Human Nature vs. Web Design: a design anthropologist’s view

by Harry Kontos


First, what is design anthropology?

Design anthropology is a research-based, human-centred approach to design that takes special consideration of what it means to be human, and how the things we design help to define that humanness. In broad terms, design anthropology re-purposes the learning, tools and methods of cultural anthropology to give designers (and non-designers) the ability to translate a deeper understanding (or empathy) of human group needs into culturally appropriate tangible experiences.

Design anthropologists work with diverse cultural groups — including workplace cultures — to add social and personal value to products and services.

Some features of the design anthropology approach include:

  • contextual inquiry and directed storytelling
  • participant-observation, including field and shadow observation
  • visual and video documentation
  • co-design workshops with novel methods
  • experience modelling
  • affinity diagramming and rapid prototyping
The Culture Onion gives us a glimpse into some of the things design anthropologists explore. (Image adapted from: Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition)

How can design anthropology help with the way we design websites, apps and online experiences?

Design anthropology can help with the way we design websites, apps and online experiences because it flows from direct observation of what people do with technology, and can make sense of evidence based insight into human behaviour online. If we can ask the right questions early in the process and articulate our assumptions clearly, then by applying some basic research methods to probe the problem we should uncover a wealth of unbiased information from which to generate meaningful design solutions.

Design anthropology helps us understand how culture influences perception, and how perception influences behaviours and attitudes. Cultural factors — and the values they engender — are really important considerations in digital design because of a trend towards a technology-obsessed monoculture of affluent, frivolous, male-dominated, consumption mindset online. Design anthropology looks for ways to correct these kinds of imbalances by restating the importance of human values in design, and reframing technology questions towards more human-scale solutions.

Our practices online and with apps can be shaped by better design research up front, and design anthropology comes with some very cool tools for this kind of empathy building work.


What kinds of features work online and why?

The features that work best online differ based on the context of use and on the user group involved.

Some colours carry a different meaning for, say, a Chinese audience than for a European one. This is the socio-cultural level. Our response to certain colours is based on both nature and nurture factors, on innate and learned experience. Designers assign meaning to colour by using it as a contextual signifier.

Other visual features can be used to make information more understandable, irrespective of culture and values. These are based on our evolved visual processing biology. For instance, there is this hierarchy of visual variables that says it’s best to use position and size, over colour and shape, when you want to visualise quantitative information.

Conversely, colour is a good way to draw out one object from amongst others of the same type. I think words are visual elements like any other, and that’s why highlight links have traditionally been coloured non-black in web pages, rather than making them merely bigger or bolder. The same goes for pattern or textural disruption, which our visual cortex is really good at discerning. It’s what works for our current evolutionary state and designers with a knowledge of these principles tend to do better work.


25% of the human brain is dedicated to visual processing (credit: USC Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics)

Motion on a digital display is probably the most attention-seeking feature a designer can use. Why is that? If you consider our most primitive origins, individual survival was dependant on our ability to quickly interpret motion on the savannah as the potential threat of a predator.

In our distant past, motion meant “pay attention or you could die”.

Because our biology has not evolved since then, whilst technology has clearly overtaken us, motion still means “pay attention”, especially to things in the peripheral view.

All successful, modern digital design principles have a basis in evolutionary psychology, and usually for similar reasons — humans must be attentive, must discern change, minimise effort and look for advantage.

Progressive disclosure is good because it’s about storytelling, and if there’s one thing more important to humans than a good day hunting on the savannah, it’s a captivating story. People respond well to being taken on a little journey, with bits of value along the way and an objective in mind, even a vague one. Gradual reveals of increasing complexity allow users to participate in the flow of the journey, while reviews and ratings pick up on another of our most fundamental human biases — herd mentality. This bias, which can be beneficial or not, is the innate, unconscious desire we have to be “part of the group”. Being part of the group is good if the group protects us, but it also leads to flawed individual decision-making.

The continuing attempt to leverage herd mentality is a very big thing on the web and in social apps generally, and it works because humans rely on each other’s judgements.

Experiments with primates show that even though they do not know why, monkeys will avoid approaching a space that another monkey group fears. This happens even when the fearful group has not actually experienced that space for themselves. Sound familiar?


What website features can confuse or annoy people?

My personal view is that thoughtful deviations from people’s mental model of website navigation, app usage — or any product feature for that matter — is a very good thing. While these deviations may confuse or annoy some people, they’re also an excellent way to make new discoveries and innovations in this area.

I think perception of a digital user experience comes down entirely to the context of use, the human context. So, what annoys us and is unacceptable while using a tablet to read a novel as we drift off to sleep — sound, animation, notifications — may be perfectly fine as we pick up the story just a few hours later on our morning train commute to work.

There are standards in HCI design (Human-Computer Interaction) to help guide us here, ISO 9241–110 for example. These formal, dry-sounding principles map really well to contemporary user-centred design language and, in fact, underpin modern UX thinking.

Examples of HCI-speak and translations:

“Suitability for the task” = help users do the thing they came for. 
“Self-descriptiveness” = make the UI obvious. 
“Controllability” = empower users. 
“Error tolerance” = don’t punish users for making common human mistakes.
“Suitability for individualisation” = let people mod your UI.

