Saturday, October 31, 2009

100 Things You Should Know about People: #5 -- Decisions are Made Largely By the Unconscious

You are thinking of buying a TV. You do some research on what TV to buy and then you go online to purchase one. What factors are involved in this decision making process?

It's not what you think -- I cover this topic in my book Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? You like to think that when you make a decision you have carefully and logically weighed all the relevant factors. In the case of the TV, you have considered the size of TV that works best in your room, the brand that you have read is the most reliable, the competitive price, whether you should get blu-ray, etc etc. But the research on decision-making that has been done, especially the recent research, shows that although you want to think that your decision-making is a conscious, deliberate process, it's not. Most decisions are made through unconscious mental processing.

Unconscious decision-making includes factors such as:

What are most other people buying (social validation): "I see that a particular TV got high ratings and reviews at the website"

What will make me stay consistent in my persona (commitment): "I'm the kind of person that always has the latest think, the newest technology."

Do I have any obligations or social debts that I can pay off with this purchase (reciprocity): "My brother has had me over to his house all year to watch the games, I think it's time we had them over to our place to watch"

and on and on.

Don't Confuse Unconscious with Irrational or Bad. I take exception with Dan Ariely and his book, Predictably Irrational. Most of our mental processing is unconscious, and most of our decision-making is unconscious, but that doesn't mean it's faulty, irrational or bad. We are faced with an overwhelming amount of data (11,000,000 pieces of data come into the brain every second!) and our conscious minds can't process all of that. Our unconscious has evolved to process most of the data and to make decisions for us according to guidelines and rules of thumb that are in our best interest most of the time. This is the genesis of "trusting your gut", and most of the time it works!

So What To Do? -- The next step is to think about what this means for people who design things like websites, where you are providing information and/or engaging customers to make a decision. This is, of course, the topic of my book, but let's hear from you. If we know that people are making decisions unconsciously, rather than consciously, what are some strategies we should employ at the website to encourage them to engage?

And for those of you who like to read, great books on this topic are:

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer -- The BEST book on the topic of decision-making in general.

Strangers to Ourselves: The adaptive unconscious by Timothy Wilson -- A little bit more academic, but still a great book.

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

and of course

Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?

Friday, October 30, 2009

100 Things You Should Know about People: #4 -- The Canonical Perspective

Warning: A Kind of Long Preamble -- Whenever I talk about "old" research some people start right away to dismiss it. It's easy to think that research done in the 1990s or 1980s, or heavens! the 1970s! couldn't hold any interest for us now. I heartily disagree. If the research is sound and it's about people, then the chances are high that it still has relevance. Certainly if you are talking about research from the 1980s showing that it is hard to read text on a computer screen, then more recent data is important --  the quality of computer monitors has changed so dramatically from the 1980s till now (believe me on this one, as I was around to see the screens of the 1980s. I am aware that many of you reading this blog have only seen a screen from the 80s in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, or maybe you saw it in an old black and white movie (joke), or, as my daughter likes to say to me, "that must have been when you were younger and the dinosaurs roamed).

Have an Open Mind -- So the purpose of the above long preamble to ask you to have an open mind about the following research that was done and written up in a book from 1981.

Draw a Coffee Cup -- If you ask someone to draw a picture of a coffee cup, chances are they will draw something that looks like this:

Everyone Drew A Similar Picture -- In fact, a researcher named Palmer went all around the world and asked people to draw a coffee cup and the pictures above were what people drew. Notice the perspective of the cups. A few of them are "straight on", but most are drawn from a perspective as if you are slightly above the cup looking down, and offset a little to the right or left. This has been dubbed the "canonical perspective".

