We make countless decisions every single day, from the instantaneous, seemingly invisible selections to the big, life-changing choices. Much of our “thinking,” as a result, is done without actually thinking – at least not on a conscious level, but rather in a split second, from a place of intuition and sub-conscious alone.
Experts in fields ranging from economics to relationships; psychology to art history have spent their careers pinpointing the difference between “good” decisions and bad ones; what our initial impression can tell us, and when to rely on it.
I finally got around to and recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which addresses the psychology and behavioral economics on the “adaptive unconscious”; mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. In it, he works to identify and nail down some basic laws to follow.
Rule #1 – Effectiveness often depends on experience
“Right” first impressions largely depend on our level of expertise with the subject matter. When we study something extensively and see it a million and a half times, we become inherently good at discerning subtle changes. Having spent almost our entire lives learning to read body language, listen and articulate thoughts, almost all of us are adept at communication, meaning that we can do enough to get by. There are, however, communication experts who have spent their entire careers studying the subtle, almost indistinguishable shifts in facial muscles. These people can watch a couple communicate for 15 minutes and know, within 90% accuracy, whether they will be divorced after a decade. If you or I sat down to the same task, operating on first impressions alone, our accuracy rate would statistically be chance.
While you certainly want to expose your product to the everyday user (perhaps even more than you need to consult the experts), it is important to understand that some of their reactions may come from a place of inexperience. This is particularly true with new or unconventional concepts. Does this mean their opinion matters less? Not necessarily. It’s a trade-off: things that are immediately understood and embraced may do well in the market, but may dissolve quickly; a flash in the pan. At the other end of the spectrum, things that confuse people may not see any reception at all, though if the concept is fundamentally good, it may gain traction over time.
Rule #2 – In the absence of experience, intuition is often best left unanalyzed
We often have very good senses for things – and the simpler they are, the more comfortable we feel in asserting whether or not we like them. Problems arise, however, when people are asked to describe why they like something, or when pushed to describe it in foreign terms. In one example, Gladwell describes how college students were able to identify jams, from best to worst, in the same order as the “jam experts” had… until they were pushed to explain why. When suddenly asked to rank the jams on basis of things like “texture” and other unfamiliar vernacular, the students tripped over their answers and re-ranked them, scrambling the jams into the wrong order.
This is a fine line in user testing. While we may encourage a user saying “I like this” or “this bothers me” to expand on their statement so that we can better understand what they mean, we should also avoid the temptation to push them to really articulate why they do. A red flag should immediately go up if, when prompted to elaborate, a user falls back and retracts or changes his or her position.
Rule #3 – First impressions are highly influenced by context
The more realistic the environment in which you receive feedback, the more reliable it is. Gladwell talks specifically about why blind taste tests are effectively garbage:
a.) We experience things holistically. We very rarely drink or eat anything without seeing its label. The same goes for buying a shirt without knowing whether we are shopping in Walmart or Nordstrom. This is part of the reason that people continue to drink Starbucks coffee despite the fact that McDonalds continues to win taste tests. (It isn’t only about the coffee in the cup, Micky D. It very rarely is.) We take everything into account – and we’re meant to! If we weren’t, corporations wouldn’t spend millions on logo colors and Starbucks would look like gas station bathrooms.
b.) We experience things wholly. We almost never have only a tiny sip or small bite, but this is what is offered in most “blind tests,” which yields skewed feedback. The sweetest soda, for example, always wins blind taste tests because, given our choice among just one sip of each, that is the sip we prefer. But we don’t drink sips. We drink entire bottles, cans or glasses. And when it comes to actually consuming a drink, we often don’t want the sweetest one.
When it comes to garnering feedback on a design, work to ensure that users experience it in the most realistic setting possible, and that they try the whole thing, from start to finish, before committing to their review.
Rule #4 – If the intuitive response parallels stress or negativity, hold off
Sometimes first reactions can yield unpalatable results. This is the case when we automatically stereotype (very often doing so subconsciously or, more frustratingly, despite our sincere efforts to adopt more positive viewpoints.) Negative, knee-jerk reactions can cause tragic outcomes, such as police officers who fire at an individual (wrongly) suspected of being armed. Though not all negative connotations can be avoided (because we are all people and we are, alas, imperfect), you can work to minimize the decisions on which we are able to act when the impulse to do so is wrongly rooted.
In the case of product design, table reactions that are strongly correlated with negativity, prejudices, stereotypes, and aggressive conclusion-jumping. Take a step back, wait a moment, and consider approaching from a different angle. For example, if a user insists that certain activities or products are only for certain people, pause and then re-articulate the question in a more objective way. Better yet, consider finding a user with more personal experience.
Rule #5 – Take contradicting information with a grain of salt
Sometimes, concrete data can support an initial reaction. Other times, it contradicts it. We are often trained to abandon our intuition if it doesn’t stand up to “the facts.” Gladwell discusses the case of the Getty kouros, a Greek statue purchased by J. Paul Getty Museum. During the due diligence process, the museum invited countless art historians, lawyers, and field experts to review the statue and advise on its authenticity. From the start, there were a handful of individuals who, the minute they saw the statue, were hit with one common thought: it was fake.
None of them could quite explain why they thought this, or how they knew, and countless professionals were standing by with stacks of evidence proving otherwise, but these individuals persisted, and when pressed to explain their position, cited things like “the fingernails didn’t look right.” Another “felt as though there was a glass between me and the work.” Perhaps best: one said the he felt a wave of “intuitive repulsion.”
Eventually, the supporting documents were investigated and found to have inconsistent, fabricated data (citing bank accounts, for example, that had been opened a decade after the memo’s date.) The scientists and art historian team, however, stood their ground. To this day, the Getty kouros plaque reads “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery.”
Much design work – from UX to urbanism – plays to human decision-making, and the success of a concept is subject to its interpretation by users. We can all benefit in better understanding our own intuition, how to harness it, and the varied ways in which it can influence our decision making processes, for better or worse. As designers, though, we have a professional responsibility to develop rich understandings of the human mind and the complex ways it works, in order to build better solutions, understand the feedback as it is offered, and navigate when to push for an explanation and when to sit back and just accept it when someone says, “it just seems right.”