must understand human emotion. The subject of emotions is complex largely because everything we do is either influenced by, or directly caused by, emotion. Factor in the range and capacity different individuals have for emotion, add in the fact most emotions occur subconsciously, and round this out with the notion most of us are unaware of the true causes of our actions, and the result is a complex puzzle.

Emotional States, Motivation and Behavior

Emotions can be broadly classified as pleasant or unpleasant. Pleasant emotions include happiness, love, and excitement where unpleasant include anger, fear and sorrow. Earlier in this chapter we covered that simple decisions are difficult to make in absence of emotion. The relationship between cognition and emotion is actually even more intimate. They work in conjunction as a way to make sense of the world around you. When analyzing a situation, your cognition assigns meaning and emotion assigns value. If you were to see a billboard about littering, logic would tell you the messaging but emotion would assess if it applied to you. A well-designed billboard would appeal to your emotions causing you to stop littering.

All emotions have an affect, which is the experience or feeling of emotion. Affects are an outcome of processing external stimuli. In the case of the littering billboard, the graphics or copy could be the affect that causes you to experience the emotion of guilt. If the emotion is strong enough it causes a behavioral change; you stop littering. This is a reflective behavioral change, meaning you’re consciously aware of the choice to modify your behavior. Some affects cause unconscious detectable reactions, which are described as “affect display.” Most facial expressions are affect displays; when seeing something disgusting the emotion causes the muscles in your face to constrict in such a way that demonstrates your reaction.

Of course not all emotions are of equal intensity. In his article Emotional Design with A.C.T. – Part 1 on, user experience designer Trevor van Gorp describes level of emotion in terms of arousal. Extreme arousal results in anxiety, and complete lack of arousal causes boredom. This concept is adapted from J.A. Russells Circumplex Model, which was developed to measure the characteristics of emotional responses. Using the model you can identify the dimensions of emotional states, ranging from pleasant anxiety (like the excitement of riding a roller coaster) to unpleasant boredom.

[Figure 13-1 HERE] The Circumplex Model measures emotional reaction based on value (positive or negative) and arousal. It presents a visual way of understanding how emotion can influence behavior and to what level.

Van Gorp concludes that each emotional state causes different levels of behavioral response. High value emotions encourage us to approach or seek out the cause, low value emotions cause us to avoid the cause. The level of arousal dictates how motivated one is to approach or avoid. Minor inconveniences often cause displeasing emotions, but have such low arousal that many would remain uncomfortable rather than expend the energy to avoid them. When you are hungry, you are in an aroused state that highly motivates you towards the pleasurable emotion of a satisfying meal.

Motivating behavior through emotions is not limited to positive emotions. Designers have intentionally created high arousal, unpleasant interactions as a way of getting people’s attention. The alarm clock that you wake up to every day has an intentionally loud, and obnoxious repeating noise. The product is designed to bombard your arousal with negative emotions motivating you to get up and turn it off.

The Circumplex models are a great reference for understanding the dimensions of emotion and it’s affect on motivation and behavior. Use them as a framework for determining what emotional responses are needed to achieve the desired user behavior. However, just knowing you need to arouse the user in a positive manor is only one element of what’s needed to design an emotional response. Emotional responses happen on different levels of processing. Which level used is based on the characteristics of the external stimuli. Knowing the different processes allows you to intentionally create designs which activate them, creating the desired emotional response.

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Three Levels of Processing

Scientists have determined that the processing of stimuli happens on three levels. Psychologist Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy developed the “ABC model” to describe the levels (Journal of Individual Psychology, 1957). The ABC model classified the levels as Affect (A), Behavior / Belief (B), and Cognition (C). Through his own research, Don Norman developed a similar model where he segmented human processing into visceral, behavioral and reflective (Basic Books, 2005).

Each of level is handled differently and influences emotion (and therefor behavior) differently, with varying levels of awareness. In the communication layer, we talked about design appealing on a visceral level. This is an emotional response processed through the central nervous system. It’s subconscious and can create a pleasurable feeling.

Not surprisingly, behavioral processing relates to stimulation received through behavior. Behavioral processing is primarily subconscious, but can be influenced by the conscious mind. Subconscious behavioral processing is responsible for your ability to drive without consciously thinking about it. It’s also responsible for the enjoyment you get from interacting with an elegantly designed web application.

Reflective processing is contemplative and allows us to study, inter-operate with, and reflect on experiences and emotions. This level allows you to appreciate the nuances of well-composed music and associate places with previous desirable experiences. Nostalgia is a byproduct of reflective processing.

You design for visceral emotional reactions differently than you would behavioral or reflective. The best emotional design engages the users on all three levels, each addressed specifically.

The Visceral Level

The visceral system is the most primitive of the three stimuli referenced above. Visceral interpretation is subconscious. It’s responsible for first impressions and driven by initial sensory inputs such as appearance, feel, and sound.

As a basic safety mechanism, the visceral system allows us to make quick judgments if a situation is dangerous or opportunistic. Signals that communicate danger evoke negative emotions and motivate avoidance. Signals that communicate opportunity motivate approach (or on the web, exploration).

Visceral responses are biological and are interpreted in the context of survival. This incredibly sensitive system is not subjected to reasoning or previous knowledge (both which come into play after a visceral response.) Thus the triggers for these responses are often related to environmental indicators of threat or reward. Visual stimuli associated with increased survival result in pleasurable visceral reactions. Fresh water, for example is an essential component of human survival, which is why so many people are drawn to it. The draw is more complex than a function of thirst quenching. To many people, large bodies of fresh water are extremely desirable to live near, relax by, and look at. This is because long ago your chances of survival were greatly increased if you were near a fresh water source. Thus it feels comforting to be near to this day.

