What’s Your Perception Strategy? (Why It’s NOT All About Content) – A 2012 IA Summit Podcast with Stephen P. Anderson

Sean Carmichael

November 14th, 2012

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[ Transcript Available ]

(Originally posted at the IA Summit Library)

If we focus too much on content, we ignore what we know about how our associative brain comes to makes sense new information. Think about how many people respond before reading past the first sentence of an email, or how a magazine article doesn’t get the same reaction when displayed in HTML. Or consider how knowing the author of a publication influences your judgement of that content.

Picking up from the session Stephen P. Anderson gave last year on “The Stories We Construct” (a biological look at the narratives that influence behavior), this session focuses on how we come to perceive—and respond to— information. From phantom limbs to magicians fooling our senses, Stephen proposes a model that makes sense of how we truly experience information. Practical? You’ll leave with a deep understanding of everything UX is about and an awareness of common practices that don’t account for this knowledge.

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Full Transcript.


Stephen Anderson: OK, it’s 1:45. We’ll go ahead and get started on time. Just a quick introduction so there is context for everything I’m about to talk about. My name is Stephen P. Anderson, and I help companies with product strategy and design needs. Most recently or for the past nine months that’s tended to be startups in the educational technology space. I’ve been working with a couple of really wonderful startups out in Palo Alto doing some great things in education.

My interests, starting about three or four years ago, started veering into psychology and what we can learn about the human brain and human behavior to the extent they can influence what I do every day as an interaction designer. As a learning project and a way to make sense of all these things I created a deck of cards called The Mental Notes Card Deck.

You’ll see little cards fly up throughout this presentation. All you need to know is those are single ideas from psychology. So if you see those pop in, that’s what those are. That’s a card deck I created about two years ago. Then that led to a book that I wrote earlier this summer, or it was published earlier this summer, called “Seductive Interaction Design.”

It’s really about that initial encounter, that initial engagement on the website or web app and how we actually get people to stick around long enough to see the value that we have in our services.

So with that said, I will talk a lot about psychology. I’ll talk a lot about cognition, neuroscience. I find these topics fascinating, but this is not anything I was formally trained in. At the end of the day I’m a designer. That’s who I am, what I love. But in order to become a better designer I recognized that I needed to learn more about these things that really are about human behavior.

So that’s my disclaimer, so if your background is in cognitive neuroscience or something like that and I get some details wrong, you can slap me afterwards. In fact, I invite you to. All right. So given what I’m going to be talking about today and that it could be controversial, I thought we’d start with something that’s not controversial that we can all agree on, and that’s chocolate.

All right. Raise your hand if you like chocolate. All right. [laughs] Good. Most of you. Before I came here I was asking a few friends, some foodie friends. I was telling them about what I was going to do. I was asking them, “Can you recommend some local artisan chocolate place in New Orleans, particularly some that have a local flavor?” One of my friends wrote me back, and he recommended two places. One of them that really stood out was this.

He said, “The first chocolatier that comes to mind is Sucré. The owner/chef Tariq Hanna is considered one of the top chocolate and pastry chefs in the U. S. A. and is known for his unique chocolates.” I was like, [snaps] “That’s it. That’s the one I want.” So I went there earlier this week and bought some chocolates for the workshop I did. Went back yesterday and bought some that I’m going to hand out in a few minutes for a lucky 32 of you because this chocolate’s…

[laughter]

Stephen: …quite expensive, OK? But they’re local. They make the chocolate here. They used to make it in their shop, but now they have a separate facility where they make it. But it’s all made daily. It’s made fresh, good ingredients, and they have a local flavor as well. A lot of their things they make try to incorporate salts from the Avery salt mines, for example, or some of the local New Orleans flavors.

There are some pictures of the shop and the chef right there. They’re not just chocolates. They’re known for their macaroons as well. In fact, small world. A good friend of mine back in Dallas, who has really good taste in food said, “Oh, yeah. I just ordered some macaroons from them.” [laughs] I was like, “OK.”

So I went there, great place. Of course, I did what any obsessive person would do before I went there. I searched on the Internet to see what was said about them. This place, Sucré, was named one of the country’s top 10 pastry chefs, or actually the chef was, by “Dessert Professionals” magazine. Yelp gave it four stars, 200 plus reviews.

This is the headline that really sealed the deal for me. “Tariq Hanna, the New Willy Wonka.” Then he has won a couple times on some of those TLC cooking shows. He’s won there. So that’s a little bit about the place and the head chocolatier there. The two chocolates I selected, the first one is called The Avery, and this is their most popular chocolate. In fact, if you go to their website, there’s a video showing how they make it and everything.

It’s a caramel milk chocolate ganache coated in dark chocolate and topped with a touch of sea salt. It’s named the “Avery” because the sea salt that’s mixed in and topped actually comes from the Avery Island nearby.

