Considering Yanny and Laurel in UX design

“A geometric wall pattern at the Ryerson Department of Architectural Science” by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Much comment about the recent Laurel or Yanny ‘phenomenon’ referenced the multi-sensory theory known as the McGurk effect. As a UX designer, it feels to me that the outcome of this multi-sense behaviour is also evident in the use of digital interfaces, though I think for different reasons.

The McGurk effect describes the result of multiple senses conflicting with one another:

[The] McGurk effect is a cross-modal effect and illusion that results from conflicting information coming from different senses, namely sight and hearing. (Illusions Index)

The McGurk effect therefore describes the outcome of conflicting information from each sense being not merely resolved by a prioritisation of one over another, but a computed ‘illusory’ outcome that is informed by attempting to make both senses agree. However, whilst interesting, as a UX designer this didn’t seem surprising to me! Humans have incredible multi-processing ability — crucially so in a busy multi-tasking world — only achievable by offloading focussed processing to sub-conscious processing or by rationalising a presumed outcome based on informed expectation. Hence, whilst not strictly due to the same sensory calculations, as UX designers we consider a similar ‘cognitive effort’ cost to the McGurk effect when we use design patterns to create interfaces.

Digital interfaces are (still) predominantly designed to be engaged with using our visual sense (where accessible alternatives are typically to enable other means of engaging with the assumed visual interface). Good UX frequently adopts understood (usually visual) design patterns to enable a user to easily offload appropriate aspects of a task or interaction. Depending on the context, this offloading might therefore support ‘zero effort’ task completion (e.g. signup or checkout) and/or focussed effort where attention is required (e.g. deleting a contact or publishing a post).

Basic application of a design pattern for offloading cognitive effort during a checkout experience

Furthermore, perhaps the McGurk effect is even more relevant when considering the use of ‘dark UX patterns’ that intend to deliberately mislead users by generating unexpected ‘computed’ outcomes from assumed to be understood experiences. In any experience — digital or physical — our willingness and confidence to offload cognitive effort (e.g. attention) requires trust in the interaction. Digital experiences that are designed from the outset with a sense of clarity, honesty and consistency create greater trust and ultimately increased user satisfaction and loyalty by enabling faster, truer or more meaningful interactions. Even the most tried and tested interface may create a ‘Yanny or Laurel’ confusion for some users but by establishing user trust and appropriately adopting design patterns, good UX can ensure positive outcomes with minimal cognitive effort.