While any visual sensory input can affect the visceral system, those most related to survival generate the most arousal. Positive affects deal with food, safety, procreation, and hydration. Anything that threatens the positive affects is perceived as negative. Don Norman has theorized what he believes are biologically engrained affects, which I have combined with my list below:

Positive visceral stimuli

  • Vibrant colors
  • Smiling people
  • Smooth objects
  • Warm places
  • “Attractive” people
  • Soft lighting
  • Fresh water
  • Healthy vegetation (food source)
  • Open areas
  • Shelter

Negative visceral stimuli

  • Heights
  • Darkness
  • Empty or desolate terrains
  • Overly dense terrain or crowded areas
  • Decaying foods
  • Sharp objects
  • Bodily fluids
  • Deformed bodies
  • Dirty water
  • Dead bodies or blood
  • Disease
  • Some dangerous animals (spiders, snakes, dogs, etc…) (Norman)

Because the nervous system causes visceral responses they are the most consistent across all human beings. You might think this would make design easy, but users still have personal preferences. Some people are more prone to fear of animals such as dogs or spiders where others are unaffected. This again speaks to the necessity of designing specifically to the target users.

The Behavioral Level

Like visceral response, behavioral processing is subconscious. While it can be influenced by the conscious mind, much of our behavioral actions are performed automatically. For an experienced keyboarder, typing has become behavioral. You no longer have to think about pressing each key to type a sentence, your mind knows where they keys are and how to push them. Most human actions are performed on a behavioral level, with much less cognitive involvement than you may think.

Behavioral processing falls between fast acting visceral reactions and the slow reflective process. Because of this it can be enhanced or dulled by reflection and has the potential to do the same to visceral responses. Repeated exposure to spiders is a common way to get over the visceral fear of arachnophobia. For these reasons behavioral processing is perfect for learning routine patterns and performing them efficiently.

On an emotional level, the behavioral level is all about how you feel while performing. In relation to design, this would be how you feel while using a product or website. Outside of design, you can get behavioral pleasure from riding a horse or even chopping wood. In these cases the act of doing something skilled creates positive arousal.

Visceral enjoyment is all about sensory engagement. The way something looks, feels, smells, etc. feels pleasurable. Behavioral enjoyment is obtained through action. Performing a skilled activity feels good, whether you are playing basketball or dicing an onion. Using something that is well designed is also pleasurable, as it allows you to complete a task and achieve a goal with less effort.

On the web, using a website to accomplish tasks quickly and easily creates a similar emotional response. The sense of accomplishment and efficiency is rewarding; it feels as if you’ve done something well and used a well-designed tool (the site) to do it. If the website was poorly designed and the user suffered frustrations along the way, the site would create negative arousal. This is why much of user experience design focuses on behavioral enjoyment.

The Reflective Level

The highest level of processing is conscious and reflective. This is where logic is used to make sense of the world around us, including rationalizing our visceral responses and behavior. Seeing a large spider may instantly give you negative arousal (visceral), which causes you to jump and scream (behavioral). It is only afterwards that you reflect on what happened and use logic to rationalize your action (such as being afraid of poisonous spiders). Visceral and behavioral emotions fade fast, but the reflective emotions are long term. You might not remember how the design made you feel the first time you saw it (visceral), or what it was like the first time you placed an order (behavioral), but you won’t likely forget how the site seemingly sells everything (reflective).

Reflection is the most volatile of the three levels, influenced by culture, experience, and knowledge. It is also closely tied to self-image, so with reflection comes pride or embarrassment. When someone says they love Nike shoes, it’s because they have identified those shoes help define who they are. They might have reached that point because the shoes are pleasant looking and help them perform better, but the conclusion occurs through self-identification with the product. Emotions like self-identification, deal with social standing and are reflective. This includes accomplishment, recognition and service.

Reflective emotions are the hardest to design for. As they are influenced by almost every factor of human existence (race, age, gender, culture, experiences) everyone will have different reflective responses to the same stimuli. The yin to the yang is that reflective emotions are the longest lasting, so they have the greatest reward.

The highly cognitive nature of this processing level allows us to appreciate the nuances of art, music, and literature. In music, there is a visceral appeal to pleasant harmonies. Much of the enjoyment of music is through appreciation of the nuances, such as technique, unique approaches, or related subject matter. Those with more knowledge about a subject will appreciate different aspects at this level. Web designers are likely to appreciate fine graphical details such as kerning and letter spacing, where those untrained will simply see the combined visual effect and find it enjoyable or appealing.

Experiences from all three processes get stored in memory, allowing users to reactivate some of their emotions when recalling experiences at a later date. This is called the “nostalgia effect” and is why people are so attached to photographs, home movies, journals, and mementos.

Experiences occur through all three levels of processing, the extent of which depends on the situation. Some experiences are more visceral in nature where others more reflective. Some of the most memorable experiences tap into all three. Looking through someone’s photo album combines the visual emotion of seeing photos of people you know, the sensory actions of turning the page or clicking on thumbnails, and the reflective experience of remembering the times that those photos aptly captured.

How experiences affect a user is largely depended on the individual. As mentioned earlier, even the most consistent processing (visceral) is subject to genetic differences. Designing specific emotional responses requires an understanding of the users emotional characteristics.

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