Personas, Goals, and Emotional Design

November 3, 2005

When Don Norman’s most recent book, Emotional Design, [1] hit the shelves in early 2004, it sent a ripple through the user experience world. Norman introduced the idea that product design should address three different levels of cognitive and emotional processing: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. This idea seemed like old news to some and a revelation to others in the UX community. In either case, Norman’s ideas, based on years of cognitive research, provide an articulated structure for modeling user responses to product and brand and a rational context for many intuitions long held by professional designers.

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Norman’s three levels of cognitive processing are

  • visceral—The most immediate level of processing, in which we react to visual and other sensory aspects of a product that we can perceive before significant interaction occurs. Visceral processing helps us make rapid decisions about what is good, bad, safe, or dangerous. It is this level of processing—or something quite similar to it—that author Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his latest book, Blink.
  • behavioral—The middle level of processing that lets us manage simple, everyday behaviors, which according to Norman, constitute the majority of human activity. Norman states—probably rightly so—that, historically, interaction design and usability practices have primarily addressed this level of cognitive processing. Behavioral processing can enhance or inhibit both lower-level visceral reactions and higher-level reflective responses, and conversely, both visceral and reflective processing can enhance or inhibit behavioral processing.
  • reflective—The least immediate level of processing, which involves conscious consideration and reflection on past experiences. Reflective processing can enhance or inhibit behavioral processing, but has no direct access to visceral reactions. This level of cognitive processing is accessible only via memory, not through direct interaction or perception. The most interesting aspect of reflective processing as it relates to design is that, through reflection, we are able to integrate our experiences with designed artifacts into our broader life experiences and, over time, associate meaning and value with the artifacts themselves.

In the first three chapters of Emotional Design, Norman presents his three-level theory of cognitive processing and discusses its potential importance to design. However, Emotional Design does not suggest a method for systematically integrating Norman’s insightful model of cognition and affect into the practice of user experience design. It is my hope, in the remainder of this article, to

  • suggest some deeper implications of Norman’s ideas for the design of user experience
  • provide a method by which UX professionals can incorporate his ideas into a way of developing a richer understanding of users
  • show how UX professionals might begin applying his ideas to the design of products

Designing for Visceral Response

What does it mean to design in a manner that takes advantage of what we know about visceral processing? Designing for the visceral level means designing what the senses initially perceive, before any deeper involvement with a product or artifact occurs. For most of us working in user experience, that primarily means designing visual appearance and motion, though sound can also play a role—think of the now classic Mac power-up chord. Those of us designing devices may design for tactile sensations as well.

A misconception often arises when discussing visceral-level design: that designing for visceral response is about designing beautiful things. Battlefield software and radiation-therapy systems are just two examples where designing for beauty may not be the proper focus. Visceral design is actually about designing for affect—that is, eliciting the appropriate psychological or emotional response for a particular context—rather than for aesthetics alone. Beauty—and the feelings of transcendence and pleasure it evokes—is really only a small part of the possible affective design palette. For example, an MP3 player and an online banking system require very different affects. We can learn a great deal about affect from architecture, the cinema and stage, and industrial design. Affective aspects of design deserve further attention and offer great opportunities for analysis from a holistic, UX perspective.

However, in the world of consumer products and services, where many of us work, attractive user interfaces are often appropriate. Interestingly, usability researchers [2] have demonstrated that users initially judge attractive interfaces to be more usable, and that this belief often persists long after a user has gained sufficient experience with an interface to have direct evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the reason for this is that users, encouraged by perceived ease of use, make a greater effort to learn what may be a challenging interface and are then unwilling to consider their investment ill spent. For the scrupulous designer, this means that, when a user interface promises ease of use at the visceral level—or whatever else the visceral promise of an interaction may be—it should then be sure to deliver on that promise at the behavioral level.

Designing for Behavior, or Interaction

Designing for the behavioral level means designing product behaviors that complement a user’s own behaviors, implicit assumptions, and mental models. Of the three levels of design Norman contemplates, behavioral design is perhaps the most familiar to UX professionals, especially those working within the spheres of interaction design and usability.

