August 2019
Text by David Truog

Image: © marchmeena29/

David Truog is a Research Director at Forrester Research, Inc., where he leads a team of analysts who research and advise clients about experience design (XD), primarily in two domains: how to understand the needs and goals of users, and how to design experiences that let them meet those needs and goals in a manner that is easy, effective, and emotionally resonant — whether the medium is physical, digital, or a blend of both. 


Twitter: @DavidTruog


Understanding human perception to improve experience design

The quality of customers’ experiences with a company determines whether they choose to be loyal to it or switch to a competitor — Forrester’s data has proven it. So, it’s crucial for companies to better understand how people’s interactions with them shape their perceptions.

Acquiring a new customer costs far more than retaining one.  And when your company retains customers (i.e. they buy again and perhaps buy more), they’re also more likely to recommend your company to others, making acquisition less costly. Therefore, basic business sense dictates that if your company’s rate of customer retention is less than 100 percent, it should prioritize investing in improving customer experience (CX) over acquisition tactics like advertising and marketing campaigns.

But improving CX is harder than it appears. Above all, it means that the people inside a company who design experiences for customers – from products and services to documentation, stores, commerce sites, customer support, and more – must be experts at perspective-taking (seeing a situation from another person’s point of view) on behalf of the intended customers.

Effective perspective-taking requires understanding the needs and goals of the population you intend to serve. But what’s even more important is to understand what makes people tick – how humans’ perceptions arise from interactions with their environment.

Accept – don’t fight – customers’ limitations

As Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in Psychological Observations (1851), "Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world". We all try to push beyond those limits in our own lives when we read, study, conduct research, or simply converse with an open mind with people whose worldviews differ from our own. And, we try to expand others’ fields of vision when we seek to explain, teach, or persuade.

Pushing our own limits is often a good thing to do, as is pushing others’ limits, in many contexts. But it’s a bad thing to do in the context of customer experience (CX). Instead of trying to push customers beyond their limits, experience design (XD) professionals strive to work within the limits of each user’s "field of vision," to use Schopenhauer’s term. Therefore, leading companies design their products, services, and related interactions in such a way that they require as little explanation as possible, thus making it easy for customers to use them in an easy, effective, and emotionally satisfying manner.


Affordances: What people can do with a product or service

This notion of what the user can do to make use of everything companies design is what XD professionals refer to as "affordances." The term, coined by psychologist James Gibson, refers to all possible interactions between an animal (such as a human) and its environment (including products and services). Gibson’s broad definition recognizes that, while the designer of a spoon may intend for people to use it to feed themselves (and others), users also have the option of using it in a game, as a paperweight, a crude weapon, or whatever else they can imagine.

Human-computer interaction (HCI) pioneer Don Norman later introduced the term to the world of design but narrowed the psychological definition of "affordance" to include only those uses that the designer intends or that are obviously visible to the user: "For designers, their visibility is critical: visible affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. A flat plate mounted on a door affords pushing. Knobs afford turning, pushing, and pulling. Slots are for inserting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing." More importantly, Norman also distinguished affordances from what he chose to call signifiers (adapting the term from semiotics, i.e. the study of signs and symbols).

An affordance is the "what you can do" relationship between a person and a thing. A signifier is a property of the thing that makes it clear to users what its affordances are. A signifier might be, for example, a visual cue in a user interface (UI) that indicates whether a UI element can be clicked, tapped, swiped, etc., or a sound that indicates that a digital voice assistant has begun listening for input in the form of speech from a human user.


The mechanisms of people’s perceptions

So how do people discover, process, and use affordances? The best answers to this question are derived from the latest scientific research into human cognition, psychology, and behavior.

One of the pioneers applying this research to designing experiences is John Whalen. In his book Design for How People Think: Using Brain Science to Build Better Products (2019), Whalen explains that six "minds" are at work when customers have experiences (i.e. interact) with companies and their products and services (see Figure 1).


These six minds each contribute in their own way to how people perceive an experience – varying step by step as it unfolds:


  • Vision/Attention – Which aspects of an object, environment (including employees), or UI do customers focus on, and when?
  • Wayfinding – Do customers understand how to navigate through the features and functions of the experience – whether physical or digital?
  • Language – If an experience includes text or speech, do customers expect or look for certain words or phrases? Are those clear?
  • Memory – Is the experience consistent with customers’ expectations based on what they remember of similar experiences in the past?
  • Decision-Making – What choices do customers have to make throughout the experience? And how do they make them?
  • Emotion – What feelings do customers have at each step and how do feelings fuse into an overall enduring emotion about the experience?

Whalen’s book goes into detail about the latest findings on how each of these six minds functions and how companies can improve their XD capabilities to make the most of this new understanding.


Designing for the largest possible portion of your target audience

There is another important consideration to take into account when designing experiences based on a better understanding of how cognition works. Many companies tend to design experiences for what they consider their "average" customer. But this is a mistake. Why? Because there is no such thing as an average customer. There are typically wide variations among people in any target market (different "fields of vision," to use Schopenhauer’s phrase), including differences in how they form perceptions.

This is the reason many companies are increasingly prioritizing inclusive design. Forrester defines inclusive design as “designing experiences that are effective, easy, and emotionally positive for all customers in a target market by factoring in variations in customer age, ability, language, culture, gender, and other traits”. (See "The Inclusive Design Imperative: Win And Retain More Customers" by Gina Bhawalkar, 2019.) These variations affect how experiences shape perceptions and are therefore crucial for companies to factor into their design work.


Coping with the complexity of human perception

Do companies really need to delve into these complicated fields that – until now – have been mostly the province of academia and scientific research institutions? The answer is: Yes.

