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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 October, 2003, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Technology to make you go 'wow'
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

Design expert Dr Don Norman is getting all emotional the older he gets.

Tiny digital camera and smiling woman
Dr Norman likes things that make people smile
He hands me a silver, shiny, sleek pen that looks just like an elegant roller ball. I click the top and out pops a small, but beautifully formed fountain pen nib.

"Wow!" I exclaim, smiling.

"You see, that's what I'm all about now: none of this website stuff, none of this digital stuff," explains the man who has published extensively on design and how people use objects in their everyday lives.

"I want to make products like this fountain pen that creates such joy when you see it, and you say 'oh wow' and the first thing you want to do is try it."

Beauty, pleasure and simplicity of use are what people care about now when it comes to technology, according to the design guru.

Wow factor

As one third of the usability consultancy group, the Nielsen Norman Group, the academic is currently preparing for the publication of his new book which explores how products make people say "wow".

The book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, is due out in early 2004.

It explores the idea that the way something looks, feels and gives pleasure are just as important in technology design as function.

"How attractive something is will mean people overlook some of the bad functionality, but not completely," says Dr Norman.

Design guru Dr Don Norman
Digital technologies are about offering us freedom and more opportunities. It's about letting us choose what suits us
Dr Don Norman, design expert

The brain is the most impressive and complex processor which no computer beats, taking in external influences to decide what the body's reaction should be, biologically and mentally.

He argues that the levels on which the brain works correspond with three different levels of design.

"The visceral level is the low biological level and there's where beauty comes in and appearances matter.

"On the surface something looks attractive and something feels good. That is very important and that makes the brain function differently."

On a visceral level, the brain is a little bit more creative so if there something does not work well, people are more willing to forgive it if they like it.

Then there is the behavioural level which controls muscles, perception and language. It is at this level that usability and how something feels lie, something which he and his colleagues have examined in great detail.

But Dr Norman wants to move on and think at the deeper level of reflection, the level that dictates how we feel about things, he says.

"That is where having a good brand name matters. Having a good brand name has to be earned because they stand for trust," he says.

Good design must incorporate all three levels, and that is what emotional design is all about.


To Dr Norman, Apple and Sony are the foremost companies leading the way in making things that are pleasurable to look at.

He uses his own flat screen computer monitor in his dining room to explain.

"When we are not using it, it randomly displays photos from our collection for about a minute.

Personalised mobile phone (Image: Genevieve Bell, Intel)
Personalisation is very important

"My wife and I take great pleasure in it because we see photos we didn't even remember we had. It's wonderful."

It is an animated picture frame, but if someone has a question over dinner, they can run over and get the answer, then return to eating.

"And that's the way a machine ought to be. Part of the infrastructure which makes your life more pleasurable.

"Not these great big, ugly rectangular boxes that occupy the desk," he says.

In order for them to make life more pleasurable, people have to be able to shape technologies to their everyday lives too.

In Japan, personalisation is big business, whether it be putting unique stickers on mobiles or choosing a different mobile from a selection to suit your mood.

What is important is that people have a wide selection from which to choose because what drives you towards certain decisions is down to what you want to do, and when.

Social exchange

"Digital technologies are about offering us freedom and more opportunities.

It's about letting us choose what suits us," he says.

"I am a big fan of social interaction", says Dr Norman.

"The revolution we are in right now is not so much about the digital revolution, the computer revolution, the internet or the telecoms revolution.

"The revolution is the social interaction revolution and it is all of these things put together in one," he says.

To him, technology like SMS text messaging is "wonderful" because it makes him feel connected to his family dotted around the world.

"We can keep this light, low level chat going on by using SMS, IM, chatting, wherever we all are in the world. We almost never use the telephone."

It makes him smile. It makes him feel good.

"Life is about pleasure and enjoyment, and if we are not enjoying what we are doing, then why are we doing it?"

You can hear more from Don Norman on the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital

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