One intriguing aspect of Norman’s three-level model as it relates to behavioral, or interaction, design is his assertion that behavioral processing, uniquely among his three levels, has direct influence upon and is influenced directly by both of the other two levels of processing. This would seem to imply that the day-to-day behavioral aspects of interaction design should be the primary focus of our design efforts, with visceral and reflective considerations playing a supporting role. Getting behavioral design right—assuming that we also pay adequate attention to the other levels—provides our greatest opportunity for positively influencing the way users construct their experience with products.

Not following this line of reasoning can lead to the problem of users’ initial impressions being out of sync with reality. Also, it is difficult to imagine designing for reflective meaning in memory without a solid purpose and set of behaviors in place for the here and now. The user experience of a product or artifact, therefore, should ideally harmonize elements of visceral design and reflective design with a focus on behavioral design.

Designing for Reflection

Reflective processing—and, particularly, what it means for design—is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the three levels of processing that Norman discusses. What is clear is that designing for the reflective level means designing to build long-term product relationships. What isn’t clear at all is the best way to ensure success—if that’s even possible—at the reflective level. Is it chance that drives success here—being in the right place at the right time—or can premeditated design play a part in making it happen?

In describing reflective design, Norman uses several high-concept designs for commodity products as examples—such as impractically configured teapots and the striking Phillipe Starck juicer that graces the cover of his book. It is easy to see how such products—whose value and purpose are, in essence, the aesthetic statements they make—could appeal strongly to people’s reflective desire for uniqueness or cultural sophistication that perhaps may come from an artistic or stylish self-image.

It is more difficult to see how products that also serve a truly useful purpose need to balance the stylistic and the elegant with the functional. The Apple® iPod® comes very close to achieving this balance. Although the its click-wheel navigation is perhaps less than optimal in some respects, users’ visceral reaction to the product is tremendous, because of its savvy industrial design. Its reflective potential is also huge, because of the powerful emotional connection people experience with their music. It’s a winning combination that no competitor has been able to challenge.

Few products become iconic in people’s lives in the way that, say, the Sony® Walkman® did. The iPod is quickly ascending to that status. Clearly there are some products that stand little chance of ever becoming symbolic in peoples lives—like Ethernet routers, for instance—no matter how wonderful they look or well they behave. However, when the design of a product or service addresses users’ goals and motivations—possibly going beyond the product’s primary purpose, yet somehow connected to it via personal or cultural associations—the opportunity for the creation of reflective meaning is greatly enhanced.

Understanding Users’ Goals on Three Levels

We clearly need good ways to understand users’ needs at each of the three levels of processing, translate that understanding into clear requirements, and finally, translate those requirements into clear directions for developers. Luckily, at least one such method already exists and is in relatively widespread use—though to date, usage of this method has focused primarily on the behavioral level.

We can readily apply Alan Cooper’s goal-directed design methods, [3] which include personas, goals, and scenarios, to the problems of visceral, behavioral, and reflective design. Most UX practitioners are familiar with the concept of personas—composite user archetypes that we construct from behavioral data that we have gathered during user interviews and field observations. We give our personas realistic names, faces, and personalities to foster user empathy within a product team. However, practitioners may be somewhat less aware that a critical element of personas—beyond capturing typical user behavior patterns and roles—is capturing user motivations in the form of specific goals. In fact, the three types of goals that Cooper’s methods [4] enumerate largely anticipated the concerns of Norman’s three levels of processing.

Experience goals help describe how a persona wants to feel while using a product. These goals provide focus for a product’s visual and aural characteristics, its interactive feel—such as animated transitions and the snap ratio of a physical button—and its industrial design by providing insights into persona motivations that express themselves at the visceral level. For example:

  • Feel smart or in control.
  • Have fun.
  • Feel cool or hip or relaxed.
  • Remain focused and alert.

UX practitioners must translate persona experience goals into form, motion, and auditory elements that communicate the proper affect, emotion, and tone. Mood or inspiration boards [5] are a useful tool for defining the tonal expectations of personas.

