Designing Fear

How often has fear held you back from doing something you knew in your gut you should do?

There’s a pattern to everyone’s fears. Take a step back and you might notice that many of your decisions stem from one core fear. This could be a fear of belonging in a social situation, not being the best at something, a fear of something being too complicated or it could even be a fear of letting others down.

When we’re designing digital services for our various audiences we often focus on the obvious attributes – “Does it function well?”, “Does it look slick?”, “Is it useful & usable?” etc – but often (if not always) we neglect one of the most important attributes from our planning – “Will our product address the fears of our audiences and help them past those fears?”

Think about a time when you confronted, adapted and learned to overcome a certain fear or panic inducing situation… It was a pretty awesome feeling, right? Now imagine that you digitise that moment and bring it to your audience online. We have to design that attitude of overcoming fear into the solutions we’re creating.

The mind is good at generating doubts. We tell ourselves: “There’s no way I’ll succeed in that” or “It’s an obvious idea” or “It’s too expensive” etc and Fear has a knack for masquerading as rational thought. Having a big dream or idea is intimidating. “What if it fails?“, “What if the dream is unachievable?” – Often we find ways to reason ourselves out of these kinds of risks.

An audience will actually talk themselves out of doing something when they’re afraid of the thing you’re asking them to do.

Researchers continue to find evidence that being pro-active and facing fears is the best way to overcome them. But what are the internal processes of perceiving different types of threat and fear?

Ready for a little science lesson just to help you understand where fear comes from?


When we encounter a risky situation, our brains become vulnerable to a process called the “amygdala hijack“. The amygdala – the part of your brain associated with memory, decision-making, and emotional responses – has a quicker reaction time than the cortex, or rational thinking part of your brain. So you basically what you need to know is that fear takes hold more quickly than logic & it has a more potent effect in a lot of cases.

It sends us into fight-or-flight mode. But sometimes when we’re stressed rather than in real serious danger, the amygdala can overfire, leading us to make bad decisions because it confuses that stress with fear.

The pathways through which we consciously and subconsciously interpret fear are not well understood by neuroscientists. We know a bit about amygdala and its role in fear and fearlessness but as with many advances forward, it appears the more we know about the brain, the less we actually understand how it works.

In a study released on January 27, 2013 scientists identified specific neurons linked to a certain type of fear memory held in your amygdala. The study examined how fear responses are learned, controlled, and memorized. It’s that fear memory that could be a real killer for your service – once a service is deemed ‘something to fear’ the audience will resent it and not return.

Neuroscientists have found that a specific class of neurons called SOM+ in a subdivision of the amygdala plays an active role in these processes.

In another paper published February 3, 2013 from the University of Iowa, we’re told that the amygdala is not the only gatekeeper of fear in the human mind. Other regions – such as the brainstem, diencephalon, or insular cortex – can also sense the body’s most primal inner signals of danger when basic survival is threatened. So fear is a complex thing and the biological reactions to fear are really powerful deterrents from your service.

In short – When we’re faced with stress the part of the brain that takes over, the part that reacts the most, is the circuitry that was originally designed to manage danger and it is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we’re under stress – particularly if we get hijacked by it – are likely to lead the audience astray or in a lot of cases send them off in the opposite direction completely. Design the best experiences in the world are irrelevant if we ignore that a topic might be a stressful and therefore fearful one.


Humans display freezing and risk-assessment behaviors in response to fearful situations. Understanding how to switch an audience from passive to a more active fear coping strategies is key to adapting to the stress and unpredictability of modern life. It’s also something we need to design for.

Another thing to remember is that it’s often the moments of unpredictability that people regret most when they look back on experiences. There’s a pattern that we see when it comes to regrets. People regret what they didn’t do more than they regret what they did do. Fear can make you run and hide, it can motivate you to take action, and it can freeze you dead in your tracks. Which in the case of a lot of things we design can mean that services are just ignored or overlooked completely.

