The Power of Learned Behavior

Brian Park
Sep 27, 2016 · 2 min read

“People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on a desktop. The one on the top is the most important. People know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience people already have.” — Steve Jobs

When designing products or doing anything for that matter, it’s human nature to want to dazzle. In product terms, that may mean designing a new type of interaction that’ll be the talk amongst product circles.

But often times, we let our ambition to go for the home run get the best of us and our well-intentioned, designed interactions turn out to be a perplexing mess to the user.

Sometimes it’s simply wiser to leverage your user’s learned behavior. As opposed to attempting to teach your user a new interaction, taking advantage of behaviors that users are well accustomed to is very often the path of least resistance to an intuitive product.

For example, an avatar in the navigation bar often denotes a user’s profile of sorts or the logo in the header is often a shortcut back to the homepage. These are clearly two of the more obvious examples of learned behavior in the product development toolkit, but this underscores a much larger principle.

Take the Steve Jobs quote about the literal, physical form of the desktop as a perfect embodiment of the bigger picture here. When he and his team were designing the first Macintosh, beautifully designed windows that we take for granted today in digital form on our computers did not exist. The Macintosh was the first time that the modern day desktop on our computers were created on a graphical user interface.

And yet, users picked up on this concept rather intuitively without a manual or any drawn out onboarding process. The reason being that the product team designing the Macintosh leveraged the physical manifestation of the desktop that people were already well-accustomed to, ultimately leading to the seamless adoption of this learned behavior in its digital setting.

The Macintosh team most definitely had a blank slate to define how different elements on a digital screen interact with one another. They certainly had the chance to flex their creative muscles to think up something completely avant-garde, but they elected to instead put their users first. Which in this case entailed taking advantage of behavior that people were already accustomed to.

As is always the case in the product development process, it’s important that we recognize our biases. Though it may be the fun, trendy thing to define new forms of interactions, sometimes it’s simply best to leverage the power of learned behavior for the sake of the product, and certainly the sake of the user.

Psychology of Stuff

Interesting thoughts at the intersection of technology, psychology, and business

Brian Park

Written by

Psychology of Stuff

Interesting thoughts at the intersection of technology, psychology, and business

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