Three Levels of Processing: How Humans See Design

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Design of Everyday Things" by Don Norman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the three levels of processing? How do they work and how do they relate to design?

The three levels of processing look at the basics of how humans process thought and emotion. Though this is an extremely complex process, we can break it down into three levels when thinking about design.

Read more about the three levels of processing and how they relate to design.

Three Levels of Processing

(Shortform note: This article gives a basic overview of Norman’s way of thinking about the ways humans process thoughts and emotions. For a more detailed look at his thoughts on the subject, see his book Emotional Design.)

The study of human cognition and emotion is an extremely complex area of neuroscience. A simplified model of this process is helpful for understanding the basic ideas and their implications for design. This model divides emotional and cognitive processing into three distinct levels: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Each of these levels has important implications for design, so understanding them is crucial in order to design technology that is easy to use and to enjoy.

The Visceral Level

The first of the three levels of processing is the visceral level. The visceral level involves our most primitive reflexes, like startling at a loud noise or flinching when something flies towards us unexpectedly. This happens in the lowest part of our brains, the same area responsible for basic functions like breathing and balancing upright. 

The visceral level controls the fight, flight, and freeze responses by signaling the muscles and heart to behave in particular ways. For example, the bodily signature of a flight response is a racing heartbeat and increased muscle tension. This happens in response to a fearful stimulus, but the process can also work in the opposite direction. If your heart is racing and your muscles are tense from exertion or excitement, you might mistakenly perceive that combination of sensations as a flight response, and become fearful as a result. Our emotions and perceptions influence our bodies, and vice versa. 

Processing at the visceral level is completely subconscious. It can’t be influenced by learning, except for basic processes like adaptation (for example, if you work in an environment with frequent bursts of loud noise, your automatic startle response to that stimulus may decrease over time as your brain learns that sudden loud noises don’t always mean danger). 

This level of processing is especially important for designers to understand. Visceral reactions can have a powerful influence on how users respond to an object. An otherwise well-designed product can fail if it provokes a negative visceral response in the user (like with a sudden, blaring alarm, or an unpleasant odor.)

The Behavioral Level

The behavioral level also primarily deals with subconscious processing. This might seem counterintuitive since we typically choose our behaviors and can observe them consciously. But the behavioral level of processing is not concerned with why we act the way we do, but how. This is the second of the three levels of processing.

For example, if you want to speak, you have to control your lips, tongue, and jaw in very specific ways to produce the right sounds. You might consciously choose what you want to say, but most of us don’t actively will our mouths to make certain shapes. The same applies to wiggling your fingers or opening a drawer– we’re not conscious of the neurological processes involved in those actions. We decide what to do, and our brains subconsciously forward the message to the correct body parts. This is all part of the 3 levels of processing.

(Unlike the visceral level, responses at the behavioral level can be learned and changed. This is where overlearning comes in—when we practice something over and over until it becomes a habit, we’ve moved that skill from a conscious level to the subconscious behavioral level. Now, when the associated trigger pops up, we carry out that action without any conscious thought).

Behavioral processing also has implications for design. By definition, behavioral responses have a specific expectation attached. If you open your laptop and press the power button, you expect it to turn on. When you turn a doorknob and push, you expect the door to open. These expectations are crucial for designers to understand because they have such a huge impact on emotional responses. When our expectations are not met, we typically experience frustration or disappointment; when they are met or exceeded, we experience satisfaction and pleasure. In turn, these emotions strongly influence how we think and feel about the experience of interacting with a given object. 

We often make these associations without realizing it according to the three levels of processing. If your laptop reliably powers on each time you expect it to, you learn to associate the laptop with satisfaction and confirmed expectations. If the door frequently doesn’t open when you expect it to (perhaps because it lacks the necessary signifiers), you associate that type of door with frustration and annoyance. 

The most important design tool for managing user expectations is feedback. If an experience defies our expectations, we might feel helpless or confused about how to proceed, ultimately influencing how we think and feel about the experience. Feedback mitigates this damage by explaining what went wrong, allowing users to regain a sense of control. Even better, if feedback gives us information about the problem and how to fix it, we’re much less likely to experience feelings of helplessness or confusion. 

The Reflective Level

The reflective level is the last of the 3 levels of processing. It is the level of conscious processing. Where visceral and behavioral processing happens instinctively and immediately, reflective processing is deliberate and therefore much slower. The reflective level allows us to brainstorm, consider alternatives, exercise logic and creativity, examine a new idea, and, as the name implies, reflect back on past experiences. 

Emotion plays an important role at this level as well. Where the visceral and behavioral levels deal with subconscious, automatic emotional responses, the reflective level provokes emotional responses based on our own interpretation of an experience. For example, while fear is an automatic visceral response, anxiety about possible future events is a reflective response. Anxiety arises from our ability to predict possible futures based on current trends. But this is the same process that underlies feelings like excitement and anticipation. Our own interpretation of our predictions decides which of these emotions we experience. 

Another example of this effect is the difference between guilt and pride. In order for us to feel either of these emotions, we have to believe we’re directly responsible for the outcome of a situation. If we judge the outcome of that situation positively, we’re more likely to feel pride. If we judge the outcome negatively, we’re more likely to feel guilt. 

This kind of reflective processing has a strong impact on how we think about design. The act of reflecting involves synthesizing information from the other two levels into a cohesive memory of an experience. While visceral and behavioral processing is concerned only with the present, reflective processing looks back at the past and uses that information to make predictions about the future. 

In a practical context, this means that memory is often the most important factor in determining how a user feels about the experience of interacting with a given object within the 3 levels of processing. If the object provoked pleasant visceral reactions and met our expectations, we’ll remember the experience positively. In cases where visceral and behavioral reactions conflict, reflective processing determines which of these factors we give more weight to and ultimately decides whether we remember the experience as positive or negative. 

  • For example, if an alarm clock keeps perfect time and is easy to use, but the alarm sound itself is so loud and jarring that you wake up each morning thinking the house is on fire, the memory of that visceral response might make you view the interaction negatively and avoid that specific clock (or brand) in the future. 

Each of the three levels of processing plays an important role in how we evaluate objects and our surroundings, and play an important role in design.

Three Levels of Processing: How Humans See Design

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  • How psychology plays a part in the design of objects you encounter daily
  • Why pushing a door that was meant to be pulled isn't your fault
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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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