But can we consciously condition our audience to be more active and less passive in the face of the fear of dealing with say, Debt and Financial Management online – which is absolutely terrifying and stress inducing for a lot of people – I believe the answer is “Yes“.


I define “functional anxiety” as that moment when anxiety and fear are so overwhelming that they can start to negatively impact a person’s ability or desire to face a function head on.

One of the most common causes of fear is simply being unable to name the elephant in the room. When you get in a situation that is heading south, you’d rather be in denial than admit it. Say, for example, you’re in debt and everything you try to fix it, just simply isn’t working, but you’re surrounded by others also working hard at it and succeeding. What do you do? These things can go on for months or even years and in the end you’ve made it worse by prolonging not being in control.

It’s my belief that we need to start taking a different approach to services like “PFM” (Personal Financial Management) and create experiences that call upon a different set of principles, those used within Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Designing CBT led experiences offer up a way of helping audiences understand the thoughts, feelings and attitudes that influence their behaviour. The ones that prevent better behaviours happening, which would allow a person to progress even in the face of fear.

There’s a common misconception that ‘tools’ will fix a problem, they can’t. They can show you the semantic facts, but there needs to be more. We need to codify counselling.

The core principle of CBT is addressing fears and bad behaviors head on and then finding new paths to alter your course – So in the instance of Debt & PFM, often the response of getting honest, brutal feedback is scary enough to spur someone into action.

Fear in a lot of cases, is so overwhelming emotionally, that people often don’t take a straight approach to sorting it out.

With that in mind, the core principles of designing services that set out to change behaviour and conquer fear should always be “Transparency” and “Truth“.


Developing services that have a self-awareness to know when fear is dictating a decision is an important first step in taking control of the design. Let’s call it the ILF – Internal Lookout Function – the ability for a digital service to recognize when a user is hesitating or not behaving in the way we expect or want them too, and then reminding them not to make a rash decision in response to the fear that might be causing that behaviour.

It might be that when we notice erratic or even negative behaviour we simply ask the user what it is that they’re struggling with. Once we know what that block is, then we can start to prepare for those situations before they happen. If you know, for instance, that they become extremely defensive about their debt because of a fear of not being the best at budgeting their monthly pay, then we can prepare and serve up features in advance that don’t let that fear take over in the moment and create a sort of ‘self fulfilling prophecy‘.


Fear stifles our thinking and actions. It creates indecisiveness that results in stagnation. I have known talented people who procrastinate indefinitely rather than risk failure. Lost opportunities cause erosion of confidence, and the downward spiral begins.

Often experiencing one of your biggest fears is the best way to learn to cope with it. Say you’re biggest fear is losing your family because of debt and everything you do is a response to that fear – then trying to simulate what would actually happen in the predicted situation will often show a different, more palatable reality.

The best way to learn to deal with a fear is for it to happen and for us to realise we’re still alive the next day to tell the tale. If you stop avoiding the thing you fear and get close to experiencing it, you often find it’s not nearly as bad as you think. So start designing fear into the actual scenarios you’re designing to fix the situation. Don’t just design a PFM tool that shows the audience the output of adjusting their behaviour, start by showing them the behaviour that they fear that is causing the actual problem in the first place.


It’s really important as neuro-designers that we don’t take an audiences fear in a given situation as negative. Fear is a healthy and natural human reaction. Understanding and recognising that our audience have fears and then encouraging the audience to confront the thing they fear will help us prevent it hijacking situations completely. So design your service to be scary.

Compassion is also our greatest weapon in the fight against an audiences fear – “You’re doing the best you can and that’s okay right now” – is probably the most powerful statement we can tell people while they face down fear.

Starting to get to know what are the one or two driving fears an audience has and what are the situations that tend to bring those fears out is a key principle in designing for behavioural change so factor it into the planning stage when you’re identifying the qualitative and quantitative pain points you’re going to set out to fix. You’ll find that once you get the audience through fear, you’ll have changed them for the better and your service will become a deeper, more meaningful experience.

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