Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

The Three Modes of Interacting

March 17, 2010

To continue the experiential analysis, I wanted to recap the three modes of interacting as laid out by Norman in Emotional Design. Most people are familiar with his work in The Design of Everyday Things (or Psychology of, depending on where it was published). In Everyday Things, Norman complained about things that were overdesigned, or designed in a way that kept them from being easy to use, or apparent to use.  In fact, he often goes overboard and suggests that only utilitarian design matters, and that things which win aesthetic awards are actually bad in some way.

In Emotional Design he backs away from this, and talks a bit more holistically about design.  We interact with objects three different ways, Normal says.   To illustrate it, he talks about the many tea pots that he has.  One is a beautiful object, and is just aesthetically pleasing; it is nice to look at, but not practical for making tea, this appeals to us in the visceral mode, emotionally and aesthetically. Another is totally impractical for making tea at all, as the spout is on the wrong side of the tea pot — this is the illustration that is normally on the cover of Everyday Things yet this is an important tea pot, it has a story and invokes conversation and thought: we interact with it in the reflective mode, by thinking about it and telling the story..  A third tea pot is the one he actually uses to make tea — it’s nothing special, but it works for it’s purpose: this tea pot is for the behavioral mode, used so often we don’t even think about it.

Ultimately, Everyday Things is about design for the behavioral mind.  It’s about controls that disappear in use, because we no longer think about them.  It’s the part and kind of object we rarely talk about, because they are not by nature beautiful, and their ease of use means they add nothing to the story, by virtue of disappearing.  All three kinds of design are important to video games, but behavioral has been developed quite a bit, in large part because of Norman’s own work.  Everyday Things is considered required reading for the game designer. (Interestingly, Emotional Design has a whole chapter on Game and Human Interface Design.)

To recap what I wrote previously, the visceral/emotional mind of Normal maps to the experiential mind Kahneman talks about at TED.  That mind is the eternal now, with about a 3s life-window.  It’s the mind that senses, and responds immediately, often through emotional reactions.  The reflective mind is the storytelling mind.  It’s the part that remembers, analyzes, processes and tells you the story about what happened.  These two minds aren’t really separate, they influence each other, back and forth, as the story of who you are provided by your reflexive minds, tells you (to some extent) how to react to the now.  How you react (and how you feel about how you react) affects your story.

One thing that Norman points out in Emotional Design is that many things which we value as experiences are not actually viscerally pleasing at first.  He talks about coffee (or any food with a bitter flavor).  These are acquired tastes, and ones which we have to work to acquire.  The visceral mind doesn’t like these things at first, but can be trained to like them by the reflexive mind.  We build up a picture of ourselves as someone who drinks coffee, and someone who likes coffee, and we come to like it. It’s who we are, and we value coffee all the more because it was difficult to come to like it.

I, personally, remember going through this process as a pre-teen and teenager, gradually learning to drink my coffee “the way Dad does”, as a way to be like him, and to be ‘adult.’  Now, as an adult, I use much more cream than then (Dad drank his coffee black), and I probably use more sugar, but I’m a coffee drinker now, and so it’s okay that I changed how I drink my coffee, since I acquired that taste.

This has a lot of implications for games.  You’ve got people of all ages and skill levels, some of whom want to acquire the taste of certain kinds of games.  Certain parts of games appeal to the visceral mind, and certain parts don’t.  Some games are strongly reflexive games (RPGs and Farmville come to mind), some strongly visceral (Flower? Tetris? Or perhaps Tetris i’s more behavioral).  Games, unique to media, use all three modes of interacting, and offer both kinds of experience.  We need to think about this if we want to offer experiences beyond just ‘fun’ (and even if we want to make sure that we offer fun).