The other one, the person who I was asking for recommendations. She said this was her favorite. So, the Avery’s the most popular. The Meuniere is her favorite, and I tried it. Wow! It was one of those that’s really remarkable and stood out. It’s brown butter folded into a white chocolate ganache, coated in a dark chocolate. It’s very phenomenal.

I wish I could buy one for everyone, but again, this is probably $80 of chocolate in this little box here. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to start it on the front row and if you guys just it down — those of you who are brave enough to sit in the front will actually get some of this.

I think there are 16 of each.

Now, I realize if you’re sitting in the second or third row back, you’re like, “Ah, this sucks!” Right? It’s not quite the same if I did stop at the Walgreens around the corner. [laughter] I got some Doves and I got some Hershey’s Kisses, so you guys can go ahead and grab. Experiment. See if you can tell the difference, yeah? I think you can, by the way. So you guys can just open those and pass them around.

All right. So, as you’re tasting these, as you can see, it’s not really about the chocolate. In fact, by the time you eat this, it’s going to taste phenomenal — those of you on the front row who are going to enjoy this.

And there are lots of reasons why. There’s the story, obviously, and everything that wrapped around it. There’s the packaging. Did you guys see that? The packaging that it came in. There are things like the fact that I hinted at the price. We have this idea called “value attribution” where if something’s priced higher, we tend to assume it’s going to be better. The fact I introduced the inferior chocolates actually makes this chocolate taste better, right? Behavioral economics has proven this time and time again.

So there are all these other things besides that bite of chocolate itself that are going to influence your perceptions of the chocolate. In fact, if we step back, and take a very light look at what’s going on, you have all those things. Your experience of the chocolates. Those of you who are enjoying this.

There are all these things that are going to contribute to your experience of the chocolate, but that is very different from the reality of the chocolate, the chocolate that’s out there. And so that’s kind of the first principle I want to mention is that your brain constructs an experience of reality, and so there’s the reality, the objective truth out there. And then there’s your simulation of it.

Every time you experience something, it’s a simulation of whatever’s out there. And philosophers and neuroscientists have debated what is out there, and the nature of reality. I’m not going to go there. But that’s kind of the basic idea. And we know or we create these simulations based on things that come through our senses. I’ll come back to this in just a minute.

But the other point I want to point out, and this is kind of fundamental to everything that I’m going to be talking about, is that perception is not a process of active absorption. We usually think of perceiving stuff and we just absorb or we perceive the world around us. What we know from neuroscience and from brain scans and such is that perception is a process of active construction based on prior experiences and memories.

When you eat that chocolate, it’s not just the experience of the taste but it’s all these memories of chocolate you’ve had in the past, memories that I’ve just introduced or things that are triggered by what I’ve said.

In fact, the packaging. How many of you looked at that packaging and maybe thought of another luxury brand. I see lots of heads nodding. Yeah. It’s not just a dozen or so association. What neuroscience will tell us is at every second we’re bombarded with potentially four billion points of stimulus and the brain can process about 2,000 of those in a second. That’s what’s called a neural map. We can think that perception is your neural map of reality.

The best metaphor for this is those concept models we draw where we draw bubbles and lines to connect those. That’s essentially what happens inside our brains to create this simulation of reality. It’s not that our brain can pick apart bits and pieces but it consumes the whole of it.

Let me give you a very simple of that. Can everyone read this? It says ‘the cat’ but you’ll notice the H and the A are the identical letter forms. Why is it that we’re able to resolve this? Our brains will look at all the input and say aha, I see the pattern. Our brain looks at things as a whole.

That’s some opening themes or opening ideas I wanted to get out. Obviously I’m not talking about chocolate. Let’s replace chocolate with content and I think you’ll see where this is going. Why I proposed this presentation in the first place is there’s a phrase that’s used a lot. The people who usually say it, the people who talk about content strategy, they don’t mean how it’s often interpreted or heard by other people.

It’s this phrase it’s all about content. That’s true to the extent that everything starts with content or content is the core, but it doesn’t end with content. It’s not all about content. In fact, in terms of experience it’s not all about content.

I was sitting in a conference last summer and someone was talking and they made the statement it’s all about content and of course everyone started tweeting that. That was the thing that was being re-tweeted. I was like oh geez. I tweeted back and said content doesn’t exist independent of some presentation form. Even type choice and delivery mode effects perception of delivery content.

The typeface that you set a document will affect our perception of those words. It’ll affect the comprehension of those words. It’ll affect so many things. That’s just type. That’s just typography.

I wrote this which I didn’t expect anyone to understand. I said language plus presentation plus other forms of content equal perception and meaning. What I meant by that, what I had in my head, was a model like this. Think of a yin-yang symbol. You have content at the center and then you have presentation. So, content is the what, presentation is the how it is presented to you.

Outside of that you have external context. That is where is the context that this is taking place, who, where, when, and why. A lot of times when we think of context we think of those very external things, but there’s also the internal context.

