Design for Engagement, a workshop with Susan Weinschenk 

Boris Kehr

Susan Weinschenk gave one of the most memorable talks at From Business to Buttons 2016. It was about robots and how they are going to be a big part of our life. Her workshop a day earlier was about something else, how to make design that actually makes a difference. 

In the workshop “Design for Engagement” Susan talked about how our mind and senses work. Sometimes they work with us, sometimes against us but mostly they just work without us thinking or knowing about what’s going on. The workshop covered a lot and I recommend reading Susan’s books if you want to learn more. Here are just few things that I found especially interesting:

All about communication

Design is more than just good looks, it's about communication. The design should say something about you and at the same time make people feel, think and hopefully do something. It’s not mind control, just good communication. A good designer has to know more then just the target audience. He/she needs to understand the psychology and biology of people, including vision, hearing and thinking. There is a reason for what sticks and why. A few years ago I would have told you that (neuro) psychology and design have nothing in common. Now I know better. 

The unconscious versus the conscious

Most mental processing is unconscious. Our thoughts are actually just a small portion of all the signals our brain process every second. 

There is an invisible line between the conscious and the unconscious. What we recognise as an independent thought sprung from our conscious mind is based on many factors from the unconscious. So our unconscious mind actually tells us what to think.

Think about the experience of buying a new car. Everything is carefully designed; all of your senses are addressed. The fast looking exterior, the comfortable chairs, the distinct new car-smell and the solid “thunk” sound when the car door closes.

So when you think that you have come with a smart and logical decision your subconscious has already made it for you. You are putting words of reason to that gut feeling. Nobody buys a car because it just feels good. Right…? Because if it feels good it’s suddenly not that expensive, environmentally friendly, has a lot of space and so on. 

Think Fast and Learn Slow

Susan refers to Daniel Kahneman, the author of the bestseller “Thinking Fast and Slow” and his definition of two kinds of thinking.

System 1: the easy, intuitive and fast one. This is our normal mode, driven by instincts and routines.

System 2: is the analytic, hard-core thinking. It takes time and energy, and we avoid it as much as possible. Couples messages that needs System 2 are often ignored. This has nothing to do with intellect. Even smart people's brains like to go on autopilot. (No wonder we find most commercials so superficial.)

But… when you have more time and want the user to actually remember or learn something, the System 2 is your man. People actually learn better the harder they have to work for it. So a dense and complex scientific text is actually better for learning than nicely designed, easy to read popular science magazine. So what we prefer have nothing to do with what actually gets results. Why can’t things ever be easy … 

I’m good with faces

Of course you are. Your brain has a dedicated area just for faces and facial expression. If you think about it, an awful lot of our communication happen in our faces. That’s why we have to enrich texting with emojis, to give our words a facial expression.

Faces grab our attention. It’s no coincidence that every magazine cover has a big face smiling at us, trying to make a connection. We can let the face in the picture  look at something (for instance an amazing product or a submit button) and make our viewer look in the same direction. The best way to make the viewer to take action is to display a photo of a strong positive reaction. It may sound cheesy, but it works. 

Focus on the peripheral vision 

One of the parts I found most interesting was about peripheral vision (PV). We often talk about centre of interest, and where to lead the eye, but we seldom mention the rest. The surrounding is not meaningless wasteland, it’s actually a majority of your vision. When you see something interesting in a corner of your eye, that’s where you look next. So the PV is a doorstep to your focal vision.

The PV even helps your orientation and decides if you are in the right place. It would take a tremendous amount of time to focus on every detail to find your way to a certain spot. The PV brings you the essence in a microsecond. It also registers danger much faster than the focal vision. Now you don’t have to be eaten by the lion or get hit by the bus that you saw in the corner of your eye. Thank you evolution. 

So for example: You visit a random website. The company is trying to sell you a service or a product. What's your first impression:  What does the big pictures on the top of the page say? What feelings does the person express, where is she/he looking and why? And what about your copy? Does it appeal to the System 1 with easy to process information or does it address System 2 with a promise of learning something new? 

It all sums up into one experience. And you as a designer are in control of the experience. Treat it with care. 

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