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Designing human behaviour

Curious Young lady

Good design good, bad design better?

In a nutshell

  1. Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a fundamental behavioural tendency in humans.
  2. But human-centered design is hell bent on making our lives easier, predictable and frictionless. 
  3. Design that is too seamless runs the risk of losing its humanity. 

Human beings are imperfect creatures and we can be slow to grasp innovative design. Skeumorphs appear everywhere to make things easier for our simple minds to grasp. And it was ever so – the car was such an unfamiliar and scary contraption that someone once had the bright idea of plonking a horse’s head on the front.

Until recently, making things look familiar was the route to making them easier. But now that we’ve got science to inform us, design can actually make things easier for people by understanding our hardwired behavioural traits and designing for them.

The core tenets of behavioural science have become embedded in design. There’s a catch though. Design has opted to use only one set of principles – those that are concerned with habitual behaviour and cognitive biases. For example, we’ve got good at designing websites with defaults that increase spend or take up and we have shaped product or service ranges and pricing through an understanding of choice architecture. We’ve learned that when you disrupt people’s habitual behaviour by changing what is familiar, there are gains (if you are trying to wean customers from your competitor) and potential losses if it causes your most frequent customers to re-evaluate their brand choices. Therefore, redesigning packaging is as likely to lose you customers as gain them, so design takes that into account.

The result has been a progressive move toward human-centered design. And we all know that humans just want an easy life, minimising effort. But, there is another consequence – sameness. And that’s equally true for products, services, website design or smartphones when the goal is an easy, seamless user experience.

chairs and table in front of orange wall
Streamlined user experience, or boring?

Easy experience good, hard experience better?

Although important principles for designers, these habitual and cognitive bias based behavioural tenets are only one slice of the whole picture. Both neuroscience and behavioural economic theory also give us insight into some other residual behaviour that our primitive past has bequeathed us. For example, we have an inbuilt curiosity for what is new and unfamiliar.

Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a fundamental behavioural tendency in humans – we balance safety and risk-taking as a primitive strategy to optimise survival – or in our somewhat more advanced societies, as a way of optimising our lives.

A study by neuroscientists at Baylor College of Medicine used fMRI scans on people as they squirted fruit juice or water into their mouths in either predictable or unpredictable patterns. The scans showed that the people who got the unpredictable sequence had more activity in the area of the brain that processes pleasure. It seems like a bit of friction and unpredictability is a good thing.

Yet all design around customer and user experience is currently hell-bent on providing an easy, seamless, predictable and, therefore, anodyne and frictionless experience. And it would be a brave person who would argue that we should make hard those things which should be easy and straightforward.

Unless of course the reward people get is built into things being hard. The whole concept of premium and luxury is often built on being hard – if it was easy poor people could have it too! Take Hermès Birkin handbags where the reward for endless choices of colour, size, materials and a waiting list results in your unique custom-made version, making you feel not only very special but also very clever. Last year a New York Times article titled Has Waiting for Things Become the Ultimate Luxury talks about restaurants that no longer take reservations so everyone has to wait in line. And of course, what plays more to the principle that we all want what everyone else wants?

Back to the pleasure of friction through unfamiliar and unpredictable experiences and another experiment, this time by University College London which had robots work with people to make an omelette. One robot performed the role perfectly whereas the other robot was programmed to drop one of the eggs and to apologise using facial expressions to convey regret and sadness. Guess which robot was preferred and got the highest satisfaction scores? A bit of friction enhanced the experience, but the real power was the humanity (albeit of the artificial variety) and the emotion that it triggered. Triggering and capturing human emotion in both customer service delivery and collecting customer responses is essential to becoming a human-centric organisation.

"Triggering and capturing human emotion in both customer service delivery and collecting customer responses is essential to becoming a human-centric organisation."

A bit of friction can be a good thing

Look at the huge rise in analogue stationary, which results in messy handwriting and crossings out, when digital is so much easier. Or apps like Hipstamatic where you shake the camera to randomly select a different lens, film, and flash. We can easily take professional looking snaps with our phones and digital cameras with no requirement to change lens and with instant results, yet Hipstamatic has a wait time and, for sure, that’s not a technical requirement of the software. It’s deliberately built in.

By comparison the ‘good design’ principles of ease and simplicity in one-click to purchase can equally be derided for not allowing pause for thought and may account for high levels of returns. How about building in a ‘get a second opinion from a friend’ functionality? Yes, it may reduce initial sales or sign ups, but maybe not. And maybe there are compensatory longer term benefits.

Artists, as opposed to designers, have always understood how to run counter to making things easy for people. Picasso was quite capable of painting a realistic face, but he didn’t, and as a result got our attention like no conventional portrait would have. People are drawn to the unfamiliar and enjoy the brain fizz it causes – they connect more with things that are imperfect or that trigger a cognitive response.

Just think about the Ikea effect whereby we attach more value to an outcome that we have expended effort to accomplish. Building in friction may seem like bad design but it creates more meaningful and engaging interactions.

At last year’s South by South West festival in Texas, Steve Selzer, experience design manager at Airbnb, spoke about the importance of bringing back ‘friction’ in a world of increasingly seamless service delivery. What Airbnb found is if the hirer and the renter of a house never met, there was a much greater level of dissatisfaction. So, despite it being a more difficult process, they made it mandatory for the two to meet to pick up the keys and, voila, friction by design.

Steve Jobs, the epitome of good user-centered design described computers as ‘bicycles for the mind’. But is today’s good design – digital and physical – making us mindless instead? Design might be getting too effective for its own good and failing to serve the goal of empathetic customer-centricity well.

Human Centrix CX Webinar 

Complete the form below to get access to our Human Centrix CX webinar recording, where we covered:

  1. Ease – it’s more than removing friction
  2. Effort – not just how much, but whose
  3. Reward – emotional payback
  4. Employee experience – does employee experience = customer experience?


Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

Ready to create unforgettable customer experiences?

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