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10 New Studies About People That May Surprise Designers

Whatever you're designing, ultimately there's a person at the end of the product who's going to use it. How much do you really know about how people think and behave? Susan Weinschenk, author of 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, shares some of the new research in behavioral and brain science that may surprise you.
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If you're a designer, you may not think of yourself as a behavioral scientist, but you are. In order to design a product or service, you have to understand and predict how people will behave. To get your target audience to take action, you have to apply what the research tells us about human behavior. See how much you know about these 10 new research studies in human behavior, and think about how you would apply them to your next project.

1: Shopping online is more exciting than shopping in a store.

When you place an order for a product online, you don't get the product right away. You have to wait. And in the waiting is anticipation.

Robert Sapolsky is a neuroscientist who studies dopamine in the brain. In an experiment, he trained some monkeys to know that when a light came on, that was a signal. The monkeys learned that if they pressed a bar 10 times after the signal (after the light came on), on the tenth press, a food treat would appear.

Sapolsky measured the amount and timing of dopamine release in the monkeys' brains during the cycle of signal, work (pressing the bar), and reward (food treat). Because the monkeys received the treat as soon as they pressed the bar 10 times, you might expect that tenth press to trigger the dopamine release. Surprisingly, the dopamine release actually started as soon as the signal arrived, and it stopped at the end of the bar pressing (see Figure 1). [1]

Figure 1 Dopamine release starts as soon as the monkey sees the signal.

Many people think that dopamine is released when the brain receives a reward, but if there's a signal that a reward is coming, the dopamine is actually released in anticipation of the reward. It's the dopamine that keeps the monkey pressing the bar until the treat arrives.

In a second experiment, the monkeys received the food treat only 50% of the time after they pressed the bar. What happened to the dopamine in that situation? Twice as much dopamine was released when there was only a 50/50 chance of getting the food treat (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 If the reward is given only half the time, twice as much dopamine is released.

It's all about unpredictability and anticipation of a reward. In the third and fourth experiments, Sapolsky gave the treat 25% of the time and 75% of the time, respectively. Interestingly, when the treat was given either 25% of the time or 75% of the time, the dopamine release was the same—halfway between the 100% and 50% chance of getting a food treat (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 When predictability is partial, so is the dopamine release.

When the monkeys got the treat all the time, a fair amount of dopamine was released during the pressing phase. But when getting the treat was unpredictable (received 50% of the time), the amount of dopamine reached its highest level. In the 25% and 75% situations, there was actually more predictability: At 25%, the monkeys mostly didn't get a treat; at 75%, they mostly did get a treat. The dopamine level was the same for both of those more predictable situations.

People are not monkeys. But our brains work a lot like monkey brains do. We react to anticipation and dopamine in the same way. The built-in anticipation of placing an order for a product online produces dopamine.

In its 2014 report Digital Dopamine, Razorfish presented results from interviews and surveys of 1,680 shoppers in four countries. From the report: "Seventy-six percent of people in the US, 72 percent in the UK, 73 percent in Brazil, and 82 percent in China say they are more excited when their online purchases arrive in the mail than when they buy things in [a] store." [2]

2: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder's age, gender, and geography. is the search engine for South Korea. is the search engine for lots of other places. Whether you find the Google design in Figure 4 or the Naver design in Figure 5 more visually appealing has a lot to do with how old you are, whether you're a woman or a man, and where you live.

Figure 4 Google is a popular search engine in a lot of the world.

Figure 5 Naver is a prominent search engine in South Korea.

Katharina Reinecke and Krzysztof Z. Gajos researched different visual designs around the world, surveying men and women of different ages and backgrounds. [3] Their results include the following:

  • People over 40 preferred more colorful designs. This preference was even stronger among people over 50.
  • Across all ages, women preferred websites that were more colorful. Men preferred websites with a gray or white background and some saturated primary colors. Women preferred color schemes with fewer contrasting colors.
  • People from Finland, Russia, and Poland liked websites without a lot of color. People from Malaysia, Chile, and Macedonia preferred websites with a lot of color.
  • People from countries near each other tended to like the same amount of color. People in English-speaking countries preferred more color; people in Northern European countries didn't like a lot of color.

3: The best way to process Big Data is unconsciously.

Information comes into your body and brain from your eyes, ears, skin, and so on. But did you know that the brain is actually quite flexible and plastic in this regard? When data from the environment comes in, from any of the senses, the brain figures out the best way to analyze and interpret it. Sometimes you're consciously aware of the data and its meaning, but most of the time your brain is analyzing data and using that data to make decisions, and you don't even realize it.

Dr. David Eagleman has people put on a special vest. [4] He then feeds stock market data into the vest, turning the stock market data into pulses and patterns. The people wearing the vest don't know what the patterns mean. They don't even know the pulses have anything to do with the stock market. Eagleman then hands them a tablet computer whose screen periodically displays a big red button and a big green button, and he tells them to press a button when the colors appear.

