Donald A. Norman is unlike many of his design contemporaries… he is also an accomplished Cognitive Scientist and Professor Emeritus at UCSD.

Over a decade on from the publication of ‘Emotional Design’, we’re revisiting his design classic – in order to highlight the relevance of the book’s core messages.

Emotions! – They’re more useful than you’d think

Emotions are high-functioning and very useful aspects of our behaviour. Throughout nature, they have been observed in only the most complex and advanced of animals – with humans the most emotional of them all. Emotions are the only tools powerful enough to enable certain value-judgements.

Antonio Damasio famously studied people who had suffered injuries to parts of the brain responsible for emotion. He found that, those without the capacity for emotion, were completely incapable of making value-judgments. For example: choosing whether to have rice or potatoes with their dinner.

For decisions where there is no clear logical or rational answer, emotions are the only tool that can guide us.

Attractive things work better

In 1995, Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura tested the interface design of 26 different ATM layouts in Japan. Each ATM system was functionally identical, yet differed in style, layout and aesthetics. When users were asked to rate each system based only on usability and beauty, the more aesthetically pleasing layouts were consistently judged to be easier to use.

Noam Tractinsky was shocked by the results, and suspecting cultural bias, decided to perform the same test in Israel. This time, the correlations were even stronger.

Despite each ATM interface remaining functionally identical, users consistently evaluated the more ‘beautiful’ layouts as functionally better and easier to use. The evidence is clear, but why exactly do we judge attractive products to be ‘functionally better’?

Happy people solve problems more creatively

Alice Isen’s work provides some clues to understanding all of this. Especially in these two key findings:

  • In the presence of ugliness, we are more likely to become tense, cautious and alarmed.


  • In the presence of beauty, we are more likely to become relaxed, happy, and able to solve problems quickly and creatively.


Problems arising from poor functionality, encountered when using a new and highly attractive product, are swiftly solved by happy and relaxed users.

It almost sounds like cheating, but it seems that the quickest way to improve your awkward and poorly thought-out product is to make sure it has jaw-dropping good looks.


Think Refine®