As you’re sampling this chocolate it may be that you’re sick to your stomach, or you’ve had a bad experience with chocolate in the past, or you’re in a bad mood today, or a great mood. All these things internally are going to affect your perception of the content itself.

That’s the basis of where I want to start from. We know this. We see this in everyday life. If you’ve watched, or you know about the TV show, “The Voice,” what is the point of tension, what is the drama in that show?

It’s a show kind of like “American Idol” but instead of being able to see the performers, your back is to the performers so you can just hear their voice. The dramatic part about that is when they all rotate the chairs around they get to see the person they’ve been hearing.

What they’re doing is they’re removing one of the senses, the sense of sight, and you’re left to rely on the voice and maybe audience reactions to form your perceptions. That’s the drama of this show.

There have been many studies of wine labels and wine bottles. Some of the ones that have been most fascinating to me are ones that show that when you put a more expensive label on the exact same bottle of wine it’s not that we perceive it as being better but by perceiving we actually believe it to be better.

On our brain scans it will show that people believed the wine actually tasted better. It did, from a scientific perspective.

This is Joshua Bell, very famous violinist. People will pay hundreds of dollars to go see him perform.

There was an experiment done a few years ago where he went on a subway corner, wearing a cap and playing on his $3.5 million Stradivarius collecting change, and hundreds of people walked by. In fact I think one or two stopped and thought, “Wow, he sounds like a pretty talented guy.”

But you have taken this performer, the content, you’ve taken it out of the context, the big auditoriums, and the stadiums where people come to see him.

Even the legal area, lawyers are starting to pay attention to the typography used, and are starting to understand typography and how it affects perception. Not just Comic Sans versus Times, but here we’ve got a typeface that was created for legal documents and here we’ve got Times New Roman.

A little history by the way, I didn’t know this but Times New Roman was created for the newspaper. It was designed to facilitate fast reading, which means it’s not good for comprehension. It doesn’t help people to slow down and actually absorb the words they’re reading.

You look at these and you’re like, “Wow, what are the differences?” There are subtle differences that effect our perception and our understanding of that content.

“Wired” magazine commented on a research study that was done just a few months ago and the headline was, “Easily Pronounced Names May Make People More Likeable.” This was a quote from it. “Though it may seem impossible and certainly inadvisable to judge a person by their name, a new study suggests our brains try anyway. The more pronounceable a person’s name is, the more likely people are to favor them.”

This makes sense from a cognitive perspective. It’s called familiarity bias where you have a bias or a preference for things that we’re familiar to or exposed to. Share one more personal example. Big “Star Wars” fan. Do we have any “Star Wars” fans out there? Here’s the exact same product but what’s different, in fact I took the photo with my phone because I saw this and I was like I love this product, I want to buy this product for my kid, the one on the left.

The one on the right, that’s all the new stuff. It’s the exact same toy, it’s just the packaging. The packaging brought me back to my youth and that was the toy I wanted at Christmas. Again, packaging there affecting my perceptions.

Marketers know this. In fact, there’s a branch of marketing right now that’s very popular called nostalgic marketing or nostalgia where they’re tapping into this desire for things as they were.

Let’s go back and have a little more scientific view of the brain, go a little bit deeper, a little more technical. I had that model. We talked about the stimulus or the world out there. That is reality, but we don’t all see the same reality. That’s because what we experience is filtered through our senses.

I think traditional belief has been that there are five senses but more recently over the years, over the decades, we’ve discovered there are other senses we have and they don’t work in isolation, they all work in consort together to create our simulation or our perception of reality which is organized in our brain.

There are actually steps that happen. There’s iconic memory, things that happen in milliseconds before things happen in our conscious. Then there’s short term memory where we make all the decisions and we hold information for a time. Then there’s long term memory which is those bits and pieces we have stored away, indexed maybe, that we pull back into our short term memory to make decisions.

Let me simplify this for the purpose of the next 30 minutes. You have reality, which is the world out there, and you have the world which you perceive which is a simulation. This is how I’m going to divide up the next 30 minutes. I’m going to spend some time talking about the world out there and that’ll be the easiest stuff to get some practical use out of.

Then I’m going to shift gears and talk about the world that you perceive and some interesting studies on there. Let’s zoom out, take a macro view, and talk about the world out there. To do this, I actually want to go back to the year 2006 to Vancouver to the very first IA summit that I attended back then.

I had submitted a presentation to the IA summit. It got rejected but they said would you like to present it as a poster instead? I was like yeah, OK. I created this poster and this was my first IA summit back in 2006 and I was talking about this poster that I’ll show you in a minute. By the way, what did I just do there with that sound? I was appealing to multiple senses so it’s sensory appeal or multi-sensory appeal. Again, there are lots of studies behind that.