To get a better grasp on this, consider how digital technologies and the internet have gradually become essential to doing business over the past few decades. Many companies balked at the novel challenge of acquiring the expertise needed to build customer relationship management (CRM) systems, websites, apps, and the like. But some firms (both established ones and start-ups) embraced the change quickly, making the most of these technologies in order to serve their customers better. Those that did so established a solid lead compared with competitors that dragged their feet – and in some cases, these leaders have won out entirely in their markets.

The same will happen with companies that recognize the value of understanding the science of human perception and apply it to designing experiences. They will be able to outpace their competition in retaining customers and attracting new ones.


How companies can improve understanding of human perception

To respond successfully to the digital revolution, companies have had to boost their technological expertise. Similarly, companies will have to increase their expertise in the new understanding of how perceptions arise from experiences.

But how can they achieve this? In the same way that companies over the past few decades have elevated their technology expertise: by hiring trained experts from cognitive neurophysiology and related fields, like neuroscience and linguistics. And by contracting with specialized consultancies that help with designing experiences and training employees (especially those employees involved in designing these experiences).

The help with design that these consultancies offer will come in the form of either design collaboration with the company or design work done entirely on its behalf. Smart executives will prefer to keep their own employees closely and collaboratively involved in this work, to ensure that they build the expertise of their own workforce in this newly important domain.

Over time, business-education curricula (such as MBA programs) will begin to include training in the essentials of human cognition, to prepare graduates for careers as executives that will increasingly require a sound knowledge of this subject. In a similar fashion, design-education programs will incorporate more and more in-depth education about human cognition, psychology, decision-making, and related fields.


Applying human perception to writing

In the realm of user experience, one crucial domain where all companies can begin to implement better design is in their language interactions with customers. Writing is a form of XD. Many of the experiences that companies design involve extensive use of language in both long and extremely short forms. For example:


  • Product documentation
  • Text labels on UI elements such as digital buttons, links, and the like in UIs, as well as their physical equivalents
  • Speech elements used for digital voice interfaces based on technologies like Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant, and Siri
  • Content marketing writing
  • Marketing campaign communications

When customers read text or hear speech as part of the products and services (and related elements) that companies design, those are crucial parts of the experience.

This is already reflected in how companies write their language content. The best among them use well-established principles of information architecture as well as textual design techniques that are consistent with a basic understanding of how the brain processes language. For example:


  • The best writers intuitively avoid creating what cognitive scientists call "garden path" sentences. Consider this example: "We painted the wall with cracks." Most people reading this sentence for the first time expect the word "with" to be followed by a reference to a kind of paint, so the word "cracks" seems to be an error. But the majority of people then realize that "with" is ambiguous and can also be followed by a word that refers to an attribute of the wall rather than to something applied to the wall. Experiments that track eye movements while subjects read sentences like this one show that the subjects’ gazes skip backward after reading the word "cracks" to reread the sentence.
  • High-level structural choices about layout and how to use and phrase headings and subheadings effectively make it easier for readers to skim content efficiently (as explained by Barbara Minto in her book The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking and Problem Solving, 2010).

New findings about human cognition will advance our understanding of what good writing is and how to effectively adapt it to reading or hearing, to the context of the experience, to the intended audience for that text or speech content, and to their needs and goals.

Many companies that design digital voice experiences, for example, are already employing linguists to learn how human conversations unfold – including turn-taking, contextual cues, ambiguity resolution, and more.


The future of experience design

The field of XD is becoming more important than ever to business success, and our growing understanding of human cognition is making it both more complex and more powerful. But as companies go deeper into applying these findings to how they design customer experiences, they will sometimes face stark choices between their own immediate, short-term financial gains and their customers’ well-being. There are three important points to keep in mind about this dilemma:

It’s not a new dilemma. Since humans began engaging in trade and commerce, many individuals and businesses have profited by tricking their customers – convincing them to buy products and services that were not in their best interest. Although the tricksters’ reputations often suffered as a result, others continued to do the same. Today, these practices – where companies give themselves license to design experiences that, while legal, are predatory – are sometimes called "dark patterns". They result in experiences that attract customers in the short term, thus providing short-term benefits for the company but damaging the customers’ well-being in the long term. Good examples of this are smartphone apps that are deliberately designed to become addictive, therefore yielding more revenue from ad impressions. In a similar vein, many companies are using high-pressure and deceptive sales tactics.

A deeper understanding of what makes people tick will give companies more power to intentionally help as well as to intentionally hurt their customers’ well-being. And history shows that many will not resist the lure of short-term gains that can arise from deploying dark patterns. But others will seize the many opportunities that arise at the intersection between the company’s best interests and its customers’ best interests. They will favor long-term rather than short-term interests for the simple reason that customers’ well-being and loyalty are both about the long term. Some might even strive for transparency, shedding light on the cognitive patterns they are tapping into – and thus earn customers’ trust and loyalty.

There is reason to be optimistic about the future of customer experiences because companies that guide their design choices by prioritizing their own long-term success will, by doing so, benefit customers in the long term too.

It’s worth considering the position of Apple, which is known for its excellence at design and its deep understanding of what makes people tick — and also for being consistently in the upper echelons of the world’s most valuable publicly traded companies. It is the record holder by this measure, having reached a market capitalization of 1.1 trillion USD in November 2018, which no other company has yet exceeded at this point. As Apple CEO Tim Cook put it during an interview the year before: "I care very much about our users, and I strongly believe that if they’re happy over the long term, other things will take care of [themselves]… But we don’t really look at the stock, you know? Because for us, it’s about the long term. And so we’re very much focused on long-term shareholder value, but not the short-term kind of stuff."

Companies that invest in mastering the new understanding of how the mind works and what makes people tick, and that apply this understanding to designing experiences that benefit the maximum number of customers over the long term, will themselves reap the rewards in the form of sustained growth and success.