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Design & The Brain

I’ve been reading a lot from a new neuro-hero of mine recently, a chap called Read Montague who is an American neuroscientist and popular science author. He is the director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and a professor in the department of physics at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. So he’s really really clever. His work focuses on computational neuroscience – the connection between the physical mechanisms present in real neural tissue and the computational functions that these mechanisms embody.

In short – he’s way smarter than me and a great guy to learn from… He also fights against this idea that we can use neuroscience to learn about our products & about customer behaviour.

I don’t necessarily disagree with him on things, but as designers learn more about how the human brain works we get closer to solving real problems… So we should be looking at it. We have too.

Here’s the vision for my company Nexus;

It’s 2017 and Nexus designers and engineers have hooked up a volunteer to a small, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measures brain activity and blood flow over time in response to stimuli. The subject swipes through a new smartphone app that has been designed to make banking easier than it’s predecessors, it’s got new messaging and blunter mechanisms for paying people. They’re watching a real time simulation of the brain responses through Oculus Rift, seeking clues to what might excite the customer and therefore start to learn why they might be prepared to choose our app over the next best alternative.

It’s all voodoo and brain witchcraft people shout at me. The brain is too complicated, we’re too homogenous and our individuality gets in the way. It’s all totally true – And even if brain research on a handful of test subjects could tell you something about the design of a product, it doesn’t mean that a particular product will have mass appeal.

We might be able to tell you how the brain works, but we can’t really tell you if an individual or a global population will buy something. But here’s the kicker – this type of microcosmic approach to validating stuff is no different to traditional market testing and design ethnography, which focuses on small samples of people. So why not do something different and see things from a slightly different points of view, even one acknowledged to be complex to the point of flaw.

Neuroscience offers us some tantalizing hints about how the brain functions and reacts and how we behave.

  • In the 1960s and ’70s, electroencephalography, or EEG, was used to detect electric fields in the brain, but had no spatial precision.
  • In the ’80s, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, could take anatomical snapshots of the head.
  • It was the arrival of the fMRI in the mid-1990s that has been the game changer, because this tool is like a “microscopic blood movie”.

An fMRI measures hundreds of thousands of tiny sites in the brain and records microscopic blood flow that is tightly correlated with neural activity. fMRI is like watching a computer program at work or “safely eavesdropping on brain activity,” it’s so powerful, it’s scary. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by companies, marketers, and advertisers either. Sports car manufacturers, for instance, have tried to pinpoint design features that trigger testosterone.

The nascent field known as “neuromarketing” measures brain waves in response to products, ads and packaging to figure out what compels consumers’ subconscious. Some believe this kind of controversial brain digging has the potential to enhance what we can discover through traditional market research (and design research) because it delves so much deeper than asking questions or observing activity and behavior.

The Challenges of Brain-Based Design Research

Why you prefer Coke or Pepsi, sports cars, iPhones, or any product, is driven not just by responses from the reward processing part of your brain, but also from many stimuli like memory or some factor in the external culture. Maybe you like Coke not because of the taste, but because you remember the Coke polar bear ads at Christmas? In that sense, you could put a gadget like a slimmer, sleeker iPhone in front of people and see if the brain sends any signals that can be detected by researchers. But such signals do not necessarily indicate that the iPhone designers got the product right. There are too many other factors in play. Think of the memories associated with madeleines in The Remembrance of Things Past—life imitates art in this sense. But hey, that’s the same in any research… We still have to make professional judgement.

New Discoveries, New Directions

Clearly, we know more about the brain and how it works than ever before. We know about the motor system and how your brain makes a decision to execute a physical movement before you even know you have made the decision. We know how people respond to certain colors, how we perceive depth and how the brain processes visual scenes. Yet there’s still a lot we don’t know. And as we continue the search for answers we can only speculate and theorize why one product makes it and another flops. The outsized success of Apple products might have more to do with primate status behavior—the alpha male is cool and has something cool, so we want the cool thing too—than with streamlined features, great performance, and pleasant experience of the Genius Bar at Apple stores.

For the moment we don’t know for sure how our heads are aligned with our hearts, in terms of product love. “Our knowledge of the brain just isn’t there yet,” Montague says. But as researchers continue to use everything from fMRI scans to eye-tracking devices, the mysterious and complex brain will yield more secrets, and when cross-pollinated with traditional market research and ethnography, will expand the power of design – So I end by saying this; “So what if it’s not 100% accurate yet… neither is traditional market research and usability testing. What we need to do is get it into the wild as a concept and start playing with it to see if it does have a use and utility“.

Original Article.


  1. JoshuaA36trvaryf
    December 5, 2014 at 11:20 am ·

    great put up, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector don’t realize this. You must continue your writing. I am sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!

  2. Yukiko Koertig
    December 7, 2014 at 11:22 pm ·

    I love it when people get together and share ideas. Great website, stick with it!

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