This was the poster and I created this poster, this model, to answer some questions that I was wrestling with. These were the questions. There was a big debate. Is good experience simply about task accomplishment? Should everything we do be invisible? Look at Craigslist, look at Google, they’re just fine. Isn’t that a great experience? That was one conversation.

There was another conversations talking about the experience economy and holding up things like Chuck E Cheese and talking about how you’re not really paying for the pizza, you’re paying for the experience. In that sense, experience was a very theatrical thing. That was their definition.

Then you had experiences like people talking about a product and the service and the experience of it so Starbucks is an experience. Build-A-Bear. How many of you are familiar with Build-A-Bear Workshop? You basically pay more to go in and build your own bear. Kids love this because it is self-expression, they’re getting to personalize their bear, pick out which one, how much stuffing they put in it, pick their clothes, and all this stuff. That caused me to ask, what are we really buying here? It’s not the bear but it’s something I created, it is almost like a work of art in a way, or some self-expression.

Then, there’s the whole neuro-marketing stuff, which was getting a lot of buzz in 2006 and the whole idea that we really aren’t in control of our minds and our beliefs. And there was some studies done with Coke and Pepsi and they would do a brain scan when there was a blind taste test and they would show people the brand and the brain would actually rewire and change. And you would actually perceive of that drink differently after you saw the brand. Some pretty scary stuff.

There was an article that had been posted as well by a fairly prominent UX person. And he came down very hard on this new ad, talking about Folgers, the new packaging. He’s like, that’s not part of the experience. In fact, he stated, packaging was not part of the user experience, which I found odd, when you think about things like chocolate, right, that we’ve talking about.

So, you had all these phrases going around, user experience, the experience economy, designing for experiences, brand experiences, experience design strategy, customer experience management, experiential marketing. We could probably add onto this. And my question was, they’ve all got a grain of truth in them. No one’s exactly wrong. But how do we resolve all these? Because they’re all presented as if they’re conflicting ideas.

And so, this is the poster I came up with, this big three foot by four foot poster, lots of detail. But I want to walk through just the building of it. And so, if you have pen and paper and you can sketch this, this would be a good time to do that. You might find this useful for seeing how all the pieces fit together.

So, really, it’s three circles. There’s a bull’s-eye in the middle and then two rings coming out from that. So, the bull’s-eye is the direct experience, whether it’s a service or a product or what have you, it’s that direct interaction, the thing that happens in the middle.

And then, you have the presentation layer, which is how it’s presented to you, how it’s packaged, like the packaging, how I introduced the chocolate. And then, you have the communications layer, how you became aware of it. So, direct, indirect, and then how you became aware of.

And there are more details, I put some words in here. So, if you want to look at the slides afterwards, you can dive a little bit deeper. Another way to put it is the core interaction, the presentation layer, and the communications layer that made you aware of it.

So that’s the first piece, is having those three rings labeled. The next piece is think of the upper half and the bottom half as being company space and personal space. So company space is everything that clearly the company is doing, telling, building, and constructing. The personal space is my personal construct, my social network, or my friends, people not affiliated with the company.

This line, if you want to make it a little bit blurry or wavy, that’s fine because in this age of social media it’s hard to tell sometimes who’s a shill for the company and who’s not. Although I think when we find out someone’s been paid for something, that line still very much exists for us. So the company space, the personal space. Bottom half of this.

Then finally there are two streams to this. Originally, I called it rational and emotional. At EI, someone corrected me and said, “You really should call it ‘transactional’ and ‘engaging.’” I was like, “OK. I don’t know what I’m talking about, so that sounds good.” You have transactional engaging. What I mean by that is there are going to be things that are more direct in appealing to reason and things that are more emotional in creating a feeling in us.

So the rational side. What does this do? How much does it cost? What are the features? The emotional. How does this make me feel? Does this provide meaning or pleasure? Those types of things. So you put it all together, and you end up with a model like this.

What I love about this is suddenly everything that a company does, aside from finance and operational stuff, design-wise, engineering-wise, marketing-wise, advertising, PR, fits in this model. You see how it all overlays together. I would say companies that are really, really good at orchestrating this create phenomenal experiences because they’re shaping not only great products but our perceptions of those products.

Apple would be a perfect example of this, a company who has mastered all of these areas and has them working together well. So here’s the poster. Now there was a bit of insight that I think I stumbled onto or lucked into that I wasn’t thinking about nearly to the degree I am now. That is, when you zoom into the center of the ring, the core experience, I put down here you have the thing itself, whatever that is. Then I put perceptions of the thing.

Again, the reality of the thing, the simulation of the thing.

My language has changed but at that time I knew that someone might like this piece of chocolate and someone else may hate it so there’s a perception piece that plays into everything.

With that, I’d like to turn the corner. Let’s go from the world out there, which is this macro view of everything that’s together, and now let’s zoom into the world we perceive or the world you perceive. As I go through this, I want you to think about associations. With every example I’m going to show, I want you to think about associations.

