Thursday, October 08, 2020

Emotion in Learning Experience Design - Norman's 3 facets; Visceral, Behavioural and Reflective...

Our lives would be impoverished without positive emotions such as fun, pleasure, joy, excitement; but also middling emotions of satisfaction, calmness, boredom; even negative emotions such as anger, sadness, melancholy and fear. They are ever-present and part of what it is to be human.

One facet of Learning Experience Design is to make the effort to engage the learner by injecting emotion into the experience. This does not mean blind emotion. Over-stimulation can be a bad thing in learning. The right kind of emotion is what helps learning, as this affective dimension can motivate the learner and aid retention. It is a matter of designing for both head and heart. It would be fair to say that most of what is written about learning design has a focus on cognition and understanding, whereas much of what drives us is feeling and emotion.

Some, like Jack Quatrell, at Learning Pool, literally say that Experience Design differs from more traditional design in being Emotional Design. He invokes Donald Norman, which is a good starting point, who in Emotional Design, broke emotional design down into three components:

Visceral (appearance)

Behavioural (performance)

Reflective (memories and experience)

Visceral (appearance)

This is the automatic, unconscious reaction we have to experiences. It is what Kahneman refers to as System 1 thinking in Thinking Fast and Slow. These reactions are fast, immediate without reflection. 

Branding and general art direction speak directly to these feelings. One practical shortcut is to copy and mimic the organisations branding guidelines, in terms of palette, font, general art direction and practices. Some organisations are very keen to get their branding and values reinforced in training. For Virgin, we implemented very strong branding across course from Values to Aircraft Maintenance, with their exact tones of red and fonts. This gives the training a visual and emotional organisational context.

An alternative is to match the branding and art direction to the topic being taught. It may be that a course on interpersonal skills will have to feel warm and friendly, whereas a course on process and procedures may need to be cool, crisp and procedural. If it is a serious scientific, financial or healthcare organisation, dealing with serious issue such as laboratory procedures, money laundering or cancer therapy, then casual cartoons may not be appropriate. Real world imagery and photography may create the right first impressions for such learning. 

Gestalt theorists have also identified this as the instant reaction to an interface or experience, rather than its components or mechanics. Gestalt principles are similar to many of the findings of researchers like Mayer in online learning; proximity, similarity, figure-ground, continuity, closure, and connection. The Gestalt Law of Proximity is often quoted in interface design and states that items close to each other are perceived as groups. This matters when you want to group navigation items (forward, back etc) separately from functional items (print, zoom etc). The Gestalt Law of Similarity states that items similar to each other will be grouped by the user. This can be used generally in interface and visual design. The Law of Figure-Ground is also important, where we see figure-ground effects

Much of this can be tested with real users in getting voiced reactions to specific questions on designs. So, keep in mind the visceral reaction of your target audience, not you the designer.

Behavioural (performance)

This is about emotion and feelings around actual use or usability. How easy is it to use in terms of speed of recognition, understanding and not making errors. Are navigational items in the optimal order? Are the icons clear? Are they big enough for smartphone touchscreens? Do they react when pressed to give feedback? Are they placed consistently in the same place on the screen? There is a massive amount of good practice in interface design around usability. It is vital that the interface is a simple, consistent, predictable and easy to use as possible, as time and cognitive effort spent on the interface detracts from the cognitive effort needed to learn.

There is also a large amount of established good practice around visual design of text, graphics, animation, audio and video. We know a lot about the different affordances of different media, and how to mix them, without inducing cognitive overload. The trick is to get the best out of each medium and media mix. 

Just as importantly, is the good practice around learning, which is often very different from other forms of screen presentation, such as the need for chunking, cues, repetition, summaries and so on. Cognitive overload is common in badly designed learning content, so a knowledge of good learning theory informs the behavioural side of design.

