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Neuroscience, design and their direct impact on human psychology

Design and human psychology are inextricably bound to each other. Good designers know this, but great designers use it to their advantage. As many experts have argued in the past, good design requires less conscious thinking from its users. The easier it is to perform an action, the more likely it is to happen. Our brains are constantly looking for ways to create shortcuts and optimise thinking processes to achieve things with less “thinking”.

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An electroencephalogram (EEG) that detects electrical activity in the brain.

Neuroscience Methods in Design Research

From a neurological standpoint, we know that the brain consumes around 20% of the body’s oxygen, despite only accounting for 2% of its weight. The reason for this is that a lot of complex processes happen in the brain, and it is constantly trying to breakdown these into smaller, shorter, and more digestible pieces of information. This process aims to reduce the cognitive load on humans. It allows room for new thoughts, new information and new knowledge to be acquired and processed.

The brain is lazy by nature, and it seeks to identify patterns and shortcuts in order to consume less energy by thinking “unconsciously”. With the help of research methods used in neuroscience, such as eye-tracking cameras, skin sensors and electroencephalography (EEG), UX research has evolved dramatically over the last decade.

Now, designers can gain insights into what effects their designs can have on users and their expected behaviours using these techniques from neuroscience. Some great findings, which can be now used as a rule of thumb for designers, are outlined below.

Psychology in Design: 3 tips to keep in mind

So the seemingly impossible task of capturing a user’s attention and conveying the necessary information through design, all in less than a blink of an eye, has now become somewhat easier, with the help of neuroscience research methodologies. Here are a few tips that you can apply to your designs and you can have peace of mind that are going to improve your work as a designer.

Psychology tip #1: Make it simple and clear

Sounds trivial, right? Although quite straightforward, this tip is commonly overlooked by designers. Oftentimes, users arrive to a digital product with a specific goal in mind. So, upon getting to a welcome screen or a landing page, users want to identify easily where they have to go in order to perform their desired actions. As designers, the more you make such actions clear and visible at first glance, without the unnecessary distraction of cluttered design elements, the better the experience of your users.

But putting information or buttons front and center, implicitly suggests that other information remains hidden or harder to find. And this is the role of a good UX designer; to understand the most important features and flows of users and prioritise those over other, less meaningful actions. There are a plethora of ways to come up with this information hierarchy, from running prioritisation workshops to tracking user behaviours and A/B testing.

Psychology tip #2: Make your content easily digestible

How? Well, numerous eye-tracking studies suggest that readers are lazy, and actually skim through the information that you present to them. This is partly because of what we explained earlier, with the brain trying to find “shortcuts” and perform actions, like reading, by consuming less energy and “filling-in” the gaps unconsciously, as you read through fragmented pieces of information.

More specifically, research has shown that most users are reading through text in an “E” (or “F” pattern). That is to say that the most important pieces of information, as you would assume, come at the top of the page (such as the title of an article for example), and the further down users go, the less time you can expect them to spend scanning through the information. Displaying important information on the bottom right of the screen for example, is a bad UX decision.

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Eye-tracking results indicating “F”-shape patterns

Do not use too much text

We have seen that users usually spend time skimming through the information rather than delving deep into reading text etc. According to Nielsen Norman, text can become more scannable by following some (or all) of the following simple practices:

  • Highlight the important bits of info
  • Use bullet points
  • Use descriptive and accurate headings
  • Make the first sentence of each paragraph meaningful
  • Elaborate on one idea per paragraph

Use colors and contrast

Text is not the only way to make information digestible, or to make something stand out. Colours, fonts, weights and contrast all play an important role in this and can be used to make some information more prominent. You can read more about the role of luminance contrast in interface design and how such principles are used even by NASA for designing complex interfaces with competing pieces of information in order to direct the pilot’s attention wherever necessary.

Psychology tip #3: Set expectations

There is nothing that could hamper your user experience more than your users being frustrated by not knowing what to expect. Wasting time is a serious source of frustration for users, especially when they end up spending time for things that are not what they expected.

As described earlier, the biology of the brain is such that it always looks for the path of minimum effort when carrying out tasks. We also know that users identify well-known patterns in interfaces, and become familiarised with these. This suggests that past experiences become current expectations in interactions, and if the expected and desired outcome is not achieved then users can get really frustrated. This is known as Jakob’s law and it explains how users will transfer expectations they have built around one familiar product to another that appears similar.

