How to elevate product design by leveraging neuroscience

Contributed by J. Cornelius, an EO Atlanta member. J. is the founder and president of Nine Labs, which helps companies imagine, design and build world-class web and mobile products.

Great design is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.  

That bears repeating: Great design—a product that looks good and works well—is essential for success. Product design in the software industry has matured enough that you simply will not succeed with an ugly, ill-conceived digital product. A beautiful and well-functioning app is just table stakes. And I’ll explain why.

Over the last year, I’ve had multiple conversations and discovered these groundbreaking talking points anyone in product design must be aware of.

Beyond basic software expectations, the reason product success often hinges on design has a lot to do with the basic principles of neuroscience. When customers choose between two competing products with similar capabilities, the better-looking and more intuitive one always wins. 

Understanding the underlying neuroscience of human decision-making will empower your team to make more appealing digital products, a distinct advantage over your competition.

Shower thoughts: A window into brain function 

Have you ever wondered why you have profound, odd or just plain out-of-the-ordinary thoughts in the shower? It’s because your shower is routine—shampoo, rinse, conditioner, rinse and so on. Your brain isn’t perceiving any new or interesting information, so it’s free to wander. Now, if a spider appeared on the lid of your face wash, your brain would snap to attention. That’s new (and important!) information. Let’s take a simplified look at what’s happening in your brain.

Basic brain activity, demystified 

The shower scenario illustrates the widely accepted fundamentals of neuroscience. Without getting too technical, here are three of the primary brain regions at play:

  • The Lizard Brain: The journey through the Lizard Brain happens almost instantly and is entirely involuntary. You don’t control how this part of your brain responds to new stimuli, but it plays a massive role in how you respond to the world around you.
  • First, the thalamus looks at all incoming information and decides whether it’s interesting and worth paying attention to. It detects motion, changes in color, etc. When something moves, makes a noise, or changes in some way, your thalamus notices and passes that information along.
  • Then, the amygdala receives information from the thalamus and decides whether this new information is potentially threatening. If so, it triggers your fight-or-flight response and pumps adrenaline into your bloodstream.
  • Next, the hippocampus takes over. Think of it as your brain’s librarian. It’s responsible for taking input from your thalamus and amygdala, matching that input to previous experiences, and serving up references to the relevant experiences and knowledge. It tells you whether something is familiar and intuitive.
  • Assuming the amygdala hasn’t pumped your brain full of adrenaline, the information is passed to your prefrontal cortex. This is your brain’s high-functioning decision-making engine. It’s the part you think with and is where you rationally decide what to do about the information received.

If your shower proceeds as usual, your lizard brain rests, and your thoughts flow freely. But when the spider shows up, your thalamus sends that information to the amygdala, your amygdala decides the spider is a threat, and before you know it, you’re hopping out of the shower. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t even need to get involved.

Effective design uses neuroscience to its advantage 

I promise this is more than a middle school science lesson; here’s how it relates to digital product design.  

Successful, well-designed products walk a fine line. They provide users with enough new, interesting information that their brains are triggered to think more deeply (and buy, or at least pursue your product further), but not so much unfamiliar information that their threat responses are activated, dismissing your product outright.

And remember, brains are conditioned to equate beauty (in addition to familiarity) with safety and trustworthiness. These are all reasons why you must climb the “good design is non-negotiable” hill. 

An aside on C-suite buy-in

People in the C-suite famously ask for proof of the ROI of design. That’s outdated thinking.

Neuroscience tells us with a very high degree of certainty how people respond to new stimuli. Not using this science to guide your design decisions is akin to intentionally avoiding using GAAP for your financials. Why would you ignore something that gives you very high odds of success?

It’s important to know that great design works with your customers’ brains to elevate your product above the competition. If you ignore how humans think, you’re making a big mistake. Great product design is non-negotiable: Neuroscience proves it.

When you’re innovating with human nature in mind and using design systems to make science-backed products, you’re on the path toward producing successful, well-designed products that will help your business grow and scale.

Categories: Best Practices Technology


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