Illusions in design: How to design when our minds play tricks on us

invisible gorilla.jpg

If a gorilla ran across a basketball court while you tried counting the number of times a basketball passes between players, would you see it? You’d think so, right? Not necessarily. I recently read The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, a book on how our minds don’t always notice the obvious, and I’m now more aware of how unaware I am, even when I think I’m paying attention. Chabris and Simons created one of the most famous psychology experiments about selective attention that has to do with basketball passes, and yes, a gorilla.

The eye-opening realization I experienced from reading this book is how much we miss, from editing mistakes in movies to believing that someone is good at her job only because of the way she presents herself. I found myself relating to the various illusions that my mind experiences during moments throughout the day, but I also started thinking more about how these illusions might affect my work as a UX designer and writer.

We can’t prevent our minds from playing tricks on us, but as designers we can use this knowledge to better present content to users. After all, if we’re under certain illusions that we’re not even aware of, so are users.  

The illusion of attention

The illusion of attention leads us to believe that we notice everything in front of us. Wrong! We may miss events or objects that we don’t expect to see. Just because you’re looking doesn’t mean that you’re seeing.

If you want users to notice something, make it less unexpected.

When users focus on a task, there’s a strong chance that they’ll miss other items, pop-up boxes, or buttons on the screen. This isn’t because they’re not interested; they simply don’t see it. As people use more of their limited attention, they are less likely to notice things that they don’t expect. To make something less unexpected, surface the content at a time when users aren’t dedicating their full attention. Attract users’ attentions with movement and color. If what you’re trying to convey is important, don’t let it be an afterthought.

The illusion of confidence

The illusion of confidence happens when we overestimate our own qualities and when we interpret the confidence (or lack thereof) of others to be a sign of their abilities and knowledge.

Write with confidence.

When you’re writing copy for an app or website, consider how the words come across to users. Choose words that convey confidence. The impression you present will be how people think of your brand. Just be careful not to mislead people or give false claims because this will lead to unmet expectations and letting your users down.

Be wary of overconfident designers.

When you’re working with others, sharing ideas and opinions are part of the job. Other designers may come off as confident in the way they know how to design a feature or screen. You might even believe them when your mind interprets their confidence for knowledge and skill. Don’t let those who appear calm, cool, and collected fool you! Even if your co-workers have prior experience with design topics, this doesn’t mean they’re right. You know who is right? Your users. Test early and often with them. Let users give you confidence.

Aesthetics matter. Your website will be judged by its cover.

Even though we’re taught not to do this, our minds can’t help it. Your app or website may be functional, well-planned, and heavily user tested, but if it isn’t beautifully visually designed, people are going to think that it operates the same way it looks: terribly. Don’t scare users off with poor visuals, cluttered landing pages, and colors that make the text hard to read.

The illusion of knowledge

When people think they know more than they do and feel overconfident in their abilities, this is the illusion of knowledge making a guest appearance.

Make the process as clear and simple as possible.

If users need to fill out forms or follow step-by-steps in the app or website you’re designing, make this process as simple as you possibly can. When users come across a form to fill out or a screen that looks somewhat familiar, they’ll associate it with something they’ve already done before. To avoid this, make the directions clear and point out anything that may be out of the ordinary.

Provide anecdotes to help users remember information.

If you’re sharing information or want users to remember something, include a short story that helps users recall the point you’re trying to get across. Storytelling is more memorable than abstract claims, and they’re much more persuasive. The power of emotion and how users connect with stories should not be underestimated.

The illusion of cause

The illusion of cause is when our minds detect meaning in patterns and think that earlier events are the cause of events that happen later. As you can probably guess by now, this isn’t necessarily true. Once again, your mind is playing tricks on you.

Don’t mislead users into thinking your services or products can do something that it can’t.

Today alone you’ve probably been bombarded with dozens of headlines begging for a click. I’ll admit, these melodramatic, emotionally-charged article titles intrigue me, but they’re always a letdown. I probably won’t believe what happens next and the result of something will unlikely break my heart.

You’re controlling the users’ interpretations of the site just by the way you arrange your designs and words. If users aren’t getting what they expect when they click on a button or into an article, then the cause doesn’t match the effect and you’ve risked irritating your potential customers. Don’t trick your users, plain and simple. Encourage users to explore your site with reasonable phrases that give them the information they need, not by making them feel like they’re missing out if they don’t. Lead users down a transparent path, not one that will just give you pageviews.

Final thoughts

For better or worse, I’m now painfully more aware of how my mind plays tricks on me. As a designer, it’s important to understand the psychology of users and how they might be influenced by your designs. As a human, understanding how your mind works is just good self-awareness.

Illusions in design occur far more often than we realize. It’s up to us as designers to be conscious and deliberate about what we put out into the world. Simply knowing about these illusions doesn’t make us immune but being aware just might make us more intentional and observant. And who knows – you may even notice a gorilla walk by.