The Science of UX, Part 2: Cognition and Experience

A blog series by Drory Ben-Menachem, Creative Director

Just as each user’s perspective on the world around them differs, so does their perception of it. This creates a conundrum. We seek to design experiences that have consistent user outcomes to drive business goals, but each user will experience it in their own unique way. This is unavoidable because cognition is unique to each user.

That doesn’t mean an experience can’t be crafted that applies knowledge about cognition to increase conversion of business goals. We create experiences to elicit a response from users and those users’ responses are either extrinsic (e.g, sharing a post on Twitter) or intrinsic (e.g, creating affinity for a product or service).

This is where the concepts of cognitive barriers and cognitive load come into play. Cognitive barriers (e.g, number of expected steps, perceived length of each step, individual/collective difficulty) prevent the user from performing the action(s) necessary to achieve the user’s goal. Most of these can easily be overcome through information processing, but there is still the risk of abandonment if the user cannot figure out what to do or they are presented with too many barriers.

Addressing this is most often manifested in the classic UX goal of providing the user “one-click access” to everything. Cognitive load (e.g, number of concurrent choices, amount of thought required at each decision point, confusion & choice) represents the amount of brainpower required to achieve the user’s goal. Since users rely on their own experience when interacting with products (both analog and digital), they will tend to make decisions they understand first and only stop to consider that decision if they don’t understand what to do.

To paraphrase Steve Krug: forcing a user to stop and think often generates the wrong questions in their head, and if they get to the “how did I get here” question they’re one click away from abandoning your experience. But something interesting happens when you mix in the principles of motivational design – what some have referred to as “visceral design”, or “designing for the gut”.

An experience that provides rewarding feedback, meaningful story, and emotionally appealing interactions can actually give the user’s cognition a boost which spurs the user to carry on, try again, or delve deeper. Some have referred to this as the “breadcrumb phenomenon” – if a user feels that they are on the right track and are being rewarded for their efforts, they will be more likely to stick with the experience until they achieve their goal. We’ve used this principle successfully on many products, like Snapshots of the Universe and Mattel’s Barbie Digital Vanity. Motivational (Visceral) Design isn’t the result of a single mechanic or design choice; it’s a series of design and UX decisions that create an overarching feeling of contentment and satisfaction. It can be achieved through feedback loops, microinteractions, design that inspires, or story-driven narrative experiences – to name a few possibilities. The gaming world calls this “juicy feedback” – that feeling you get when you finally clear that fun but frustrating level in Catch the Berry – and has been using it effectively for years. The concept has been enthusiastically adopted by the mobile app world and lovingly applied to such non-game apps like Clear, Path, and Yummly.

Even iOS itself – think about the first time you experienced the “pull to refresh” interaction on your iPhone. How many times did you do it just to see it do its springy thing? Exactly. When we move from pure aesthetics to designs that speak to the subconscious, something wonderful happens. Things begin to “feel right”.

Designers often experience this in their own work, settling upon a solution that “just speaks to them” yet are sometimes unable to articulate why. When things feel right, users glean emotional satisfaction from their interactions – and this helps motivate them to stay longer and return more often. Like the rush of riding a roller coaster, the sensations created are rewarding and can drive habitual behavior. Done well, users will happily convert themselves into engaged fans, and even vocal advocates for your product or service – extremely valuable to the business your experience is designed to support. But that’s only part of the story…

up next, The Biochemistry of Motivation.

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