This is the second in our series of posts revisiting the key lessons from Don Norman’s classic: Emotional Design. You can read our first post here.

According to Don Norman, all interactions between organisms and the outside world can be broadly categorised as either ‘visceral’, ‘behavioural’ or ‘reflective’. The simplest of animals (insects, zooplankton, jellyfish) can only react to situations at the visceral level, relying on instincts coded into their DNA.

More complex animals (dogs, elephants, horses) are able to learn new behaviours, and understand the behaviours of others as they progress through life, but humans exhibit the highest capacity for cultural and self-reflective interaction.




Automatic & pre-wired

e.g. Jellyfish

Learned, but ingrained

e.g. Dogs

Cultural, relating to ‘self’

e.g. Humans


Whenever we buy and use a product, we are interacting across all three modes. The most engaging products provide positive experiences at the visceral, behavioural, and reflective level.

Before delving into greater detail, let’s take a look at some simplified descriptions of each type of design interaction:

Visceral Design – Appearance, touch, and all five senses.

Behavioural Design  – Performance & function.

Reflective Design  – Affirming self image, and ‘coolness’.

Good Visceral Design

A product that is to be successful at the visceral level must be as objectively pleasurable as possible. Visceral pleasure is relatively universal, and easy to quantify when compared to other pleasures derived from cultural interaction.

In general, humans like things that are:

  • Pleasurable to touch (fine leather, silk, polished wood)
  • Rounded in shape
  • Symmetrical
  • Colourful (deep, or saturated colours)
  • Shiny or Glossy

Good Behavioural Design

It’s obvious that your product should perform its main functions well… and for simple mechanical products, that would be enough to guarantee great behavioural design. But for today’s complex and interconnected systems, we need a little more guidance.

“unexpected behaviours are untrustworthy”

Humans anthropomorphize almost everything new that enters our environment. We attribute emotions and mood-states to inanimate objects within milliseconds of encountering them.


When interacting with a complex machine or system, it’s behaviours can be unexpected; and unexpected behaviours are untrustworthy. We often talk about the reliability of our favourite products… but for a product to become truly reliable, it must first gain our trust.

When building trust, the same basic guidelines apply to both humans and products:

  • Honour your promises

A product should behave exactly as the user expects it to.

  • Be consistent

For a given request, the product should always behave in the same way.

Good Reflective Design

This is where design meets the most human mode of interaction, so be prepared for things to get a little fuzzy. It’s easy for us to state what makes a product successful at the highly reflective and cultural level, but snappy guidelines for this kind of design are few and far between.

Major factors affecting the quality of reflective design are out of the designer’s control; factors like time, memories, and ever-evolving cultures. Positive reflective interactions are determined by the user’s self image – but how can your product compliment or enhance an ideal self image?

A person’s self image is often strongly linked to a particular sub-culture, and sub-cultures help define perceptions of ‘cool’. But before people even consider whether a product might match their self image, the entire company has to prove itself worthy of attention. To stand the best chance of doing that, brush up on your business basics:

“you’re product is not going to align with everyone’s self image overnight.”

A burgeoning global population means two things for your new product…

The good news: ‘niche’ no longer means niche.

The bad news: you’re product is not going to align with everyone’s self image overnight.

We suggest you begin by serving a niche market. Ensure that your product serves a few key needs, very, very well. After that, let go of the reins. Allow people to be creative with your product.

If you let users explore your product in new ways, they will create new and exciting cultures of their own… embedding your product at the heart of an evolving self image.


Think Refine®