The subjects have no idea why or when they should press one button versus the other. They're told to press a button anyway, and when they do, they get feedback about whether they're wrong or right, even though they have no idea what wrong and right mean in this context. The buttons actually reflect buy (red) and sell (green) decisions related to the data they're receiving, but they don't know that.

Eventually, however, their button presses go from being random to being right all the time, even though they still don't consciously know anything about the patterns. Eagleman is essentially sending Big Data to people's bodies, and their brains interpret the data and make decisions from it—all unconsciously.

The term "Big Data" refers to large data sets that are combed for predictive analytics. The idea is that if you can collect massive amounts of data, even disparate data, and analyze it for patterns, you can learn important information and make decisions based on that information. Data sets of Internet searches, Twitter messages, meteorology, and more are collected and analyzed.

But how do you convey all this information in a way that makes sense? How can you get the human mind to see patterns in what at first seems like meaningless facts and numbers? The conscious thought process is not very good at this task. The conscious mind can handle only a small subset of data at one time, but the unconscious is great at taking in large amounts of data and finding patterns. If you want to see the patterns in Big Data, you have to engage the unconscious.

4: People typically read only 60% of an online article.

Tony Haile from Chartbeat (a company that analyzes real-time web analytics) analyzed 2 billion online interactions, most of them from online articles and news sites, and found that 55% of the time people spend less than 15 seconds on a page, which means they're not reading the news articles. [5]

Articles that are read all the way through aren't necessarily shared, and articles that are shared have likely not been read past 60%. According to Adrianne Jeffries, Buzzfeed and Upworthy report that most tweets occur either at 25% through the article or at the end of the article, but not much in between those two extremes. [6]

5: People scroll.

For quite a while, interface designers have debated whether scrolling is a "good" or usable choice. If you have a lot of information or content on a page, should you present it all on one page and have people scroll to display it all? Or should you break it up into multiple pages and have people move forward through pages?

The term fold comes from newspaper design. When a newspaper is folded in half, there's text above the fold and text below the fold. Online sites have the same concept, but "above the fold" refers to what people can see on the screen without having to scroll.

One rule in online design is that if it's important, it should go above the fold. We believe that people won't scroll past the fold, so information below the fold won't be seen. But is this true?

Chartbeat's analysis of data from those 2 billion website visits found that visitors spent 66% of their time below the fold. In other words, visitors had scrolled.

ClickTale analyzed 100,000 visits to websites and reported that people scrolled on 76% of the pages and went all the way to the bottom on 22% of the pages. [7]

6: Video games can increase perceptual learning.

Research shows that playing video games brings benefits. For example, playing action games can increase the speed of perceptual processing and perceptual learning—training the senses (vision, hearing) and motor skills to improve their capabilities.

Brian Glass cites research studies showing that when people who are new to video games are taught how to play action games, they can process visual information faster as a result, even outside of the gaming context. [8]

For many decades, it was assumed that the brain has the most flexibility and neurons at birth, and it's basically downhill from there. An old adage warns against consuming too much alcohol, lest it kill some of your finite number of brain cells. Along with this idea came the theory that brain structures become more rigid over time—that as people grow older, their brains cannot be rewired. All these assumptions have been disproved. One major characteristic of the adult human brain is its neuroplasticity; its neural structures can change—and keep changing—as we continue learning. The skills adults learn from video gaming are an example of neuroplasticity.

In addition to the perceptual learning that action video games provide, research shows that strategy games such as StarCraft can improve cognitive flexibility, defined as the ability to coordinate four things:

  • What you're paying attention to
  • What you're thinking about
  • What rules to use
  • How to make a decision

The more cognitively flexible you are, the greater your intelligence and psychological health.

7: People can control technology with their brains.

Would you be willing to have a brain implant that directly controls your devices, such as your smartphone and computer? What if your brain could be hardwired right into the Internet, so that when you think of a question, the answer appears in your brain automatically from Google?

If you think this idea is outside the realm of possibility, think again. Such a brain implant (often called a neural implant) is already being tested. The implant, about the size of an aspirin tablet, is inserted under the skull in a relatively fast and easy procedure. Once the implant is in place, it can send and receive signals.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the U.S. Department of Defense, develops technologies for the U.S. military. DARPA is working on a project called Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS). [9] SUBNETS will monitor brain signals of soldiers through a brain implant. The data will be analyzed, and the brain implant could then be used to alter the electrical activity of the brain to intervene in mood disorders and depression.

There are plenty of issues to consider with this technology. Already devices can monitor your brain waves and determine what letter of the alphabet you're thinking about or whose face you're imagining. [10] Do you want to have an ad for a restaurant appear in your thoughts because a machine picked up on the fact that you were thinking about food?