End goals describe what a persona wants or needs to accomplish. A product or service can help accomplish such goals directly or indirectly. These goals are the focus of a product’s interaction design, information architecture, and the more functional aspects of industrial design. Because of the influence of behavioral processing on both visceral and reflective responses, end goals should be among the most significant factors in determining the overall product experience. For example:

  • Clear my desk before I leave for home.
  • Make good business decisions based on my data.
  • Find problems proactively before they become critical.
  • Buy what I need and get out of here.

UX practitioners must translate end goals into a product’s behaviors, tasks, look, and feel. Context—day in the life—scenarios, and cognitive walkthroughs are effective tools for exploring users’ goals and mental models, which facilitate appropriate behavioral design.

Life goals describe a persona’s long-term desires, motivations, and self-image attributes, which cause the persona to connect with a product. These goals form the focus for a product’s overall design, strategy, and branding. For example:

  • Live the good life.
  • Succeed in my ambitions to….
  • Be a connoisseur of….
  • Be attractive, popular, or respected by my peers.

UX practitioners must translate life goals into high-level system capabilities, formal design concepts, and brand strategy. Mood boards and context scenarios can be helpful in exploring different aspects of product concepts, and broad ethnographic research and cultural modeling are critical for discovering users’ behavior patterns and deeper motivations.

Using Scenarios to Explore Users’ Goals

A product’s UX team can use context scenarios to help bridge the gap between personas and their goals and create a design that meets their needs and desires. Context scenarios describe the broader context for persona usage patterns, behaviors, and reactions to a product design, including environmental, organizational, and cultural factors. These scenarios establish the primary touch-points a persona may have with a new or redesigned product over time, illuminating modes of use, user mental models, and user attitudes toward the product.

Two related scenario-based techniques do a particularly good job of addressing all three types of goals—experience, end, and life goals—because they help recast the problem as designing an ideal experience rather than a technology-based solution.

  • Pretending it’s magic—If a product were magic, how would it do X, so a persona would be perfectly satisfied? If, technically, we can’t do it that way, how close can we get?
  • Pretending it’s human—In a similar situation, or context, what ideal response would a persona expect from a human?

Remember, understanding goals is about understanding human motivations more than it is about understanding specific tasks, which can change as technology changes. In line with Norman’s model, top-level user motivations include

  • visceral motivationshow a user wants to feel
  • behavioral motivationswhat a user wants to do
  • reflective motivationswho a user wants to be

Using personas, goals, and scenarios provides one potential key to unlocking the power of visceral, behavioral, and reflective design, and bringing them together into a harmonious whole. While some of our best designers seem to understand and act upon the interrelationships between these aspects of design almost intuitively, consciously designing for all levels of human cognition and emotion offers tremendous potential for creating more satisfying and delightful user experiences. 


[1] Norman, Donald A. Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

[2] Dillon, Andrew. “Beyond Usability: Process, Outcome and Affect in Human Computer Interaction.” Paper presented at the Lazerow Lecture at the Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto, March 2001. Retrieved November 3, 2005.

[3] Cooper, Alan and Robert Reimann. About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2003.

[4] Goodwin, Kim. “Perfecting Your Personas.” Cooper Newsletter, July/August 2001. Retrieved November 3, 2005.

[5] Wong, Stephanie. “Mood Boards.” Life+StyleMaven. Retrieved November 3, 2005.

Senior Manager, UX Design, at athenahealth

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Robert ReimannRobert has spent the past 20 years pushing the boundaries of digital products as a designer, writer, and consultant and has led dozens of Web, desktop, and device-based interaction design projects, for startups and Fortune 500 companies alike. Robert was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) and became its first President in 2006. He has also held advisory board positions for AIGA Experience Design, the Information Architecture Institute, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Design (BiD), and Design Museum Boston. Robert is co-author of three bestselling editions of About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design. His past positions include Principal interaction Designer at Sonos, Associate Creative Director at frog design, Manager of User Experience at Bose Corporation, and Director of Design R&D at Cooper, where he played a key role in the development and refinement of their goal-directed design methods, including personas and scenario-based design. He has lectured on interaction design and UX methods and principles at major universities and for international industry audiences.  Read More

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