A UX Writer’s Journey Into the Deep … Parts of the Brain, and 3 Insights From It.

The truth about how the brain works holds great insights for UX writers. Let’s dive in to the world of the cerebellum, glucocorticoid and the power of uncertain outcomes.

Samuel Stenberg
Apr 30, 2018 · 10 min read

There’s no single true answer to any given design question, especially when it comes to words. Which word should go here? Will people have the patience to read this paragraph? No one knows. Just admit it, you don’t.

What we do know, is that whatever decision the user ends up making when navigating an interface, the brain is where the action happens. Or, as Robert Sapolsky, professor of Neurology and Biology at Stanford University puts it in Behave: The Best and Worst of Our Behaviours: No matter why a specific human behaviour occurs, “the brain is the common pathway that mediates all these factors” (the factors being brain structure, hormones, sociology, psychology etcetera).

This is why I have always taken a huge interest in the brain and how it manages all the tasks we put it up to in this digital era. To come as close to a “truth” as we can regarding how we “should” design UI, visuals and words, it feels at least somewhat safe to lean on the brain’s inner workings.

For this reason I simply devoured Sapolsky’s tome Behave (it is surprisingly easy to read, despite it being a 750-page book set on explaining why humans behave the way we do by going through the innermost workings of the brain). Among the tons of fascinating things I learned, here follows three insights I took with me in my role as a UX writer (if you write but not for UX, these insights will still be great).

First: Decide which words are for the cerebellum and which are for the frontal cortex

Depending on how familiar your words are, the user’s brain will process them differently. So we must strive to use words the user will intuitively and reflexively understand.

To illustrate, think back to your first few attempts at driving a car. You struggled heavily and it was super taxing, right? Today I bet you would never label driving “taxing” unless the conditions are snowstorm-level horrible. We have all had the experience of first learning something, only to later find we pull it off with ease.

The frontal cortex is inhabited by neurons which are generalists. Thus they work a lot and also require more energy than neurons in other brain regions.

This progress is reflected in your brain. When something is hard and requires all of your attention (= your first drive), the frontal cortex is at work. The frontal cortex is in charge of enforcing rules and making us do the harder thing. When you hear an inner voice saying “NO, no cookies before lunch” — that’s the frontal cortex speaking.

The frontal cortex is inhabited by neurons which are generalists, used for many things, Sapolsky explains. Thus they work a lot and also require more energy than neurons in other brain regions. A lot of work for your frontal cortex, means you feel depleted.

The brain is trying to make its operation more efficient, so it wants to offload the frontal cortex. Once you’ve learned to do something more routinely, the frontal cortex works less during the task and offloads activity to a more reflexive brain area such as the cerebellum. Now you can drive perfectly well even while listening to a podcast. The cerebellum is also less demanding of energy, so you don’t tire as quick.

Use the users reflexes to your advantage

Don’t put more work on the user’s frontal cortex than necessary. Users today have reflexes trained for our digital world. We all know where to look for the menu, how to zoom or scroll, we all recognize a drop-down list. We navigate that with the cerebellum, so to speak.

Use these reflexes to your advantage. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel by naming things in unconventional, muddy ways, for example. Don’t draw unnecessary attention to the words with unusual word choices.

What’s unnecessary? Well, it’s hard without context but I’m thinking of examples such as going with these words for a button:

It could simply say:

Boring? Maybe. But unusual means more work for the frontal cortex, which means a more taxing user experience. Actually, work with a visual designer to say as much as possible with visuals and cut down on the words. Maybe an arrow on the button, pointing right, is enough in this instance?

Making use of the user’s well trained digital reflexes, gives the design room to focus on what’s important. I wrote you should not draw unnecessary attention, because you’ll want the power of words to draw attention when it actually is necessary.

I once helped a client re-work a quite extensive form their customers had to fill out. Evidently, many customers missed a set of fields.

“The text says they have to fill it out! It’s even bolded!” my client said.

“Problem is”, I told her, “there are a lot of bolded things here”.

Everything looked the same, everything seemed as important. The form was printed, black and white, so our visual tools were limited. The solution in that case was to shift the words to make them stand out and draw necessary attention.

Second: Don’t put stress on glucocorticoid-filled brains

Stress has major effects on how our brains work and therefore on how we as humans perform and behave. Reading Behave, I realised just how much respect we as designers must show for the fact that all too many users are stressed in today’s society.

All things considered, stress is actually good for us. Otherwise evolution would have removed it. When we see a lion running in our general direction, we become stressed. That’s good, because stress makes our body prioritize functions that involve being able to escape the lion. Conversely, when we’re stressed functions that we don’t need to escape the lion — reproduction, memory, critical thinking — are impaired.

The problem: Today we’re rarely chased by lions (yes, in this context this is a problem). Instead the source of our stress might be a speech that we’re going to give on that wedding on Saturday. And now it’s Wednesday and you’re working on a report that’s due at 4 p.m and you need to pick up the kids at school and… When you think “speech”, the body thinks “LION!”. So it fires off the same stress response— but you’re not in any danger. Evolution hasn’t caught up. You were designed to run from lions on the savannah; not to worry over giving a speech.

Fire off some glucocorticoids and RUN! Photo by Mike Holford on Unsplash

Stress changes our behaviour for the worse in this instance. Sapolsky:

“What do we typically do during a stressful time when something isn’t working? The same thing again, many more times, faster and more intensely — it becomes unimaginable that the usual isn’t working. This is precisely when the frontal cortex makes you do the harder but more correct thing — recognize that it’s time for a change. Except for a stressed frontal cortex.”

