How to improve design? Consider our 'three brains'

Human factors expert Susan Weinschenk encourages designers to pay attention to how people really think about the gadgets and Web sites they use, rather than design to appeal to demographic data.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

The best designed objects and interfaces appeal to three parts of our brains--the "new," the "mid," and the "old"--so states Susan Weinschenk, author of the book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know (New Riders Press) and Chief of User Experience Strategy at Human Factors International, a design consultancy with clients that range from 3M to Samsung.

The new, Fall 2011 issue of Rotman magazine, just published by the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, features an interview with Weinschenk, who has a PhD in psychology. In this interview, she calls the "new brain" the conscious part of the brain; the "mid brain" the area that deals with processing emotions, social interactions, and images; and the "old brain" the part that focuses on our basic survival needs. In the Q & A -- which is not available online--Weinschenk goes on to talk about designing better user experiences by improving our understanding of real people's, rather than visionary designers', ideas of how objects, products, and services should work. You can order a digital copy of Rotman magazine here and a print copy here, but in the meantime, here are a few points from Weinschenk that appear in the story:

  • Design to address all of the ways people think. Don't just focus on appealing to what Weinschenk calls the "new brain" or merely what experiences and desires people are conscious of at any moment. Instead, design for how they emote, interact socially, and respond to images (in the "mid brain"), as well as appeal to their basic survival instincts (in "the old brain").
  • Try to match "mental models" with "conceptual models." Mental models are the ideas that people have in their heads of how things should work. Conceptual models are the ways that professional designers have fashioned gadgets, packaging, vehicles, Web sites, and other objects and services. Weinschenk says that if you don't keep both of these in mind when designing products, your customers will find them hard to use.
  • To achieve a solid user-experience strategy, research the "psychographics" of your audience, not just the demographics. By this, Weinschenk means looking deeply into real customers' motivations for seeking what you are designing. And then have solid plans for getting their feedback--and appealing to their "mid" and "old" brains, not only their "new" ones.

The Rotman interview also includes Weinschenk's advice to Generation X designers, aged 35-50 years old (tip: don't just design for yourself, but consider that the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations are much larger audiences and have widely divergent concepts of technology) and her thoughts on why simple design isn't always better design (for instance, in the world of video games, where gamers crave challenges and complexity).

Image: Nicholas P. Rougier/ Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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