I’m not going to trick you with anything here. There’s no trick test or anything. I’m putting all these together starting with simpler ideas and building up to more complex, with the purpose of focusing on the associations, that neural map, those neural networks of connections we’re making and understanding how or why our brain works.

We’ll start out with something really simple. What is this we’re looking at? A. Yes. There are no trick questions. This is the letter A. The question I would ask is how do you know that this is the letter A? It seems like a simply, obvious thing, but this is actually a big issue for artificial intelligence and getting computer systems to recognize an object as an A.

If you can say a 16 point Helvetica A is an A they’ll recognize that A, but if you change the font the computer will say I don’t know what that is because it’s not a pattern match to what I’ve seen. You see this in young kids learning to write. When kids have learned block letters and you maybe introduce cursive they’re like I don’t know what this is. They haven’t made that connection yet, but over time the boundary object or our definition of what an A is expands so we can look at all these and say yeah, these are all A’s.

We’ve seen the common attributes, we’ve seen the patterns. Our brain is doing some pattern matching. Simple enough, right? Make sense?

This is a fun project that a guy pulled together. He took these famous logos and he abstracted them simply to circles and colors. That’s all it is. Let’s play a quick pattern matching game. Which brand is this? Come on, this is the easy one. Subway, yeah. This is Subway. How about this one? Dunkin Donuts. How about this one? American Airlines.

This one? The colors are a bit off. Fed Ex, yeah. How did you know that? You were making associations based on circles, the number of circles, and colors. That was it. Even with that, you were able to do some pattern matching between I recognize this, I’ve seen it before, and I recognize this. I can make sense of it.

The next example I would say is rated PG-13 for nudity in a sexual situation. If you want to turn your eyes, that’s fine. I just wanted to give you a heads up. This is an optical illusion someone created and I would be willing to bet most of you see two lovers, a guy behind a gal. Here’s the interesting thing, though, if you show this picture to young children you know what they see? They see dolphins. That’s because they’re used to seeing dolphins all the time. That’s their mental image. That’s the thing they’re mapping to. Some adults never see the dolphins. If you didn’t see the dolphins, I colored them in here for you.

Continuing with this theme of how our brain tries to match things together. Let’s look at things that are occasionally interesting combinations. Why is this funny? It’s funny because there’s a headline for an article and there’s a picture and we see it and our brains, again, take everything at once and try to resolve it.

This is why if you say the wrong word or maybe your color’s off in your slides or something it’s all feeding into perceptions and the perceptions people have. This is funny when you get weird juxtapositions. In fact, that’s the scientific word for it, juxtaposition, when you have those things. I threw in a few more because they were funny. Man jumps off ferry. Here’s one. Win a dream. There’s one. Yeah.

By the way, I got these from a humor site and I hope there’s no one offended by this next one. This next one isn’t juxtaposition, but when you look at it I think something’s going to happen. I’ll just leave it up here for a second. Is anyone constructing a story? The reason you would construct a story is because you have prior experiences and stories that you’re drawing on.

You see some stuff that causes tension that you don’t know the answer to and you’re making some inferences, some judgments, may be right or may be completely wrong, and you’re layering a story to explain some of the things that are going on in this image. Again, that’s bringing those experiences to resolve what you see here.

Here’s another one. Remember Susan Boyle on the UK version of “American Idol”? Her story is interesting because when she came out you have this cat lady and you have her dressed in the dress she was wearing and all that, what did people expect? They didn’t expect anything. They expected another bad performer. Then she started singing and her voice was just angelic.

That caught everyone off guard because the story that they had overlaid and projected on her, just from those few seconds of her walking out, was suddenly challenged. Our brains are attracted to points of contrast or things that surprise us. Those are the things that stand out.

In fact, I threw in contrast here because usually we think of contrast being perceptual contrast like red standing out against green, but contrast in the cognitive sense also means cognitive contrast, ideas that stand out against each other. Here was a perfect example of that, where our expectations weren’t in line with the reality and what happened next.

Let’s shift the language a bit. This is a study that’s been done where they’ll put people in front of a video, they’ll watch a car crash and a wreck, and after the fact they’ll ask people how fast was the car going when it hit the other car and people will write down a number. They’ll ask a separate group of people how fast was the car going when it smashed into the other car? You want to guess which group generally writes the higher number? The second one.

This is something that magicians exploit all the time. It’s called the fallacy of memory. Our memories, again, aren’t a filed away thing that we pull forward. Our memories are constructed in the moment. If a magician says something then changes the language a bit later on they’re changing our perceptions, and then we’re forgetting what they really said earlier on.

This study, and there have been numerous studies like this, just the changing of the phrasing suddenly we remember it being faster than it really was by changing the word from hit to smashed into. This is an example of priming. Priming, anchoring sometimes in the picture, but we’re priming people with our language.

