Navigating the Human Mind

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As designers at Fuzzy Math, we support and advocate for users’ needs. In order to do this, we need to understand the built-in characteristics of the human mind, as well as the various contexts in which people use a digital product. These variables play a huge part in determining how users visually perceive their environment and make decisions.

How people make decisions

According to dual process theory in psychology, the human mind can be described using two systems. System 1 consists of mental processes that a person is not consciously aware of. This system is automatic, fast, emotional, and heuristic-based. In psychology, heuristics are cognitive rules of thumb that are hard-wired for each person. They are mental shortcuts that everyone uses every day in routine decision-making and judgment. When a heuristic is applied incorrectly for a particular situation, these mental shortcuts cause System 1 decisions to be error-prone.

For example, when we see a door with a handle that protrudes from it, System 1 provides us with the mental shortcut that this is a door we should pull to open, solely based upon the shape of the door handle. If that same door also happened to say “Push” on it, System 2 would need to provide assistance to process the additional information.

System 2 thus consists of mental processes that a person is consciously aware of. This system is deliberate, slower, logical, and analytical. System 2 takes mental energy and effort, and can only focus effectively on one conscious task at a time. System 2 decisions are intentional and deliberate. For example, if a friend asks you where you want to go for dinner, your conscious mind is tasked with making a decision about which restaurant to choose.

How people perceive the world

It is indisputable that each person is unique, and this is a big part of what makes our world — and consequently our work — so interesting. A group of people can perceive the occurrence of the same event, and afterwards, each person might have a different interpretation of what happened. However, even though each person interprets his or her surroundings differently, we as human beings share a set of inherent qualities that permit us to perceive our environment in similar ways. As designers, we pay extra attention to the shared qualities of human visual perception and decision-making.

There are countless ways to grasp at understanding the human mind and visual perception. While designing, we consider many aspects, including the limitations of working memory, Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics, and Gestalt principles of perceptual organization. We find Gestalt principles particularly interesting and applicable to what we do, so we’ve called out a few of those principles below.

Gestalt principles of perceptual organization

These principles of psychology first proposed by Gestalt psychologists are based on the observation that humans naturally perceive objects as organized patterns. These principles, also known as “principles of grouping,” apply specifically to visual perception.

Below are just a handful of the principles, and a few examples for how we apply these principles in our everyday work.

Proximity

Things that are close to one another are perceived to be more related than things that are spaced farther apart.

Design application: Place labels close to their relevant content areas. For example, in the above paragraph, the “Proximity” header is closer to its following paragraph than it is to the line above it.

Similarity

Things that are similar are perceived to be more related than things that are dissimilar.

Design application: This principle is one of the major reasons we create design systems for our projects. The purpose of a design system is to ensure that styles and behavior of design elements, such as links or buttons, look and act the same throughout a digital product. When elements share similar styles and behavior, users expect those elements to act similarly. When we find stylistic or behavioral inconsistencies between elements that should have similarity, we identify those as areas to improve upon. When a design system is working to its full potential, the digital experience feels the most cohesive.

Common Region

Elements tend to be perceptually grouped together if they are located within the same closed region.

Design application:  We often design pages that have repeated elements on them called cards. A card represents a single piece of content, and uses a closed region to define that single piece of content. For example, a card representing a piece of content could be a bounding box that houses the title of an article, a blurb from the article, and an image. The title, blurb, and image are perceived as one group of closely related elements because they are enclosed by the bounding box, or common region.

Past Experience

Elements tend to be perceived as grouped together if they were often grouped together in the past experience of the observer. These past experiences could be unique to an individual or shared by many.

Design application: This is why our project-specific research is important. Through research, we learn about the ways in which users expect content to be grouped. If a piece of important content was previously grouped with something else, but a change in information architecture now has the content standing on its own, we would consider how to design a first-run experience that aligns with users’ expectations based on their past experience, and we’d ensure users are able to point out the updated elements.

How design uses this psychology to make users happy

These universal qualities for perception that humans share are part of the unconscious and automatic processing that dual process theory calls System 1. Good designs keep as much of this perceptive processing within System 1 as possible. However, when a design is confusing, System 2 kicks into gear and cognitive effort becomes necessary to understand the interface’s organization. When mental effort is required to understand the interface organization instead of its content, usability decreases.

All in all, there’s a vast amount to understand about humans, our brains, and the many contexts we live and work within. While we can’t understand every aspect of the human mind, we do value and practice continuous learning and research in order to grasp as much as possible. Through understanding as much as we can about human visual perception, usability, user goals, and overarching business processes, we center our designs on the user, and therefore make our clients happy.

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