Every aspect of our lives is immersed in intangibility. We live mostly inside our heads. Almost 90% of what we think about is intangible. The rest is basic inter-species interaction, in a very evolutive, fundamental way. We project, ourselves onto the world around us and we react accordingly, with a clear tendency to favor information that confirms our own preconceptions. ( 1 )
So, we all have subconscious automatisms, be that on a behavioral or physiological level, that we adhere to. Things we do without even realizing that we're doing them.
Psychological tripwires. We're all vulnerable to these subconscious stimuli.
By learning to see the underlying patterns in our behavior, we can learn to build systems, environments in which anticipation of human behaviors can be done with a smaller risk factor. We could say we can learn to predict behavior and control a human interaction. If the system is designed properly, that is.
What actually happens at a process level?
The brain is brilliantly uncreative.
Basically, we're all wired to search for familiar patterns, making use of memory and emotions to trigger all sorts of neuronal responses that eventually lead to more complex reactions and behaviors. Out brain takes shortcuts. Sometimes, even unwanted shortcuts.
When we're thinking, what we're trying to do is to look for the nearest, available pattern. Once we can find it, we can stop thinking and just follow along the pattern. This makes for a very efficient computing machine we call our brain.
A potential dangerous aspect of this process is that we may eventually get locked into patterns. And once we've been using these patterns again and again, it's very difficult to shift to other patterns. This is an essential aspect of decision-making. If we can't incorporate the lessons of the past into our future decisions, then we're destined to endlessly repeat our mistakes.
Sometimes, these locking-pattern anomalies manifest themselves very consistently as illusions. And for a discipline that works with human behavior and is fundamentally visual - like design - of particular interest are 2 types of illusions that humans are susceptible to :
- behavioral such as the illusion of superiority, optimism bias, the illusion of control and so on.
- psysiological such as the McGurk effect, Stroop effect, the famous the Shepard's tables effect and so on.
Mark Changizi's work ( 3 ) demonstrates that our visual system responds with appropriate latency-correction mechanisms as a result of a 100ms neural delay from the time an event actually happens and the time it is perceived. On this basis, he explains more than 50 kinds of illusions in this paper.
There isn't. But we can learn to leverage it. We can learn to design experiences that take advantage of these limitations. But we first have to know what these limitations are and understand exactly how they work.
For example, cognition has a severely limited capacity ( 5 ) : adult humans can retain only about four items “in mind”. This limitation is fundamental to human brain function. This inherently shapes the extent of which we can push the input we provide in any given stage of an interaction. Making people remember things from one task to another is inefficient.
Unfortunately, cognitive barriers are not limited to the amount of information we can take in, but also extend to the manner of which we interpret that information. Although we can interpret visual stimuli in a multitude of ways, the human visual system usually prefers only one interpretation : the simplest one. ( 6 ) This relates directly to the pattern-seeking process mentioned earlier.
People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.
When dealing with complex or multiple tasks, we can use global and holistic processes involved in perceiving structure in the environment as guides for ordering an experience throughout all it's constituent stages. And the optimal way of doing that is to mimic the manner that is biologically built into our minds : a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetric and simple, as suggested by the Gestalt approaches to visual perception. ( 7 )
But structure is not everything. People look for guidance in others on what they should do. Especially if they're uncertain. Social validation nd automatic social behavior stand as testament to that.
Each of us is in fact what he is almost exclusively by virtue of his imitativeness.
We have an innate tendency to imitate and social attitutes - which we can simulate - modulate automatic imitation. ( 8 ) Even the thought of a stereotype alone is enough to make us adapt our behavior to fit that stereotype. This opens up an amazing opportunity for designers to frame a context to concentrate on benefits or risks to alter people's decisions without them even knowing it.
Almost always, if a decision is taken to avoid a loss, it will be a bolder, more aggressive decision than one taken to achieve a gain.This is a bias known as the framing effect. And that means that if you can get people to commit to a small action, then it is much more likely that they will later commit to a larger action.
Considering all the input we have available, all the insights we can gather through a multi-disciplinary approach and the lengths we can go to to model and predict human behavior in a specific context, the importance - and I can't stress this enough - of a designer as a system creator becomes increasingly clear.