Blink & Interface Design

by October 3, 2005

Recent travels took me through Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Though the book has been out for a while and garnered a lot of reviews, I thought it would still be worthwhile to take a look at how some of Blink’s ideas apply to interface design.

1. Instantaneous decision-making happens within our subconscious whether we know it or not. In the first instant consumers set their eyes on a product, they form an opinion. In most cases, that reaction is primarily visceral. As a result, the personality defined by the visual design and content of an application needs to be carefully considered.

“Even if you deliberately don’t think about your site’s personality during the design process, you will end up with one anyway. The colors, content, and visual elements (or lack of all three) of your Web site all make an impression on your audience, intentional or not. Therefore, it is in your best interests to be aware of the personality you are creating for your site and make certain it is telling the story you want.” –Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Usability, 2002

2. Without realizing it, consumers “transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of a product to the product itself.” Gladwell described a test between two brandy companies. One had superior results in taste tests and brand associations, but was losing market share to a brand with better packaging. Their problem was not their product, nor their brand- it was their packaging. When I redesigned a digital news source for Kellogg’s a few years ago, the visceral design of the application had a significant impact on user perception of the product (which had previously gotten very little use). As one user commented after only seeing (not using) the application: “I had no idea there was this much valuable information here.”

3. Deep research feeds understanding. Coke invested in “New Coke” on the results of one form of research: blind, small sample size taste tests which Pepsi repeatedly won. They did not consider the results of “home-use” tests, the associations of their brand, or what cola consumers prefer after drinking a whole can (a more realistic user scenario). As a result, they based their new product on its performance within a very small portion of the complete user experience. The first sip of cola, after all, is just one part of buying and enjoying Coke.

4. In some cases, the overabundance of data can cloud our ability to listen to the results of our subconscious decision-making. Gladwell described several situations in which too much information resulted in poorer decisions than the process he termed thin-slicing: the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on narrow slices of experience. In my own experience, I’ve seen many products buffed down to mediocrity by too many data points. Thin-slicing has the potential to set a more focused direction for a product.

5. “The problem with market research is that it is often too blunt an instrument to pick up the distinction between the bad and the merely different.” Galdwell outlined how market research incorrectly predicted the failure of several ultimately successful products. When faced with a significant innovation, consumers often lack the context and vocabulary to envision the potential of the product. Innovators, therefore, should be prepared for potential rejection in focus groups and usability labs before their concepts achieve their promise in consumer's minds.