Why Not This? -- No one he studied drew this:

which is what you would see if you were looking at a coffee cup from way above and looking down. Of course not, you say, but.... why not? And if you are going to say that the first perspective is the one that we actually see most of the time, when we look at a coffee cup... that it is the angle we are used to seeing the cup on our kitchen tables, I will tell you that this research has been done on many objects. For example, people were shown pictures of horses from various angles and perspectives and they most quickly recognized it as a horse when it was from this same canonical perspective. Yet I am fairly sure that most of us have not looked at horses from above most of the time. And the research was done with people recognizing a very small dog or cat. The canonical perspective still won out, even though when we see cats or very small dogs we are mainly looking at them from high above, not just slightly above. In fact the research shows that when we imagine an object we imagine it from this canonical perspective.

So, Why Care? -- It seems to be a universal trait that we think about, remember, imagine and recognize objects from this canonical perspective. Why care? Well, if you want to use icons at your web site or in your web or software application that people will recognize, then you might want to use this perspective. This is probably not so critical if you are using a well known logo, for example, the logo for itunes or Firefox, but becomes important if the icon is not as familiar, such as recognizing below that one of the logos is of a truck, or a photo printer.

What Do You Think? -- Should we continue to use the canonical perspective?

And for those of you who like to read research:

Palmer, S. E., Rosch, E., and Chase, P. (1981). “Canonical Perspective and the Perception of Objects.” In Long, J., and Baddeley, A.  (Eds.), Attention and performance IX, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

100 Things You Should Know about People: #3 -- The Magic Number 3 (or 3 to 4)

7 +  -  2???

3 or 4???

Those of you who have been in the field of usability or user experience for a few years have probably heard the phrase "The Magic Number 7 Plus Or Minus 2". This refers, actually, to what I would call an urban legend. Here's the legend part:

Legend: "A guy named Miller did research and wrote a research paper showing that people can remember from 5 to 9 (7 plus or minus 2) things, and that people can process 7 plus or minus 2 pieces of information at a time. So you should only put 5 to 9 items on a menu, or have 5 to 9 tabs on a screen".

Have you heard this? If you've been reading about usability for a while I'm sure you have. Well, it's not quite accurate. Another guy named Baddeley questioned all this urban legend. Baddeley dug up Miller's paper and discovered that it wasn't a research paper, it was a talk that Miller gave at a professional meeting. And it was basically Miller thinking out loud about whether there is some kind of inherent limit to the amount of information that people can process at a time.

Baddeley conducted a long series of studies on human memory and information processing. And what he concluded is that the number is 3 to 4, not 5 to 9.

You can remember about 3-4 things (for about 20 seconds) and then they will disappear from memory unless you repeat them over and over. For example, let's say you are driving in your car and talking on your cell phone (ok, you shouldn't be doing that) and someone gives you a number to call. But you don't have a pen handy, and anyway you are driving. So you try to memorize the number long enough to hang up from one call and dial the new number. What do you do? You repeat the number over and over (putting it back into short term memory each time, which buys you another 20 seconds). The interesting thing about phone numbers is that they are more than 3 or 4 numbers long. So they are hard to remember for more than 20 seconds.


We also tend to chunk information into groups that have 3-4 items in them. So a phone number in the US is: 712-569-4532. Three chunks, with 3-4 items in each chunk. If you know the area code "by heart" (i.e., it's stored in long term memory), then you don't have to remember that, so one whole chunk went away. Phone numbers used to be easier to remember because you mainly called people in your area code, so you had the area code memorized (plus you didn't even have to "dial" the area code at all). And then if you were calling people in your town each town had the same "exchange" -- that is the 569 part of the phone number above. So all you had to remember was the last four numbers. No problem! I know I'm "dating" myself here by telling you how it used to be back in the old days. (I live in a small town in Wisconsin, and people here still give their number out as the last four digits only).

But that's not all! Researchers working in the field of decision-making tell us that people can't effectively choose between more than 3 to 4 items at a time.

So, what does all this mean? Can you really only have 4 items on a navigation bar? or 4 tabs on a screen, or 4 items on a product detail page at an e-commerce web site? No, not really. You can have more, as long as you group and chunk.

Here's an example: At the Upton Tea site they have lots of tabs, but the tabs are not chunked into groups of 3 or 4.

