What can magic teach us about UX?

1 Apr 2019

Image: © Arpad Nagy-Bagoly/Stock.adobe.com

Human-centred design, like an illusion, can only be understood by embracing the principles of scepticism, writes UX expert Gareth Dunlop.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Israeli illusionist Uri Geller gained huge popularity in Europe and the US with a stage act that included bending spoons, guessing names written on the backs of playing cards and making stopped watches start. While his act had much in common with other conjurers and magicians, what set Geller apart was his insistence that the effects he produced weren’t the result of trickery, but were the product of psychic powers, particularly his gifts of psychokinesis and telepathy.

This caused significant ire in the conjuring community, who took the view that the gap between pretend psychokinesis and tricking vulnerable people out of their money wasn’t as pronounced as they would like. Feigning psychokinesis and faking faith healing are effectively the same thing, they argued.

James Randi, a magician with a particular interest in scepticism, took it on as a personal mission to expose Geller for the fraud he was. By coincidence, Randi was a close friend of Johnny Carson, who hosted The Tonight Show, the most popular late-night chat show in America, from 1962 to 1992, and together they hatched a plan to test Geller live on American TV in 1973. Randi advised Carson’s set engineers how to set up the props so that the psychokinesis “wouldn’t work” and, sure enough, later that day when the programme was broadcast, Carson and Geller delivered 22 minutes of the most awkward television ever aired. Geller squirmed and fidgeted on his seat explaining “he wasn’t feeling it tonight” and there was something about the live environment that meant he just didn’t have it in him that night.

Randi was confident that, having been exposed on national TV as the fake he really was, Geller was finished.

But what happened next shocked Randi.

Writing about it in 2014, New York Times columnist Adam Higginbotham suggested: “That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real. If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.”

In exasperation, Randi arranged to go back on The Tonight Show in order to execute Geller’s tricks, exposing the effects as illusions by simultaneously displaying Geller’s method (a term popular in conjuring circles referring to how the trick works). Incredulously, a common reaction to this was: ‘You are just recreating using trickery what Geller was able to achieve through magic.’ Geller would repeat this claim in 1996 when reminiscing on the Tonight Show experience: “Sure, there are magicians who can duplicate my performance through trickery.”

This episode is the purest example of a claim by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame): “When a magician lets you notice something on your own, his lie becomes impenetrable.”

All conjurers and conmen alike focus on getting the audience to draw a set of conclusions, one or more of which is false, and then expose the falsehood through the magical effect. In other words, they wed the audience to an untruth, then expose it, without ever letting the audience in on why it’s untrue. Thus, it looks like magic.

The world of UX and design thinking is similarly distrustful of the UI genius claiming near-mystical powers to execute the big creative idea on digital platforms. UX professionals understand that design teams, like the audience in a conjuring trick, can become wedded to a set of conclusions. Human nature being what it is, this is not always for rational reasons. Human-centred design therefore, like illusion, can only be understood properly by embracing the principles of scepticism. These principles represent a way of thinking, an approach to understanding a problem, which guards us against the most common means through which we draw the wrong conclusions:

  • a spirit of enquiry
  • awareness of the understanding the limitations of knowledge
  • obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing
  • challenging the arbitrariness, relativity or subjectivity of assumed truths
  • intellectual caution and suspended judgement

If you’re involved in digital or product design, you should be constantly asking colleagues the sceptic’s most important request: ‘Prove it.’

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user experience (UX) consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their digital products by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.