What you get learners to DO is also really important, as that is likely to be more powerful than what they see or hear. This is where experience design needs to include interaction with the mind, beyond just clicking on items to navigate or see pop-ups. Cognitive effort matters - a lot!  We must be very careful here. It is all too easy to make learning too easy. Without challenge, difficulty and cognitive effort, you will not have the deep processing necessary for learnt knowledge, skills and behaviour to stick. The learner will skate over the surface, thinking they have been learning, when, in fact, those experiences have been transitory. This illusory sense of learning is common and is reinforced when things feel easy. It is easy to watch a video and not realise that much of what you have just watched has left your memory before you have finished watching the entire video. It stays in working memory but never gets processed into long-term memory, so disappears. Interestingly what makes you feel as though you have learnt things is just those ‘feelings and emotions’. In this case emotion is our enemy, our greatest danger. This transitory effect is well-researched, real, common and measurable. Learning needs to be effortful.

Inducing emotion may be ideal when you want attitudinal shift in diversity, equality and other belief shift or self-awareness training but can be dangerous in non-affective training, where it can induce the illusion of learning. So, keep in mind the behavioural reaction of your target audience, not just what you the designer likes or may be familiar with.

Reflective (memories and experience)

This is an important set of feelings in learning, that you can rationalise, reflect, reinforce, recall and apply your learning. This is what Kahneman called System 2 thinking, the rational, reasoning side of the brain. We have feelings of achievement, success, confidence or having overcome difficulties in a learning experience that really do matter. It can be those feelings around having got there, not because you found it easy but realising that it was hard.

This is complex and involves much more than just getting a score on the assessment, although that can be an important feeling of success. Hence the frequent request to provide printed certificates for learners, even though they have no serious accreditation body behind them. It is similar to the status people attach to watches, handbags and branded clothes. You can be made to feel better by going through learning experiences that give you feelings of success and status.

Challenging cognitive effort can propel the learner forward and make them feel as though they really are making progress. Feedback is also a powerful accelerator of learning, so personalising learning and feedback can move things forward making the learner feel good about themselves.

One important facet of reflective feeling comes through the follow-up, actually doing something. This can be triggered by nudge learning, so that the learner gets their kicks through going back to their job and actually implementing a challenge, such as mentoring a younger employee or using those features in a spreadsheet. Satisfaction with real-world application of learning can bring high levels of satisfaction and accomplishment.

It is easy to forget that one learns for a reason, ultimately to apply that knowledge, so the transfer through to action really does matter. This is often quietly forgotten in online learning but as technology increasingly allows us to learn in the workflow, it is becoming more of a reality.

This can be tested through stickability of the learning experiences but also real assessment, not only of short-term accomplishment but long-term retention.


Interestingly, Norman thought Americans value Behavioural more than the Visceral & Reflective, whereas Europeans, tend to value the Visceral and Behavioural. This is fascinating. He claims that different people buy things with different fuel mixtures of the three types of emotions. This may well be true in learning and having delivered online learning in many different geographies and cultures, I think it is. These differences are real but the differences are getting less, as there is a global spread of online services, such as Google, social media, Wikipedia and Netflix which are now universal, but it is important to be aware of cultural differentials. 

So there are three levels of emotional or affective experience design. The visceral is that first impression, the overall and holistic feel of the experience. The behavioural comes from using the product both in navigation but also functionality and, importantly, in actual effortful, learning experiences. The reflective are those more rational and conscious feelings around achievement and success in learning. Beyond Norman, there are also other cognitive feelings around aesthetics, beauty, layout, space, colour and simplicity in design, that also count.

It is vital that we don’t just invoke emotions and feelings just for the sake of doing so. They matter in terms of engagement, stickiness but they must also be compatible with the actual acquisition of knowledge, skills and behaviour. Retention does matter, not just the feeling you have learned but the fact that you really did learn. Kahneman is right to remind us of the existence of fast and slow ways of thinking but he also warns us against the bias and mistakes that emotional and instinctive thinking brings in its wake. 


Norman, D.A., 2004. Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. Basic Civitas Books.

Kahneman, D. and Patrick, E., 2011. Thinking, fast and slow. Allen Lane.

Miller, G., 2009. Spent: Sex, evolution, and consumer behavior. Penguin.


Iain Reynolds said...

I really liked this. The examples/cases for Visceral and Behavioural are good and I appreciate them, do you have a case study to reference the reflective? I'm encouraging my team to read the article and I'd like to have a discussion with them about practical application

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