So people will tend to do a partial scan and not even look at or read all the tabs. (I love their teas, by the way.. just wish they would do some work on the layout and emotional aspects of their site, but that's probably another blog!).

I've covered more than 4 items in this blog post, so I'll stop now! For those of you who like to read research here are some references:

  • Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Baddeley, A. D. (1994). The magical number seven: Still magic after all these years? Psychological Review, 101, 353-356.
  • Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97

Help Me: Take this short survey so I can learn what you want in this blog

Thank you to everyone who is reading my blog. I've been monitoring the analytics and the readership is growing every day. It's exciting, and I appreciate everyone who stops by.

I'd like to get an idea from you about what it is you would like most to see at the blog, so I've put together a very short survey (it's like only 3 questions) and I would appreciate it if you would take a moment to fill it out. I'll share the responses I get in an upcoming blog if you are interested in what everyone said.

So here goes, my first ever survey at the What Makes Them Click? blog! And thanks in advance for taking the survey.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

100 Things You Should Know about People: #2 -- Line Length

Have you ever had to decide how wide a column of text you should use on a screen? Should you use a wide column with 100 characters per line? or a short column with 50 characters per line?

It turns out that the answer depends on whether you want people to read faster or whether you want them to like the page!

Research (see reference below) demonstrates that 100 characters per line is the optimal length for on-screen reading speed; but it's not what people prefer. People read faster with longer line lengths (100 characters per line), but they prefer a short or medium line length (45 to 72 characters per line). In the example above from the New York Times Reader, the line length averages 39 characters per line.

The research also shows that people can read one single wide column faster than multiple columns, but they prefer multiple columns (like the New York Times Reader above).

So if you ask people which they prefer they will say multiple columns with short line lengths. Interestingly, if you ask them which they read faster, they will insist it is also the multiple columns with short line lengths, even though the data shows otherwise.

It's a quandary: Do you give people what they prefer or go against their own preference and intuition, knowing that they will read faster if you use a longer line length and one column?

What would you do?

Dyson, M.C. (2004). "How Physical Text Layout Affects Reading from Screen." Behavior & Information Technology, 23(6), pp. 377-393.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

100 Things You Should Know about People: #1-- Inattention Blindness

I've decided to start a series called 100 Things You Should Know about People. As in: 100 things you should know if you are going to design an effective and persuasive website, web application or software application. Or maybe just 100 things that everyone should know about humans!

The order that I'll present these 100 things is going to be pretty random. So the fact that this first one is first doesn't mean that's it's the most important.. just that it came to mind first.

I hope you enjoy this series. Make sure to let me know by posting comments.

So here's #1 -- Inattention Blindness

First let's start with a little test for you to take. Watch the video below:

This is an example of what is called "inattention blindness" or "change blindness". The idea is that people often miss large changes in their visual field. This has been shown in many experiments. Here is a description of an experiment that was recently conducted:

So what does this mean if you are designing a website or something on a computer screen? It means that you can't assume that just because something is on the screen means that people see it. This is especially true when you refresh a screen and make one change on it. People may not realize they are even looking at a different screen. Remember, just because something happens in the visual field doesn't mean that people are consciously aware of it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Watch Out For Spending More Because of Habit

When I go to fill up on gas I always use the middle grade of gas... (this is the principle of contrast, by the way... when faced with choices of varying prices many people will pick the price that is one down from the most expensive... but that is a sidebar... it's not even what this blog post is about!). And the middle grade of gas is supposed to be in the middle, right?

I don't know if I'm getting paranoid these days or if this is a random occurence, or if some companies are actually trying to get me to spend more money, but here's what I've been noticing: Instead of having the middle price in the middle... the HIGHEST price is actually in the middle! By habit I put the nozzle in the tank and always push the middle button... And I am therefore, unwittingly, choosing the most expensive gas.

Here are some examples:

And as we all know, once a habit is formed, it's hard to break.

Anyone else been noticing this type of "switch" at gasoline pumps or in other ways?