UX Design: Feeling Smart and in Control

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January 19, 2016
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Why are so many websites such bad examples of User Experience design? Following my first post, User Experience Design is All Around Us, this post will look at some of the misconceptions we carry about how users experience websites, and the role of the triune brain in processing information.

A big culprit in the scourge of badly designed websites is the assumption that we (myself included) use websites in a rational, orderly, attentive way. So we assume that websites get made for rational, orderly, attentive users.

UX Design example

Eye tracker by Alfred Yarbus from the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)


The thing is, there’s a big difference between how we think we use websites and how we actually use them. Usability experts have been studying this for years using software that tracks eye and mouse movements, scroll depth and so on.

The consensus? Web visitors treat websites more like a set of elevator buttons than we care to admit.

For instance:

  • We don’t read pages, we scan them.
  • We miss a lot.
  • We jump around and take in information out of order.
  • We don’t make optimal choices. Instead we “satisfice.”

An example of satisficing is clicking on a link when we think it might be where we want to go, because the penalty for getting it wrong – hitting the back button – seems easier than the burden of trying to get it right the first time.

And this is just normal human behavior. As a rule, we don’t tend to figure out how to do anything thoroughly, instead we muddle through. Very few people read the instructions for a new appliance cover to cover before using the appliance, and very few read the whole home page of a website before deciding what to click next.

The field of neuro web design shows us that most of the time the decisions we make while visiting a website are not the result of rational thinking, but are initiated in parts of our brain we don’t have access to and are governed by processes we are not even aware of. A lot of important interaction happens at the unconscious level during a website visit, including deciding whether to sign up, engage, explore further, and make a donation or purchase.

User Experience design example Bill Sanderson

Drawing by Bill Sanderson, 1997 (Wikimedia Commons)


The concept of the triune brain maintains that the brain’s decision-making capacity involves three separate but interconnected areas. There’s the outer neocortex delivering rational analysis, the deeper limbic brain taking care of the emotional side, and then there’s the very deep reptilian brain ensuring survival.

As all humans do when processing any external information, website visitors process their experience not just through their rational neocortices, but also with their limbic and reptilian brains engaged. This influences their decisions in subconscious ways.

This matters because while muddling through a website may sort of work most of the time, it’s inefficient and error-prone. It makes website visitors feel dumb and/or frustrated. And this reflects badly on the company or organization whose website is causing this effect.

On the other hand, if a website is set up with good UX design that minimizes the amount of muddling through, then:

Here at Gard Communications, we love user experience design. UX design is an exciting blend of cultural anthropology and information design. It is informed by cognitive science, human factors science, usability engineering, navigation design, data visualization, interaction design and visual design. Gard’s UX designers weave a little of each discipline into their work, while keeping the priorities of the end-user top of mind.

This is part two of a three part series on UX design. Recap part 1, “User Experience Design is All Around Us,” or see part three, “UX and UI Designers: The New Matchmakers.”

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