Survey questions. This is a survey that was done in this series and they would say, “How happy are you?” and most people would say, “Pretty happy,” or whatever. Then they would say, “How often are you dating?” and people would answer that question and they found very little correlation between those two questions.

Anyone guess what they did next? They switched the questions. They would ask people, “How often are you dating?” and people would answer a number. They would say, “Yeah? How happy are you?” What they found is a significantly higher correlation. When you prime people with how often do you date first and people answer not very much, then they answer the very next question with I must not be very happy because I’m not dating very often.

None of this is new, by the way. This is communications 101. This is advertising 101. In the ’60s there was a paper written that talked about how we perceive of things and one of the ideas in there was this idea of coded iconic messages. In this ad for this packaged spaghetti, they talk about the coded iconic messages. Those are things like using the colors of Italy, the green and the red, those colors, the white, putting things in a basket suggests freshness, having the tomatoes there suggests this is fresh, this is good.

This is coded iconic messages. They’re not overt, they’re not direct, but they’re in there suggesting this is a fresh Italian pasta, you should buy it.

We also have other interesting things. I’m going to show you a version of this image next and I want to see if you can spot the differences. If you’ve ever heard Bill Scott talk, he talks about this in his discussions. This is the first image. Here it is again. Raise your hand if you spotted the differences here. A few of you. Let me go back. There is the original. Let me do it again. More of you spotted it that time.

Alright. Here’s what’s happening. Without the pause, let me just do them back to back. Here’s the image. There it is. Do you see it? What we’re doing is when there’s that pause, when there’s that break, our brain basically resets and then the next image is something totally new, but when they’re back to back we can see the contrast. In this case, the contrast happens over time. We can spot the change easily.

In Bill Scott’s presentations, when he’s talking about rich applications, he’s talking about if we have a pause or a reload that causes a flicker like this people may not see what’s happening. Very critical to designing rich interactions.

Moving on. How many of you have seen these photos like that? These look like the toy cars, right? Hot Wheels or Matchbox. Same here. This looks like a model that someone built. I’ve enjoyed looking at these and musing on that. The reason they look like miniatures is our brains, biologically, are tuned to put things out of focus that are very close to us.

Let’s talk about depth of field. The closer an object is, the more narrow your range of focus becomes. Our brains spent a lifetime, or at least youth for the farsighted, associating a tight depth of field with closeness. Now when you take something that’s obviously from the top of a building or something like that and we add the stuff that we normally, in reality, only see when it’s up close it starts to mess with our mental perceptions.

The only way I can see this, the only way my brain can resolve this, is if it was a miniature version. Makes sense?

Now we’re going to get into some of the really freaky stuff. I’m just going to have to read the text so I don’t butcher anything. You’re not going to believe me otherwise. This is a study that explored literal and metaphorical mix-ups and confusions and how things that have nothing to do with each other can get mixed up. I’ll just read this.

Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters believing they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Completely unrelated, subjects then read a description of some individual.

Students who had recently been cradling the warm beverage were far likely to judge the fictitious character as warm and friendly than those that held the iced coffee. A lot of you are thinking this doesn’t make sense, but if you think of the theme that I’m trying to reinforce throughout this, which is our brain has all of these bits floating around in here and we’re trying to make sense of these things, then you can understand.

Holding that warm beverage, we have this concept of warm floating in our head. Now we’re judging someone. Whether it’s unrelated or not, we have that concept of warm as an idea and we have this person and we’re more likely, at least according to the study, to attribute that to that person.

The next one I was just going to talk about it assuming a lot of people have been exposed to it and I started asking people and a lot of people haven’t yet. I’ll let you be subjects in this next experiment. The instructions are pretty simple. You’re going to watch a video and some people are going to be passing a basketball and your job is to count how many times the players wearing white pass the basketball.

Again, the instructions are count how many times the players wearing white pass the basketball and I’ll quiz you at the end, see if you got the right number.

[silence]

Stephen: Are you keeping count? How many passes did you count? The correct answer was 15. There were 15 passes. The real question, did you see the gorilla? The fascinating thing is when they’ve done this study…yeah, most of you didn’t. Watch. There’s the gorilla.

[laughter]

Stephen: There’s a correlation between those who accurately count how many times the ball gets passed and those who didn’t spot the gorilla. If you were really focused and counting, chances are you didn’t spot the gorilla. This is what the study has shown. It went on to a book. They’ve done other similar studies.

I’ve found even more fascinating is they’ve repeated the studies many times and done actual eye tracking to see if your eye just doesn’t see the gorilla, and the fascinating thing is your eye actually lands on the gorilla several times, so it’s not a perception issue but it’s a cognition issue, that simulation I’m talking about. They call this unintentional blindness.

The idea that stems from this is that visual perception is more than photons entering your eyes and activating your brain. You know, the things we see.

