Our senses define our experiences. So why is it that we spend so much time designing without sensory perception in mind?
There’s a problem with existing design practice. Our output blunts the senses. It glues people to the screens they now obsessively interact with hundreds of times each day.
In fact, the public doesn’t seem to have fully caught on to this. Studies show that people vastly underestimate the time they spend on devices. The near 11 hours we actually spend each day has also been linked to various diseases. It even has an impact on our perception of self. And, as if it weren’t bad enough already, it causes damage to our brain.
“Our senses define our experiences.”
As designers, we should be augmenting human capability. Instead we’re locking people into meaningless digital interactions. And we’re pumping them with addictive doses of dopamine to keep them coming back.
Before proposing how we can support people in living a greater portion of life in the real world, let’s explore why we find ourselves in this predicament.
Related: 10 ways to design for the human brain
Nir Eyal’s Hook Model provides a framework for increasing the frequency with which people use a product or service. It uses motivational psychology principles researchers have been familiar with for years (opens PDF). The model is designed to build suspense and increase people’s motivation in anticipation of a variable reward. A reward that we may or may not receive.
Key to this is the idea of novelty. If the reward can be predicted, the “hook” won’t work.
This process, or rather the anticipation we experience, causes our limbic system to emit the neurotransmitter, dopamine. This is the same neurotransmitter our brain emits during gambling and sex. It’s highly addictive. It makes us feel really good and keeps us coming back for more.
Game designers also employ similar practices. Books like Dr Jason Fox’s The Game Changer helped bring together motivational science and best-practice game design to expose some of these principles to the masses.
This practice of manufacturing engagement is no accident—it’s by design. But what drives us to do it this way?
Scarcity creates business value
In the developed world, attention is one of the scarcest human resources. Major platforms are incentivized to engage people in digital interactions—regardless of how meaningless they might be.
Why? Time on screen combined with an inferred understanding of preferences equates to greater ad revenues.
Effective design balances desirability with viability and feasibility, but certain products have imbalances. These imbalances are often driven by a narrow focus on outdated business models.
“We need to design with sensory perception in mind.”
So to answer the question above, we’re doing this because attention is scarce and we’re commercially incentivized to win the attention of our target users at all costs.
To interface or not to interface?
On the flip side, you have the ongoing movement towards so-called “invisible design.” Golden Krishna asserts the notion that the best interface is no interface. This is part of the picture, but perhaps the idea that we will literally interact with nothing is pushing this theory a little too far. Even the growing movement towards voice is an interface of sorts.
Timo Arnall proposes another view, stating, “…The interfaces we design may become normalized in use, effectively invisible over time, but that will only happen if we design them to be legible, readable, understandable, and to foreground culture over technology. To build trust and confidence in an interface in the first place, enough that it can comfortably recede into the background.”
So which is it: invisible or visible design?
The purpose of technology
In reality, the question is more nuanced than that. However, there are clues all around us. One clue comes in the form of Tim O’Reilly’s take on technology’s purpose. O’Reilly believes technology should augment human capability. I tend to agree.
The success of our products should be determined by the real-life outcomes they help people achieve.
I recently wrote an article for TechCrunch about the move towards data minimization. This is critical, but designers should also be focused on screen time minimization. It doesn’t necessarily mean invisibility. It simply means focusing on the human outcomes our interactions enable.
To do this, designers must actively engage in solving real human problems. The interface, whether invisible or completely in your face, is a means to an end. By focusing on interfaces as a means to an end we can create experiences that satisfy the 5 senses.
Design that satisfies the 5 senses
The idea of 5 senses design was introduced to me by Jinsop Lee. His 2013 TED Talk is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining.
Unsurprisingly, sex tops the list of sensory experiences. It engages each of the 5 senses simultaneously.
So, how might we design digital experiences that engage the 5 senses?
Where to place our focus
A potential answer to this is 3-pillar design, a framework that supports the design of human experiences. Like 5 senses design, it aims to quantify what actually matters to people. It also aims to shift the focus of design efforts towards human outcomes. Interface design is just one component of this effort.
“Designers must actively engage in solving real human problems.”
3-pillar design recognizes that people hire or fire products based on what they’re trying to achieve. In this model, the product or service exists as a means to an end.
The basics of 3-pillar design
3-pillar design helps narrow focus and provides a strong proxy measurement for genuinely balanced experiences.
What 3-pillar design is:
- A new way to quantify what matters to human beings
- A complementary approach to your existing research and experience design practice
- A new set of values you can embed within your organization
What 3-pillar design is not:
- An entirely new methodology
- A reason to completely alter your design practice
- A replacement for traditional business metrics
Let’s explore the 3 pillars.
Value is a largely subjective construct. It consists of cultural, personal, consumption, and product value dimensions. Each of these dimensions impacts decision-making.
When human experiences are valuable, the satisfaction associated with the experience increases.
In practical terms, value is first about defining the human objective. It’s then a process of designing an experience that enables the human objective to be fulfilled effectively.
The Jobs To Be Done method is particularly useful for defining and designing for value.
Beyond value, great experiences should be memorable. They should have significance.
These types of experiences create a lasting impact. We often retain detail about them. We have the ability to recall what we went through. We’re also more than happy to re-tell our friends, family, colleagues (and the world) our experience.
In practical terms, meaning is about defining the importance of an outcome. Then designing an experience that supports the priority of that outcome.
A simple Likert Scale that provides insight into the relative importance of an outcome is a good start. From there, NPS or Fjord’s Love Index are useful tools to help you dive deeper. Support these methods with qualitative contextual inquiry for the best results.
When was the last time you were excited about the product or service you hired?
Maybe it was when you were bored one Saturday morning. You chose to hire the cinema by going to watch the latest blockbuster. It had your favorite actress in it so you were genuinely excited about the solution you’d hired for your boredom. Throughout the movie, there was a constant feeling of suspense—you couldn’t quite sit back because you felt like you had to lean in towards the screen.
This type of experience is engaging. It entertains our senses and fills us with a rush of endorphins. Due to our anticipation, it also pumps us up with the much loved neurotransmitter, dopamine.
In practical terms, engagement is about making the experience of attaining an outcome fun. Nicole Lazzaro’s 4 Keys to Fun can be put into practice to help make this happen.
For more on how 3-pillar design can be put into action, read here.
Design is a systematic approach to solving complex human problems. Design isn’t a systematic approach to maximize time on screen.
Interfaces are a means to an end. Actively measuring value, meaning, and engagement will give you renewed focus. Plus, it’ll help you design for real-life outcomes.
Through this renewed focus, our customers will have more time to experience life the way they’re meant to: through the 5 senses.
by Nathan Kinch
I'm the founding partner of >X , a research, design and strategy agency at the forefront of the personal data economy.