Confusing interfaces should always be avoided. People have a more limited tolerance for confusion than they do for annoyance, because confusing UIs are also annoying and unlikely to be internalised to the extent that their additional cognitive load is acceptable. Mobile app and website users have greatly elevated expectations than those of users 5 or 10 years ago.

200 milliseconds is all it takes to ascertain race and gender. (Contreras, J. M., Banaji, M. R., & Mitchell, J. P. (2013)).

Expected response time for data refreshing is now measured in milliseconds. Visual design of a webpage is assessed by visitors within 50 milliseconds, and the quality of an app is judged by its app icon in the app store. This superficiality can make it hard for user-centred design to take hold, but what designers can do easily is minimise annoyance and eliminate confusion. Add micro interactions or small animations that mitigate delay aversion.

Designers should avoid so-called dark-patterns that deceive people into inadvertently touching an ad, or clicking an ambiguous button that misappropriates your contacts list.

Designers can and should push back on these kinds of dark-pattern requests from the business and drive ethics harder in their workplaces.

There’s a wealth of evidence and research on the negative impact of the attention-seeking nature of “needy” web UIs. Users don’t like them and find ways to circumvent them. Ad-blockers and browser pop-up blockers are prime examples.


When we look at something like web search, initially people had to make up for Google’s shortcomings — searching for unnatural terms to get the best search results (eg. “buy phone Melbourne”). Google now accommodates our natural language patterns. Are we seeing the same evolution in terms of web design, or are web experiences still “training” us?

My feeling is that websites are still training us because bad design still exists. In one sense, you could argue that we are seeing an evolution in web design that is a bit like the machine learning of Google’s algorithms. This is the responsive web. The website adapts with some level of content re-contextualisation based on rudimentary machine-to-machine communication of viewport size. You could also argue that this extends some way into usage context as well, since mobile websites are presumed to be simplified, one-hand friendly versions of themselves, although I think this is more a positive side-effect of responsive design than an AI thing.

However, Responsive Web Design (RWD) does not know what we want to achieve any more than an old-school website does. RWD has created an unforeseen complication: there now appears to be a dull uniformity of web design patterns, especially in the emergence of standardised layouts in frameworks such as Bootstrap, Foundation and Wordpress. This efficiency-based mindset goes counter to user-centred design with its presumption that usefulness and value in digital design can be simply slotted into a layout irrespective of purpose, content and functionality.

So unfortunately, I think web experiences are still training us to a large extent. Users have come to expect uniformity of header, navigation, hero image, tri-column panel and call-to-action. If they don’t get this, then the perception is that they have to work harder — and they do. It’s a vicious circle.

Perceptual Set

As well as the influence of expectation—Perceptual Set theory, there are human biases at work here too: Illusory Correlations (making connections that don’t really exist), and Herd Mentality (the innate desire to be a “part of the group”). The latter often outweighs considerations of well being and leads to flawed decision-making. This is why businesses are unlikely to diverge from the proven “design-that-works” mindset any time soon, blindly adopting the same tired patterns. The illusory correlation here is that web development efficiencies invented by business-minded software engineers have forced the hand of design expression into a tightly constrained and risk-averse space — at least in the corporate, eCommerce and product environments.

A correlation between uniformity in design and user satisfaction never existed.

There is also some System Justification bias going on, in how we maintain the status quo even when we agree it is bad for business and bad for users. It takes boldness to do something really different in web.

Now the opportunities for designers on the web must evolve outside of visual, layout or even content design to novel experiences, storytelling, pure functionality and novel interactions design. I think this is a pretty exciting consequence.


What advice would you give people building an eCommerce website?

eCommerce websites benefit from the application of exactly the same design principles and knowledge of human behaviour as any other digital medium. Use appropriate research methods to shed light on specific problems with user experience, embed designers inside the teams that are working on products or services, and do the early work to understand the user perspective to adapt your service to actual needs. For instance, don’t take before you give. Don’t force people to log in or create an account, but showcase your offering so that they choose to. Don’t ask for their personal details, just the minimum information needed to complete a simple transaction, and even then, anticipate incompleteness or mistakes and let the system continue until later. Use the same kind of courtesy and language on your online shop as your customers might expect in a good physical shop, just make it faster.

Avoid using knowledge of human behaviour and psychology in an exploitative or manipulative way, but do gently nudge users in directions that help them connect with your brand and your product, if it meets their needs. Avoid deceptive dark patterns, don’t distract users with obstructive upselling and insecure “don’t leave me” popups. Simplify to the max, and streamline the experience (of a purchase) so that it helps create trust in your brand. Be really clear and open about your website’s offerings, its pricing and everything that will happen post-purchase.

Design for the bigger picture — that is, the planet and its inhabitants — and all else will follow.

10 ways to make your website more human

  1. Put the user front and centre
  2. Use position and size to show importance
  3. Moving elements get people’s attention
  4. Leverage the cultural significance of colour
  5. Don’t take before you give
  6. Give people just enough information
  7. Don’t punish people for being human
  8. People believe other people
  9. For every action, a reaction
  10. Don’t violate people’s trust

HARRY KONTOS
Design Anthropologist and User Experience designer based in Melbourne, Australia.

Article originally published in edited form here: It’s human nature: 10 ways design anthropology can help you build a better website.