100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People
Published: 6/25/2020
WE DESIGN TO ELICIT RESPONSES from people. We want them to buy something, read more, or take action of some kind. Designing without understanding what makes people act the way they do is like exploring a new city without a map: results will be haphazard, confusing, and inefficient. This book combines real science and research with practical examples to deliver a guide every designer needs.

Book Summary - 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinschenk

Key Insights

What makes certain designs memorable? Why are some designs helpful or enjoyable while others feel like a chore to engage with? Weinschenk’s compilation of behavioral studies sheds light on how our brains interpret the world around us and form positive experiences. In learning these mechanisms, designers can understand how to build designs that attract, influence, and better serve their audiences.

Key Points

People see with both their central and peripheral vision and find patterns in everything.

When you enter a new room, you look around before deciding whether you like the place or not. Maybe you notice the chairs or the paint color on the wall. Weinschenk explains that this process of vision isn’t just about seeing with our eyes but interpreting this visual information in our brains. In fact, when deciding on whether we like what’s in front of us, our vision contributes the most of all the senses.

The most familiar type of vision is called “central vision”, or what we clearly focus on when gathering details about a scene: the chairs, the paint color. But people also see with their “peripheral vision”, or the blurry edges of the visual field. This is how we notice when people are passing us, or to turn our heads when we see a rustle in the bushes. Peripheral vision evolved as a way to help people process their environment faster. Evolutionarily, we wanted any movement from predators in our surroundings.

Advertisers know this, which is why a lot of banner ads appear on the top and sides of websites. In spotting something moving at the edge of a page, our eyes are drawn in that direction.

Designers should understand that both of these types of seeing the need to be taken into account when designing a product. For example, when designing a web page, the key information should be in the center, making it easier for the central vision to interpret this information without distraction. Similarly, avoiding visual clutter from the periphery will also avoid distraction. This could involve removing advertisements from a website or any blinking buttons.

When looking at things in front of them, people also tend to pick out patterns. This is because the brain sorts visual information into categories it already understands. Weinschenk advises that designers use clear patterns to make this sorting process easier for the brain. These patterns could include groupings or simple 2D geometric drawings.

Everyone is forgetful. To help people remember, break information down into groups of four.

When studying for a test, you’ve likely found yourself at the bottom of a page of a textbook before realizing that you can’t quite recall what you just read. This is a normal function of the brain known as “limited short-term memory”, meaning the brain can only remember a limited amount of information after encountering it. In general, people only remember about 40% of the information they take in through their senses.

Given our tendency to forget, designers should understand that they cannot expect their audience to remember key information. Instead, they should make the information as easy to process as possible by splitting it up into short manageable chunks. Weinschenk recommends creating groups of three or four— this has proven to be the most manageable chunk size and is why American phone numbers are broken into three sections.

Another way to make information stick is by creating concise titles and removing as much clutter as possible from the text itself. Titles prime audiences with a general sense of what to look for, while cut-down information allows quick access to only the most important ideas. An extra step could involve repeating the information several times within the product. Each time the audience encounters these reminders, they will be more likely to memorize the content.

Stories stick with us.

Narratives are a classic way to make information more digestible. Think about how easy it is to understand concepts told in the form of documentaries and podcasts. Following along becomes a breeze, as the causal leaps in stories are easy for the mind to follow.

Designers should tap into the human love of stories, and shape their information into narrative form. Try and think of a three-act structure (beginning, middle, and end) and an anecdote that is surprising and memorable.

People are social creatures and respond well to empathy and social norms.

When talking with other people, we expect them to respect some basic social rules. At a party, for example, we want the person we start talking to respond with enthusiasm and be attentive when we speak to them. This sort of feedback helps us feel understood.

This is because people are programmed for empathy and imitation. We feel the need to mirror the sorts of things other people are doing, to communicate we are on the same page. This is because when we interact with other people, our brain releases “mirror neurons”, or neurons that fire when we observe actions performed by another. Think of how when people smile at you in public, you feel the need to smile back— this is mirror neurons at work.

Designs should know that when people interact with technology, they prefer it to follow these social rules too. For example, no one likes a chatbot that doesn’t respond promptly or politely. Instead, create interactive features that mimic our favorite parts of interpersonal interaction.

Weinschenk also points out that if you want people to imitate behavior, such as following instructions for how to use a page, images of people or videos help trigger the firing of mirror neurons too. This is likely the most effective way to get people to understand how they’re supposed to interact with a product.