To truly see, you must pay attention, right? So we see what we’re looking for. It doesn’t mean it’s in front of our eyes. I told you I would start off with the easy stuff and then build you up to the whoa stuff. Right? Here was my aha moment from all this when I was stepping back. This was just a few months ago, and this may sound trivial.

Some of you guys make sure there’s enthusiasm. I did, but I was looking at all this stuff and even in my book I wrote about how we react affectively to something, how we react cognitively to things. I did have a section where I talk about how we make associations. But I started laying these things out. By the way, the context was an InfoVis workshop I was doing. I started laying these out.

On one end you have things like aesthetic associations, and those would be things like shapes, colors, movement. In nature if something’s round versus sharp it suggests it’s going to be nice and friendly versus it’s going to cut us. This cuts across language even. This is something called the Bouba/Kiki Effect.

One of these is named Bouba. One of these is named Kiki, and 99.9 percent of the people usually name one of these as Kiki and one of these as Bouba. Completely made-up words, completely made-up shapes. Anyone want to guess which one is Kiki?

Audience: The left one.

Stephen: The one on the left. Which one’s Bouba? Yeah, it goes to the shape of the mouth. This also ties into studies on synesthesia, which is where we mix up senses. Then you have perceived affordances. So if I show you two shapes, like this in this case, which one of these is closer? Yeah, the one on the right. Why? Because it overlaps. It’s tapping into our perceived affordances.

So then you have things like symbiotics, iconography, so we see symbols, and they represent ideas. Then you have conceptual metaphors. I threw in the iceberg because I think we’ve all sat through a presentation where the iceberg model was used to explain an idea. Then you have on this other end narratives and stories, and there’s a lot of talk now around why narratives and stories are so powerful.

I started looking at these. I’m like, “You know what? These are all the exact same thing. These all share something in common, and that is this associative function of the brain or pattern matching.” You’re starting off with the very small things, which is, “Oh, this is sharp in nature and would cut me. Therefore, this is sharp in this other context” to these narratives, which are really big constructions.

That’s why narratives are so powerful because with just a few words you can invoke something that has a whole bunch pre-loaded into it, and you can bring that into someone’s consciousness. All right, so at this point with a few minutes left you’re thinking, “OK, this is really interesting. Is there any practical application for all this stuff?” I would say yes.

One, I would say things like Twitter and things like Quora have afforded wonderful opportunities to test out how people perceive and respond to stuff. Let me give you an example with Quora, which is the question and answer site. I started noticing some patterns and hacking my own answers or hacking people’s perceptions.

So this is a lot of the answers you’ll see at the bottom of a question on Quora. They’re very short. Sometimes a single sentence, sometimes a few plus sentences but paragraph answers, and those tend to sift to the bottom. Then you’ll see someone who wrote a very verbose answer, not a really long one but maybe four or five paragraphs, and those will sometimes float in the middle.

Then what I’ve been doing hacking with people’s perceptions, content’s still there, so I’m not making a comment on my content. But I’ll write these longer things, but I’ll break them into bullets. They’re easily scanned. What I found is that those types of answers, not just my own but others, are the ones that tend to shoot up on Quora. They get the most votes.

Well, why would this be? Well, if you think about perceptions, short answer means poor quality, right? Verbose answer means too much effort for me to read, and they’re too long-winded to structure their ideas. But hey, a lengthy digestible answer that’s broken into bullets — ah, just right. It’s kind of like Goldilocks, right? I mean, just the right thing.

Then there are exceptions. People will throw in images and that shoots all the way to the top, right? Or the person who writes a book — that shoots to the top, because we assume if they’ve written a book on this, they’re probably an authority. They have some knowledge.

You might remember this. When Steve Jobs announced the iPad, he did something very intentional. He had a couch or had a chair set up and he sat and reclined and put the iPad there. This is an example of positive mimicry. He was modeling or showing us the intended use of the iPad. It was introducing this new concept, the third computer, and he wanted to show people this passive consumption of content, how it would be used.

Let’s say you write a really long email to me. And I send you back a very short, terse three word response. “Sounds great,” right? Or “Go with it.” You might think, “Hmm. I put a lot of time into that.” You might be offended. What if it has this attached to it? [laughter] Suddenly that changes your perceptions. “Sent from my iPhone.”

When I’m talking, I often talk about my family and my kids, but I’m very careful to say “my kids” or “my boys.” I’m very careful not to say “four boys.” I have four boys, because the moment I say “four boys” — I can see it happening right now. You’re like, “Holy crap! He’s got four boys!” [laughter]

And you’ve completely forgotten whatever it is I have to say, so I’m very conscious about my language, because I know what’s going to happen in your brain and what you’re going to start thinking about.

Also with my boys — I’m proud to say I have boys who love their vegetables, and you know, a lot of people make jokes about eating your veggies and things, and those don’t work with my kids, because they love their veggies. At a very young age I’ve always tried to frame veggies as a great thing and something all people love. Even when we go to the salad bar and they have, like, cucumber slices. I called them “cucumber chips.”

