What is the Human Brain’s Role in UX Design?

A crucial part of being a UX designer is understanding the basics of how the human brain functions, including the 3 levels of understanding and processing information. We’ll cover them here in Part 2 of our 3-part UX for Data Mining series.

The first article in this series gave an overview of history of UX, and how it developed over it’s 100+ year history.

Human Cognition and Emotion

Understanding how our brains work and how we process information—at least at a high level—helps UX designers make better-informed decisions when building products and experiences.

Our brains mediate both cognition and emotion, or thinking vs. feeling. Cognition is logic, controlled processes, conscious thinking, problem solving, memory, attention and language, and planning. Emotion is the opposite—uncontrolled and immediate processes, which includes our temperaments, personalities, moods and motivations. Cognition and emotion are usually viewed as largely separate.

The human brain has three levels of processing: Visceral, Behavioral and Reflective. Each of them are very important to understand when making UX design decisions.

Visceral responses are subconscious and automatic. We’re born with it. It’s our protective mechanism and is why sometimes we make quick decisions without any awareness or control. Ever been watching a horror film where a particular scene caused you to jump in your seat? That’s a visceral response. It also explains what A. Grant meant when he said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”


Why is visceral response important in design?

Because of those first impressions. Immediate perception of appearance, style and aesthetics are very important, as our first impressions last a long time. That’s why we like products that are carefully hand-crafted.

Behavioral response is subconscious, but previously learned. When we’re growing, we learn new skills every day: walking, talking, eating, kicking a ball, riding a bike, etc. When we speak or play a sport, we don’t need to consciously think what are we going to say or do next. It just happens. When we perform a well learned action, we think of an end goal and our behavioral level handles it.


Why is behavioral response important in design?

Every action has an expectation. Behavioral responses give us a feeling of control, but if things don’t go as planned, we feel frustrated and angry. We have all used a ton of different products and they all have some patterns that we have seen before: file -> save, copy -> paste, swipe, pinch, zoom and so on. So imagine if someone created an app where you would have to do a long hold for it to zoom in. Expectations and result wouldn’t match and we’d get frustrated…and probably end up deleting that app.

Reflective response is conscious, cognitive, deep and slow. Our reasoning, logic, and decision making are all part of reflective processing. This level often kicks in after events, when we evaluate circumstances and outcomes, often assessing blame and responsibility.


Why is reflective response important in design?

Reflective responses form our memories, and memories last longer than immediate experiences. Why do we recommend a product—or, on the other hand, recommend avoiding it? Because we’ve evaluated it and made a decision on whether it’s a good product to recommend. If it’s good, we’ll use it over and over again, because we see value in it.

When designing products and services, striking a balance between the three responses is important: visceral for first impressions, behavioral for patterning, and reflective for memories. Every level of processing plays a role of how a user perceives a product or a service.

Read our next article (Part 3 of 3), which is about UX process and how data helps making the right UX decisions.