8: People of all ages and genders play video games.

According to a 2014 report from the Entertainment and Software Association, 59% of Americans play video games. In that group, 29% are under 18 years old, 32% are 18 to 35, and 39% are 36 or older. [11]

In fact, on average, gamers over age 65 spend more time per day playing games than other age groups do, perhaps because they have more leisure time. In the U.S., 52% of gamers are men and 48% are women.

9: Our motor skills don't decline until we reach the mid-60s.

Priscila Caçola and her research associates asked people in several age groups—young, middle-aged, and over 65—to perform various fine-motor movements, including finger tapping, while having to recognize and order numbers. They tested at three levels of complexity. The experiment found no differences between the young and middle-aged participants, but both groups performed faster than the older group. The good news is that this decline didn't occur until people were in their mid-60s. Thus, fine motor skills decline later than vision. (Exceptions would include people with illnesses that specifically affect motor skills, such as Parkinson's disease.) [12]

10: Nearby cell phones negatively affect person-to-person communication.

Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein studied how the presence of a cell phone affects the way people communicate with each other. [13]

Social psychologists believe that because people use their mobile devices to stay connected with people who are not in close proximity, it's easy to build a conditioned response to the device, thinking of it as "everyone else." For example, when a smartphone is sitting on the table at a restaurant, it represents the rest of its owner's social network. In a way, his or her whole social network is actually at the restaurant.

The smartphone therefore triggers thinking about other people and other events outside the immediate context, which in turn diverts attention away from the experiences that are occurring at that particular time and place.

Some of the thinking about other people and events may occur consciously, but some of this "not being present" occurs unconsciously. Przybylski and Weinstein theorize that these devices therefore can have a negative impact on person-to-person relationships.

To research the idea, they ran two experiments. Let's look at the details.

Experiment 1

In the first experiment, people who didn't know each other were assigned to pairs, asked to leave all their personal belongings outside the room, and then told to discuss for 10 minutes some interesting event that each subject had experienced during the past month. For half of the pairs, a mobile phone (not belonging to either person) was left on top of a book on a nearby desk, but not in the direct visual field of the participants. The remaining pairs had the same room setup, but without the mobile phone.

After the 10-minute discussion, each participant individually filled out forms measuring things such as relationship quality, closeness, and positive effect.

The pairs in the room with a mobile phone felt less close to each other and rated the relationship lower than the responses of the pairs who were in a room with no phone.

Experiment 2

In the second experiment, some of the pairs were instructed to discuss their "thoughts and feelings about plastic holiday trees" (casual condition). Other pairs were instructed to discuss "the most meaningful events of the past year" (meaningful condition). The surveys were much like those in the first experiment, but some new questions were added to measure trust and empathy.

When the mobile phone was in the room, participants gave lower ratings on all the measures, including the new trust and empathy measures. But this effect was stronger in the meaningful condition pairs than the casual condition pairs.

The researchers concluded that simply placing a cell phone in the room interfered with the formation of a new relationship.

Final Thoughts

The more you know about people, the more effective your designs will be. Research in behavioral science is exploding. If you liked learning about these 10 research studies and want to learn more, check out my book 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People.


[1] "Sapolsky on Dopamine: Not About Pleasure, But Its Anticipation.", July 29, 2011.

[2] "Digital Dopamine: 2015 Global Digital Marketing Report from Razorfish.", 2015.

[3] Katharina Reinecke and Krzysztof Z. Gajos, "Quantifying Visual Preferences Around the World." Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 26–May 1, 2014, pp. 11–20.

[4] David Eagleman, "Can we create new senses for humans?", March 2015.

[5] Tony Haile, "What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong.", March 9, 2014.

[6] Adrianne Jeffries, "You're Not Going to Read This.", February 14, 2014.

[7] "ClickTale Scrolling Research Report V2.0 – Part 1: Visibility and Scroll Reach.", October 5, 2007.

[8] Brian D. Glass, W. Todd Maddox, and Bradley C. Love, "Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait." PLOS One Vol. 8 No. 8, August 7, 2013.

[9] Dr. Justin Sanchez, "Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS)."

[10] Sanne Schoenmakers, et al., "Linear reconstruction of perceived images from human brain activity." NeuroImage Vol. 83, December 2013, pp. 951–961.

[11] Entertainment Software Association, "2014 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data: Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.", 2014.

[12] Priscila Caçola, Jerroed Roberson, and Carl Gabbard, "Examining Aging in Movement Representations for Sequential (Fine-Motor) Finger Movements: A Comparison Between Young, Middle-Aged, and Older Adults." Brain and Cognition Vol. 82 No. 1, March 2013.

[13] Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, "Can You Connect with Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Vol. 30 No. 3, May 2013, pp. 237–246.

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