Now what am I doing? [laughter] Yeah, you know what I’m doing, right? I’m hacking with their perceptions. Those are chips! Right? They’re cucumber chips. And the kids love chips. Oh, OK. Cucumber chips. They love their cucumbers.

This is a concept I presented at the IA Summit a few years ago, called “The Fundamentals of Experience Design.” Beyond the content itself and the idea, which is, again, the core, when I chose to visually represent this, I spent hours looking for the right illustration, and I wanted something that would look like something you would see in a science textbook, for example. Like a diagram, a technical illustration. I wanted that academic association. I’m not from [inaudible] , right? I’m not going to make that claim, but in the presentation, in the packaging of my content, I was making those intentional aesthetic associations.

Let me show you one more example and I’ll wrap things up. When I’m presenting new ideas, and they may not be novel or something but they may be unfamiliar to people, recognizing that they may not have that story or mental construct in their head, oftentimes if it’s an idea I want to push through or push through enough I can get good, constructive feedback, I will anchor it with something they are familiar with.

We had this idea. I was labeling the activity stream, pitching it to a client, and I said it’s really not all that new. It’s like instant messaging or news feed. Now I had these perceptual anchors and they were able to then see how my idea was different from that. This happens in the movie industry all the time, where people have the five word pitch. It’s going to be like “Die Hard with girls” or something, whatever it is. There’s an anchor there.

Two points so far. The world out there doesn’t equal the world we perceive. Then, two, attention and awareness are hackable and sometimes we hack it without intending to, like the example of the person who sent out the invite.

If you’re still thinking this sounds a bit esoteric, those examples sounded interesting but I don’t know how this is going to help me in my work, I just want to point out a few other professions where they actively think about this and it’s part of their current scene and what they do every day.

Obviously magicians do this every day. This is a quote from Teller from an article a couple months ago. He said, “The core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experience and perception.” If you start looking into the world of magic, yeah there’s some sleight of hand stuff there, but a lot of what they do is hacking with our perceptual sense and our cognitive senses. They’re hacking with attention and awareness. They’re hacking our brains to create these illusions.

Film. Film has a long history of it. It’s not just the subject being filmed but how it’s filmed, how it’s edited, what they choose to crop into will shape our perceptions. In this case, this opening to “Road to Perdition” the guy is riding from the right to the left. In western society, we’re used to everything moving from left to right. This creates a sense of tension and tells you something about the character before the movie has even started, before you’ve even met him. They’re hacking our perceptions.

Disney. If you’ve been to Disney World you know that when you walk in that main street looks really long and Cinderella’s castle looks huge and majestic. They’re using something called forced perception to make things look bigger than they really are. If you were actually to climb up on top of that castle you would find the door wouldn’t even be at your waist. It looks grand and creates an impression.

Same with their mountains. These are actually really short pine trees that they plant at the top, the little short three and four and five foot things, but it looks like a big, tall pine tree from where you’re at. Even in the hotel in the hotel industry, why do we have this box boxing up the stuff in our bathroom? It goes back to Gestalt psychology and things that are enclosed actually see simpler and easier.

Final one from photography, photographers do all sorts of really subtle tricks to drive our eye to focus on something. Here’s a case where I just took a flat photo, didn’t do anything to it. Here’s the after version. In the previous version, it’s hard to see on this screen, but it’s easy to have your eye drawn here or to the buckle or other things because they were all points of contrast.

In the after version, I applied a blur around it and your eye is driven to the center of the boxes, which is where I wanted to direct you. That’s hacking perceptions.

You have all these professions that already do it. Education, architecture, photography, magicians. My question is what about UX? Are we hacking these perceptions? Are we using this as an additive to our tool set?

I’m going to leave you with two questions. One, what are you doing to intentionally shape perceptions in your work? If this is something you want to pursue more and know a little bit more, I pulled together nine takeaways. If I had to bullet down to eight bullets or nine bullets this is what I wrote.

I’ll just comment on one because I wanted to end on something funny. One of the ideas I wrote down here is need to explore the space between the lines. Consider all possible associations, intended or unintended.

Let me give you an example of a company or an organization that spent a lot of money on a re-brand and it wasn’t until it was out in the public that they saw an association they hadn’t thought of. This is the Office of Government Commerce in the UK and this was the redesign logo that they came up with. Very clean, very modern, all that.

It wasn’t until it was out in the public and on printed stuff until people actually saw it turned on its side.

[laughter]

Stephen: If you can see that.

[laughter]

Stephen: They saw what other people were perceiving, and they had never seen what was going horizontal.

So I want to close with this question. What is your perception strategy? All of these slides will be online tomorrow morning, and then the bottom of every slide is linked to the research or the paper’s reference. So, thank you very much.

[applause]

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