So what Sapolsky says here, is that when something isn’t working, usually the frontal cortex with all its rules should step in. When it is stressed (or, rather, exposed to the hormone glucocorticoid, if we want to be technical, which I want to, because this is all so damn cool), it doesn’t. So you keep at it, without help from your critical thinking partner, the frontal cortex.

What’s worse, is that when we’re stressed, connections between the frontal cortex and the hippocampus, which plays an important role for memory, weaken. Sapolsky:

“Stress weakens the frontal connections with the hippocampus, essential for incorporating the new information that should prompt shifting to a new strategy — while strengthening frontal connections with more habitual brain circuits.”

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” — Albert you-know-who

Respect stress — decide when to teach new stuff

When we’re stressed, we need user experiences that enable us to go with our habitual patterns, where we can work with what we already know.

I reflect back on the many times I’ve tried to add words, underscored and bolded, to truly get across how a user is supposed to fill in a form or navigate an interface. But if the user is stressed, this is simply not possible. Humans are not designed to learn when we’re stressed.

As a designer, I can’t resort to responses such as “Why don’t they just READ?!” or “It clearly says tick each option you DON’T want, how hard can it be?!”.

When I do want to teach something, I need to do it in a context where the user is unlikely to be stressed. Let’s say I’m working on the UX writing for a banking app. If I’m designing the words for the part where the app teaches the users how mortgages and rates work, I can be a little more innovative and surprising in order to keep engagement up. But as soon as we get to the actual banking, I need to go more conservative and reflexive because now the user is more likely to be stressed — “Do I have enough money for the car repairs?”, “Holy moly look at how much I spent over the weekend!” — and should be met with familiar words and design.

Whaaaa…? Photo by Pete Wright on Unsplash

Third: Pave the Way for Dopamine with Uncertain Outcomes

Ahh, dopamine. Probably one of the more famous hormones. While most of us get the general picture — when dopamine is released we feel rewarded — the truly interesting things lie in the details. You see, the story of “get a reward = dopamine is released” does not begin to cover the most interesting aspects of dopamine and rewards.

Experiences repeated multiple times lose their allure, even if the experience in itself is very rewarding to begin with. Instinctively we all know this. The first time you taste a new type of delicious cake, you’re in heaven. The next time you eat it, it’s almost as good. The third time its shine starts to fade — and so on.

Why is it this way? Well, the brain becomes habituated to the taste of this cake. The rewarding rush of dopamine that you got the first time, simply isn’t there the fourth time. The habituated brain has come to expect this reward, Sapolsky explains.

“Pleasure is in the anticipation of reward, and the reward itself is nearly an afterthought” — Robert Sapolsky

Since the brain expects the reward, the release of dopamine instead actually occurs once you know you’re going to get the cake. So the dopamine rush may instead come when you and your friends decide to visit the coffee shop where the cake is sold — not once you buy it or eat it. At that point it’s just expected.

How do we know the brain works this way? Sapolsky talks about studies performed on monkeys. A monkey has been trained to pull a lever to get a raisin, but only when a sound signalled that the lever was ready to be pressed. The study showed that, once the monkey had learned the pattern, more dopamine was triggered at the signal, than when the raisin was consumed.

“In other words, once reward contingencies are learned, dopamine is less about reward than about its anticipation. […] Pleasure is in the anticipation of reward, and the reward itself is nearly an afterthought,” writes Sapolsky.

Stunningly, a bit of uncertainty in the mix increases the release of dopamine. If the monkey receives a raisin 50 % of the times the lever is pressed, the release of dopamine at hearing the signal is actually higher than when there’ll certainly be a raisin.


We love the uncertainty. Dopamine isn’t about the rush from the reward. Evolution has designed it to be about the rush from the quest for a reward that has a good chance of occuring.


Be sparse but sprinkle in surprises

As designers of words who work with other designers, we need to know that users won’t actually feel rewarded if we constantly reward them.

To be a bit smart or sarcastic in a confirmation message that would otherwise be boring , for example, is common in UX writing. Considering how our brains work, we should take care not to overuse such a “trick”. The clever confirmation message may be fun, but if it always comes up when I complete a certain action it becomes expected. And something expected triggers nothing with our users. Give them a bit of uncertainty, so that there’s room for surprise!

Off the top of my head, I think of our project management tool Asana and of team-communication software Slack. In Asana, when you complete a task, sometimes a sparkling, animated unicorn flies across the screen! And in Slack, you get different loading messages everytime you boot up the service. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes profund, sometimes practical.

The Asana Unicorn

Thinking about it, surprise is a very good guiding word for UX writers. I’m absolutely going to add it to our UX writing guidelines, along classics such as clarity and consistency. And I’ll take care to truly consider what the word means. Surprise requires expectation, a pattern that can be broken. It requires consistency, that you can then go against to create this rewarding effect.


Again, I really recommend Behave (in English, or Swedish) if you’re into this stuff. I’ve focused on take-aways for UX writing, but of course there’s sooo much more to learn in this book.

If you’re into more stories for UX writers, designers or marketers, check out our publication.

Thanks for reading! If you liked it, a clap or two is always nice; a comment even nicer!


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