Working towards achievable goals motivates people and releases dopamine.

When designers build products, they want their audience to be motivated to use them. But what exactly creates this motivation?

Consider the motivating nature of social media. Every time you see a notification, you feel inspired to go back and check your account. This is thanks to “dopamine”, a chemical released by the body’s pleasure system. We get a release of dopamine every time we receive positive feedback, whether it be a good grade on a test or a laugh at a joke. Designers should look for ways to integrate this positive feedback within their products

People like feedback because it feels as though they are moving towards their goals, whether it be a certain number of followers or finishing up a punchcard from our favorite coffee shop. The closer to a goal, the more motivated they feel. Think of how when a soccer game is tied, the players on the fieldwork extra hard.

Designers should consider feedback systems that allow people to understand small goals, move towards them, and also see their progress. For example, Starbucks uses a rewards system for its customers where after they’ve collected a certain number of stars through purchases, they get a perk. People in the rewards system feel motivated to go to Starbucks over other coffee chains because they are a few stars away from a free coffee.

Weinschenk also explains that the most pleasurable kind of feedback is the kind when goals seem difficult to achieve. Consider social media again: people wait anxiously after they post on Twitter, knowing that the likes depend on the quality of the post. Because these sorts of rewards aren’t guaranteed, succeeding makes the rewards more gratifying.

Human minds are programmed to wander, but attentive states can be encouraged through design.

Our attention spans only last around 11 seconds with our minds wandering between 30-70% of the time. In order to keep users engaged, designers should know how to capture and hold attention.

One way to do this is by, again, presenting information in bite-sized chunks, making it simpler to move quickly around the product. Another way to stimulate movement round is through hyperlinks that shoot a user to different parts.

Weinschenk emphasizes that although wandering minds can be accommodated, they can also be promoted to concentrate. She explains that the opposite of a distracted state is something called the “flow state”. First presented by psychologist Mihaly Cszikszentmihalyi, a flow state is one of the total concentrations. Think of a time that you felt so interested in an activity that you lost a sense of time. Maybe you were working through a challenging math problem or making it to the end of a long run.

Designers can promote a flow state by simulating the conditions of activities such as these. For example, we feel flow when we are pushing towards a near but challenging goal. We also feel flow when we feel totally undistracted, so designers should minimize distractions if they want their audiences to feel totally focused on the design in front of them.

Most of the decisions people make happen subconsciously, but people like having options.

When deciding what to eat on a menu, you may think that you are entirely in control of what you end up choosing. But Weinschenk explains that often, decisions like these are made unconsciously, long before our “choice” pops into our head.

This doesn’t mean that our decisions are illogical. We often come up with reasons for why we chose things, but Weinschenk says that these often aren’t the actual reasons for why we make decisions. For example, we may say we chose to get the chocolate ice cream because we’re in the mood for chocolate, but the real reason may have been that the chocolate ice cream was the only flavor with an attractive picture next to it.

Designers should consider that because decisions are often unconscious, there are ways to promote certain decisions in their audiences. They could work on making certain decisions feel attractive.

Designers should also respect that when people are surveyed, they often would prefer more options than less. However, we all have stood in front of a wall of grocery cereals, unsure of where to even start, resulting in a relatively random selection from the bunch. Designers can consider offering a limited amount of choices around a specialized product rather than a bunch of unrelated choices. She cites the way Apple Products come in a few colors, creating the possibility of customization, but how ultimately everyone gets the same high-quality product.

The Main Take-away

Designers should have a sense of the way people see, process information, feel motivated, and make decisions to understand how to make products that work with our natural tendencies. When creating visuals, they should take into account peripheral vision and patterns. Information should be broken up into manageable chunks and delivered in an accessible form, like stories. Designers should also build around the mind’s tendency to forget and get distracted. Finally, design influences choices subconsciously, so designers should have a sense of what makes for attractive and easy choices.

About the Author

Dr. Susan Weinschenk is a behavioral psychologist and author working in design and user experience. She’s the chief Behavioral Scientist and CEO of The Team W, Inc, and founder of the Weinschenk Institute. She consults Fortune 1000 companies, start-ups, and non-profits on how to optimize their designs. She also co-hosts the podcast HumanTech and writes a column for Psychology Today online. She’s written several other books including How to Get People to Do Stuff and Neuro Web Design.


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