Roz Thomas explains how an understanding of primal behaviours and unconscious decision-making can inform your UX strategy.
Evolution can’t keep up. Modern technology is progressing at an unruly pace that our bodies and brains can’t match. We’re living in a digital landscape, equipped principally with instincts inherited from our cave-dwelling ancestors.
Even though our conscious minds have evolved to at least try and keep pace with the modern world, we’re still hardwired to respond primitively to certain situations. To quote João Pedro de Magalhães: “Biologically, the human brain that went to the moon is the same that hunted mammoths in the last ice age.”
An understanding of our primal behaviours and how they govern unconscious decision-making can inform and improve companies’ UX strategies. Although there are countless nuances and caveats to our behaviour, there are three instincts that UX designers should particularly watch out for. These three primal urges demand a seamless user experience with pinpoint attention to detail, buckets of empathy and consideration of the memory people will take away.
1. The loss-aversion mindset
Consumers favour avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. It’s better not to lose €10 than find €10.
This stems from priorities developed by our historic ancestors, who obviously weren’t planning to blitz nearly two grand on a foldable phone that would most certainly break the moment they touched it. They were looking after their precious resources of food, water and shelter, because that was integral to their survival.
The stuff we hold dear has changed but the principle remains the same: we hate losing something precious to us. Look at the furore when Waitrose tried to remove its offer of free tea and coffee at its cafés, or when Tesco changed its Clubcard reward scheme so the value of some points were reduced.
Consumers feel ‘losses’ keenly and react angrily if they are deprived of rewards they have come to expect. UX designers need to consider how to ensure the loyalty schemes they develop are built for the long term. If that’s not possible, they must consider how they can manage changes without making people feel they’re losing something. Otherwise, they risk spurning a brand’s core client base.
2. The entourage effect
Status has always been important, even in tribal times, and it is built through power. It’s a demonstration of position in social hierarchy – if you can show off that power and use it to benefit others, your status will be elevated even further.
Recently, brands have caught on and use this cognitive bias to help customers elevate their VIP status while simultaneously doing an acquisition drive. An obvious example is something like Monzo’s Golden Ticket, which gives people the ability to help their friends skip the waiting list; or Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club, which gives gold-tier members the chance to secure seats and ‘clubhouse access’ for their fellow travellers.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we all naturally crave status in some form, and brands poised to feed that consumer need and make the experience as high-class as possible are set to succeed.
3. The peak-end rule
This is arguably the most important cognitive bias, and the one which is most relevant to UXers looking to design for primitive behaviours.
Memory is an incredibly important tool for brands, especially when it comes to building brand loyalty and growing a customer base. As such, an understanding of the human memory is vital to manage decision-making.
As Daniel Kahneman pointed out in his now-famous TED Talk, there is a real difference between our ‘experiencing selves’ and our ‘remembering selves’. When we come to recall our experience, we’ll largely judge it on how it felt during the peaks and the denouement, regardless of whether the experience was actually pleasant or unpleasant.
To put this into context, Kahneman asks us to imagine we’re listening to a piece of classical music, something that’s pleasing to hear. Let’s say, at the end of this pleasant tune, there’s a horrid sound – nails against a chalkboard or a cat screaming in pain.
When you recall hearing that piece of music, you’ll remember the horrid sound at the end and likely decide overall that you didn’t enjoy listening to it. Even if you enjoyed 99pc of what you heard before, your memory is plagued by that incongruent final note. This is the trick our memories play on us.
In the context of digital experiences, you could have the most effortless, beautifully designed, intuitive checkout experience the world has ever seen, but if the confirmation page is confusing, rude or slow, you undermine the entire process. The consumer will just remember feeling uncertain that their payment went through, or that they will in fact receive their goods – then they’ll moan about it on social media (as they should). And that memory will influence if they choose to use your service again.
By Roz Thomas
Roz Thomas is director of experience at Dare, an experience, design and engineering company.