To prevent this frustration, you can use simple UX and UI elements to let the visitors know what is happening behind the scenes, or what is about to happen in the next moment. And, as the first tip suggests, don’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to common buttons and actions. Be simple, and follow the norms (in most cases). Of course this should not hinder the extent of UX innovation introduced in designs, but it should act as a guide in terms of where the focus of innovation should be geared towards.

Common UX Principles

Now that we have laid out some basic psychology tips that can be used to improve the user experience of your digital product or service, its time to look at some of the most prominent UX Design principles to abide by. Below are simple descriptions of the principles, but you can read more about each of those here.

Hick’s Law

“The time you take to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choice”

Jakob’s Law

“Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.” 

Von Restorff Effect

“When multiple similar objects are present, the one that differs from the rest is most likely to be remembered.”

Zeigarnik Effect

“People remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.”

Millers Law

“The average person can only keep 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their working memory”.

Doherty Threshold

Productivity soars when a computer and its users interact at a pace (<400ms) that ensures that neither has to wait on the other.

Aesthetic Usability Effect

Users often perceive aesthetically pleasing design as design that’s more usable.

Occam’s Razor

Among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

Peak-End Rule

People judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak and at its end, rather than the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.

How do Designs Make us Feel?

We interact with designs every day of our lives, whether we notice it or not. The buildings of a city, the shapes of objects, the elements of a digital screen; almost everything around as has some design element associated to it. All these designs offer a trigger to humans, a cue that will awaken some sort of emotion within us or some behaviour.

So the way that these designs are created and displayed is going to have a direct impact on our idiosyncrasy as humans. At a large scale, urban design of cities and buildings can lead to the exacerbation of positive or negative behaviours. Studies suggest that city designs can affect brain biology.

In Vancouver for example, downtown policies ensure that residents have a decent view of the mountains, forest and ocean to the north and west. The design of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complexes in St Louis was criticised for alienating communities and stoking racial segregation. Crime levels rose as a result of the big empty courtyards at the center of such complexes, which were not used as the socialising space that they were initially intended to.

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St Louis housing complexes design

At a smaller scale, multiple studies have been conducted to show the effect of simpler, everyday shapes and their effect on human psychology and behaviour. For example, squares can give the sense of security and reliability when it comes to digital interfaces and graphic design, whereas triangles can also imply movement, balance and stability. They can also suggest motion and direction. And this is just the beginning. You can read more about shapes and their effect on human behaviour, but what is important to remember is that this is knowledge that great designers take advantage of. So when you start thinking about your next design, make sure you incorporate as many of these rules and principles as possible, to ensure that the desired outcome will be achieved.

Conclusion

As we have seen, designs have a big impact on human behaviour. This impact can be positive, but it can also be negative like in the housing complexes of St Louis. As a designer, it’s an ethical obligation towards users to make sure that this knowledge is used to foster good and healthy behaviours, rather than promote perverse or “dark” behaviours.

Dark patterns in design are unfortunately very prevalent in the digital realm nowadays. These kind of designs take advantage of the aforementioned UX principles and psychology tips in order to trick users into taking actions unconsciously, or without completely understanding their implications. Payment and subscription flows, account cancellation flows, ads and more are typical examples of these dark patterns.

So it is up to us as designers to make sure that such dark patterns do not prevail, and that good design substitutes evil design.

Design and human emotions and behaviours are closely related, and the former affects the later. Neuroscience methods have been applied to design research to better understand the idiosyncrasies of people while interacting with digital and physical design artefacts. Out of this research, some very important UX principles have been derived and should be taken into account by designers in their work. On the other hand, we need to be cautious of these rules being used to exploit human behaviour and force unwanted actions and feelings. It is our responsibility to make sure that design is used for good, and we should always keep in mind that all design has an immediate effect on the people who interact with it.

Costis L.

As a co-founder of Pine and a curious and passionate design-thinker, I always use my current knowledge to create new things. For instance, I learnt that tomato is actually a fruit, so I risked it all and used it in a fruit salad. It worked.

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