Behaviour by design: neuroscience meets the colouring-in department

Karl Randay
8 min readFeb 11, 2016
Would you let these people operate on your brain? Oops, too late — Image courtesy of AMC

Let me start by saying that I’m not a brain surgeon or a doctor, but neuroscience is something that has fascinated me since studying typography and design psychology at college and university.

Damnit Jim, I’m a Doctor, not a Human-Computer Interaction specialist

I’m amazed by the autonomous things our brain can make us think and do based upon almost microscopic changes and quirks in our environment, thereby affecting our behaviour at an almost subconscious level.

Because of this I’ve always tried to ensure that my approach to design and the methodologies that I follow make use of an understanding in how design affects human behaviour. One of these methodologies is based around the principles of Human Centred Design, a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs.

To better highlight some of the benefits of this approach to design, along with a few other techniques, I’m going to be publishing a series of articles on how design is a tool that can influence our behaviour, hopefully giving some insight into the critical thinking that creative teams are capable of that can happen way before the colouring-in begins.

So, let’s start with a general look at design as a process and where the neuroscience slots in.

It’s not just about pretty pictures

The design process starts well before we bust out the crayons

I’ve been involved in design in some shape or form for nearly two decades, from working in a startup to a large agency, then to a dedicated product and experience design studio. One thing that I’ve learned from these different creative companies is that a fundamental difference between the traditional agency model and the product design approach is in how each consider the path to the product or service.

Both are trying to connect an audience to a thing, but while traditional agencies tend to focus on making the thing appear desirable, the product design approach is more concerned with making sure the thing serves an audience need.

Based upon this disparity, it can be easy to see how design is dismissed as just how something looks and feels, but as design thinking becomes more popular, there is an increasing paradigm shift in what we consider the role of design, as technology is catching up with opportunities to innovate and we’re developing better methods and strategies for understanding audience needs and the part cognitive psychology plays in this.

“There has been a paradigm shift in what we consider to be design, as technology has caught up with opportunities to innovate and we’ve developed better methods for understanding audience needs.”

The role of the designer is becoming deeply rooted in understanding human behaviour, getting to the root of what people really think, feel and want, all the way down to their basic heuristics, their needs, bias and habits, before even considering what the thing they are designing needs to look like.

A solid foundation in understanding human behaviour and what motivates people can be the difference between building a thing that just meets business requirements versus developing something that can make a difference to real people.

Before we briefly talk about how the different elements of neuroscience can be influenced by design, let’s look briefly at the history of manipulation in design…

Brain rinse required — design as persuasion

In the early 20th century, evidence of design being a manipulator of human behaviour was seen in the effect advertising was having during the 30s and 40s, later romanticised in the Mad Men tv series.

If only she had swiped left…

In 1941 Dr. Ernest Dichter, an influential advertising consultant, commented that any successful agency “manipulates human motivations and desires and develops a need for goods with which the public has at one time been unfamiliar — perhaps even undesirous of purchasing”.

Building on this idea, Vance Packard examined the different ways in which advertisers were attempting to manipulate consumers in his book ‘The Hidden Persuaders’. Through the use of consumer motivational research, psychology and subliminal tactics, Packard postulated that advertisers were creating a heightened sense of desire, expectation and need through their work.

His concept of eight ‘compelling needs’ detailed a series of consumer desires that each product advertised promised to fulfil, compelling consumers to buy them in order to satisfy those ‘needs’.

Vance Packard’s eight compelling needs details the hidden ways we are able to be persuaded

As far as modern design is concerned, this introduced the world to the effects that design can have on decision making and mass consumerism, standing as an example of how designed elements are introduced in the environment with a view to manipulating and creating influence, especially when tied to an emotional response.

So, how easy is it to actually see the effects design can have on human behaviour, or is all of this just a tad Derren Brown?

Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes…

Back in 1996 I was studying a diploma in typography after finishing my foundation in graphic design (for some reason I thought spending the same amount of time studying it takes to become a Doctor, training in design, typography and then design psychology, would result in a salary to match — turns out this is wildly incorrect).

I took part in an exercise fairly early on in my studies that stands out to me as a prime example of how small changes can make a big difference. The task was to take a passage of literature and analyse how it was set and then replicate it on a traditional press. We then reset the copy using the same format, but made small alterations to key typographic elements like leading, tracking, margin and even the stock it was inked onto, making sure we didn’t stray too far from the original, but making small changes that felt more comfortable.

These changes weren’t arbitrary, but based upon an understanding of how many words you can read in one line before losing your place down the page, how much leading you can use so that the density isn’t too heavy so that you drift from line to line.

The effect this had on reader comfort and understanding was considerable. While a general effect of these kinds of changes ultimately means more pages, reading speeds per page significantly increased, along with reader pleasure and their overall enjoyment of the writing.

Boom… Mind blown.

Now let’s fast forward a (cough) few years and examine how the idea of understanding human behaviour has led to a renaissance in design-led practices, especially within digital and product design fields.

Designing for the mind

Modern design has come a long way since Madison Avenue introduced us to the art of persuasion. We’re now more savvy to the nefarious methods of ad agencies, appreciation of neurological expertise is fairly common and widespread, so that more and more people have therapists and are comfortable with acknowledging the things that happen inside their own heads, creating a deeper awareness of cognitive science.

At a consumer level, our daily lives have become so saturated with information that the delivery of it needs to be carefully considered from an interaction perspective. Over the past few decades this has given rise to emergent fields such as Experience Design and Usability, especially surrounding the areas of digital communications and technology.

“The art and science of usability design is to reveal how products drive specific user actions. Companies leverage two basic pulleys of human behaviour to increase the likelihood of an action occurring: the ease of performing an action and the psychological motivation to do it” — Nir Eyal

While I’m not going to dive too much into these fields right now, the important thing to note is that as part of a blended team they work towards helping us understand as much as possible about a person in a given situation: what their motivations are, what frictions they have and what their goals look like, so that specific triggers and events can then be used to either improve on an existing experience or disrupt it entirely, creating new ways of doing something that cause them to change their habits as consumers and shift the standard for interacting with a particular service.

Within experience design we now have a set of established and practiced frameworks that allow us to drive both the audience insight and also quickly develop testable hypotheses and solutions.

It’s never been easier to use design to understand its effect in the world and constantly evaluate and iterate around it, all without having to spend too much time or requiring a great deal of investment. However, it’s important when dealing with these tools and systems to keep front of mind a number of design principles and methods for considering the audience, but also how we approach the task of delivering our services to them if we really want to positively affect their behaviour.

So, where do we go next?

I’m going to be looking at ways brands can have a more profound effect on their audiences, by considering the authentic voice model and how this can be used to create a personality that can influence trust with specific audiences, then how this is guiding the way we interact online with new approaches and conventions like the conversational interface.

I’m also going to be taking a look at familiarity as a key component of the frictionless experience, but how the opposite can also be used to create nuanced delight, while diving in to the different ways that we think, behave and react to specific criteria.

It’s all about the little things that make a big difference

I’m Head of Design at 383, a customer experience studio based in Birmingham, in the UK. I’m passionate about creating exceptional experiences through thoughtful design and understanding human behaviour as a creative tool. I’ve also been known to grace the pages of National Geographic with my photography and make the odd public speaking appearance ranting about narrative strategy.

If you’d like to say hi, you can find me on Twitter.

Big thanks to Chanade Murphy-Johnson for the motivation to finally finish this! Keep up the menacing work…

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Karl Randay

I’m Head of Design at 383, a customer experience studio based in Birmingham, in the UK.