An Event Apart: Hacking Users Brains

by Luke Wroblewski February 5, 2012

In her Hacking Your Users’ Brains talk at An Event Apart in Atlanta, GA 2012 Aviva Rosenstein outlined how visual perception and customer research can help manage user expectations in your software applications. Here's my notes from her talk:

  • Brain hack: an exploit based on how users perceive and/or understand information.
  • Get inside the heads of your users so you can make websites more usable. Focus on perception and comprehension: how do people see and make sense of a visual interface. Understanding visual perception can help you see through your user’s eyes.
  • What are people’s needs and goals and how do you meet their expectations? User research can help you understand their needs, recognize their pain, speak their language, and help them succeed.

Visual Perception

  • People see similar visual treatments and group them. Our brains are wired to make associations based on how similar or close to each other things are visually.
  • If you move an action button too far away from the element it is associated with, it takes people a while to make the connection.
  • Proximity & similarity also apply to text (not just visual elements). Separating text can separate messages. Different fonts indicate different elements.
  • Negative space & grouping can help manage where people’s eyes stop when looking at a composition or an application interface.
  • Different font treatments help people distinguish different elements in an interface.
  • Don’t use color as the only way to communicate information. Always pair it with something else. This helps people with color blindness issues.
  • Noticing movement is an evolutionary enhancement that helped us survive in the world. However online, animation is often used to draw our attention to distractions (ads, promotions) instead of to content.
  • Depth can also communicate the wrong information. Exmaple: tilted pie graphs. Our brains have a tough time with spatial relationships. First we have to create a mental model of the object, then we have to rotate it, and finally make sense of it.
  • We can train people where or where not to look on a Web page. Through years of colorful banner ads at the top of pages, we’ve trained people not to look in colorful headers.
  • Presbyopia: elderly vision. To switch between near & far vision, the lens in your eye needs to change shape. As you get older it gets harder for that lens to flex. This means older people need bigger fonts to read.
  • People read faster when lines are longer but most people will say they prefer shorter line lengths even though they read them slower.
  • We’re hard-wired to look at faces. If you put faces on your Web sites, they’ll attract attention.
  • We’ve conditioned people over time to associate meaning with symbols. If you aren’t consistent with your use of these symbols, you can slow people down as they won’t know what to expect from common controls.
  • There are cultural differences with hand symbols so tread carefully when using them in your designs.

User Expectations

  • It’s not a matter of asking people what they want. It’s a matter of finding out why they need something. Get to the underlying motivation.
  • Learn how to ask the next question and listen to answers.
  • It doesn’t take a lot of time to test your basic assumptions about a problem you think people have. This is worth doing so you don’t go down the wrong path.
  • Different types of users have different assumptions. Don’t assume you are representative of your user base.
  • Find out: what do users need & want? What do they do now? How do they feel about it? What can you improve?
  • Just two days are often enough to get answers to some of these key questions.
  • First define your target audience, then find them and get to know them. You need to get people to talk with you. Rewards can help motivate people to help.

Research Types

  • Asking questions is a good start but it’s not enough. Human recall about behavior is not great. We often forget or over report behaviors that make us look good –even in anonymous surveys.
  • What people say they do and what they do are two different things. Questions can gather information about opinions but not behaviors.
  • To learn about actual behaviors, you have to go where your customers are and observe them.
  • Environments can highlight what roles people play (that are relevant to your site or service), how information moves between roles, what goals they have for each task, the context they work under (space, timing, etc.), and what they need from you to reach their goals.
  • Pain: find out what hurts the most when people are trying to achieve goals. People get blinders on when they’ve been doing some thing the same way over and over.
  • Be prepared to learn. Assume your customers are the experts, not you. Blend in, shut up, and listen.
  • Sort through all your notes by putting each insight on a separate post-it. Put them on a wall and work together to analyze what you’ve observed.
  • How people expect content to be organized is important if you want people to find things on your site. You can use closed or open sorts to have customers help you organize things.
  • Use interviews to explore needs/feelings, elicit opinions/rationale, get concept feedback, or validate assumptions.
  • You can use quick tests to see if users can navigate your site, if they find it easy to accomplish goals. It’s your job to find issues. Be careful not to lead people.