IA Summit: This Is Your Brain On Design

by Luke Wroblewski April 9, 2010

At the IA Summit in Phoenix, AZ Andrew Hinton explained how an awareness of how our brain functions can help designers better understand the impact of their actions. Here's my notes from his presentation on This Is Your Brain On Design: How neuroscience can help us create better user experiences:

People are not as rational as they think they are. We find ourselves doing things and look back thinking why did I do that? Designers usually try to understand users but we also need to understand ourselves. Meta cognition is thinking about how you think. Understanding brains helps you understand why you behave the way you do.

Understanding the Brain

  • The brain is not independent of the body. It can only do what it does because it is in a body with sensory experience. The brain makes sense of things through physical experience. Our brains need to think with objects. Visual thinking is not an option -it is necessary. As our brains grow they build a library of patterns. Your brain only comprehends what was useful in the past. Many things we experience are filled in with memories. Perception is largely made up of previously perceived patterns.
  • The brain is made of layers that grew up over time. The old brain is focused on survival and physical efforts. The mid brain is where emotions are processed. The new brain is the thin layer that has evolved more recently and is the really rational and analytical side. Don't take this model too literally. Different parts of the brain depend on each other.
  • Emotion signals drive most of our actions. The rational part of the brain would take forever to make decisions without emotional signals. After a decision is made the newer brain takes credit. This has been revealed through MRI imaging. We always have to make decisions but they take a lot of effort so by the end of the day we are making worse decisions.
  • Amygdala stores memories of high emotional experiences. “The world felt smelled and looked like this when I fell down or had a life threatening experience”. But most of the experience we have throughout the day is experience we created for ourselves. So we have a lot of cognitive biases (bugs in the wet ware). Like loss aversion (once we have committed a lot of time or energy on something we can't be convinced that it is unworthy) and confirmation bias. (we prefer information that confirms our bias independent of whether it is true or not.)
  • Day- dreaming is really important for creativity. It is a relaxed state that helps ideas gel. But you need to pay some attention so you can make use of the ideas that bubble up.
  • Play is ancient it comes from the old part of the brain. It is necessary for health and intelligence. A play absence can be detrimental to health and development.
  • Play is also social as it helps us interact with others. We have to collaborate with others. Social context is very powerful for driving conformity. Evolutionarily conforming helped lead to survival. In some contexts it can do harm though especially if you get to conformist decision-making. Group norms can kill creativity.
  • Fear is a very powerful emotion because it deals with survival. Our brains respond many times with fear when it may not be as pertinent. It makes our brain retreat to the old parts.

Putting it to Use

  • So what do we do with this understanding of the brain? We make conditions to do creative work better.
  • Room to play. We need time and space to make things for exploration not just production. We need time for our brain to rest. We need physical space because we are physical creatures. Getting room/time for design is non-negotiable. But designers need to make the most of it. In the time and space we set aside we need methods to keep us on track.
  • Design is about exploration of alternatives. This doesn't align with modern corporate structures that strive for efficiency. So designers need continual vigilance to make sure they are being effective.
  • Some design deliverables are for exploration, free play, exploration, and shared empathy. These should be about working not about communicating. Others deliverables are for communication, production, persuasion, and self-protection.
  • Every design project is 3 challenges in one. You need to design: the conditions for doing the work, collaboration with stakeholders, and the product itself.
  • To sum it up: be meta-cognitive so you are aware of the impact of what you are doing.