The Chemicals that Affect Design

The human brain is fascinating. Ask it to rate the best wine out of a list and, after carefully tasting them all, it will choose the one with the fanciest label. Place it in front of a game of war, and it will be relaxed and happy, but place it in front of a payment screen, and it releases the same stress hormones as though it were being chased by a lion.

Behavioral Designer utilizes a mountain of research from the fields of neuroscience, practical psychology, and behavioral economics, to fully understand how the human animal makes decisions.

When you start from the scientific base principals, rather than copying ideas from UX books and blogs, an entire world of design becomes possible. The sort that is born of a deep understanding of the material. In order to explain this concept, let’s talk about a few basic human functions.


The Chemicals that Motivate Us

The human brain uses four chemicals to help it promote actions it thinks are positive. These are: Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin. Every positive motivation felt by every customer with a product is related to one of these four chemicals.

Dopamine, for example, is all about motivating goals. Our brain releases a little dopamine every time we get closer to completing a task, to reward us for our progress. It is what motivates us to focus on our goals. As Behavioral Designers, we can create a motivation trail to help customers focus on a particular goal we want them to reach, and feel good about it.

Imagine an ecommerce website that requires customers to fill in a long and complicated sign up form. Design the first step of the form correctly, with a small task and a visual reward, and customers will become more focused, and loaded with the motivation to complete their task.

Push the dopamine button too often, however, and people become desensitized. They might keep logging in and scrolling, of course, but they will lose their emotional investment, and become less creative and less cooperative. Dopamine is addictive.

Another example of a chemical in our brain that makes us engage with a product, is Serotonin. Serotonin is the hormone in our brain in charge of the feeling of pride. It is a social chemical, and allows us to feel good about being part of something larger than ourselves.

Serotonin is what makes us feel good when our favorite sports team wins a match, or when Apple or Google release a new product. It makes us identify with a person, institution, or brand to the extent of making us happy when they are happy. We feel proud when they succeed. Which makes us work harder toward their success.

Our products are not only a piece of hardware or software, but reflect a set of values. These don’t have to be social or political values necessarily. The human brain can just as easily value excellence or novelty. Whatever the product may be, if people identify with it, and feel appreciated, they will feel pride in the brand, and work to help it do well.




Another, less pleasant, chemical our brain releases is Cortisol. This is our stress hormone. Cortisol is designed to alert us to danger, and keep us on our toes. When it flows in the brain, our heart rate goes up, we begin to sweat, and the body begins to shut down any system that isn’t important to either fighting if running.

Some of the systems that shut down in our brain are empathy, creative thinking, and tolerance for complexity. So when we are stressed, we tend not to appreciate good products.

Though, today, we tend not to be chased by lions or challenged to a duel, our caveman brain still reacts to stress in the same way. So as designers, we must be aware of every point in the product cycle that might trigger the release of cortisol.

The payment screen, for example, is one of the most stressful points in the life of an ecommerce website experience. The uninvited commercial pop up is another. These are common points in a website’s experience that force customers to decide if to leave, or keep going. Naturally, many decide to leave.

In order to build great products, we must first understand the people who use them. Behavioral design is the discipline of carefully understanding the way people make decisions, form connections, or get frustrated, to better suit great products to fit who they are.

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