Great design is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.  

This bears repeating: Great design, a product that looks good and works well, is essential for success. Software has matured enough that you simply will not succeed with an ugly, ill-conceived product. In 2021, a beautiful and well-functioning app is just table stakes. Here’s why.

Over the last year or so, I've had multiple conversations (like this one) with Evan LaPointe, Founder of CORE Sciences, and what follows are the groundbreaking talking points anyone in product design must be aware of…

Beyond base software expectations, the reason product success often hinges on design has a lot to do with the basic principles of neuroscience. When people (e.g. your customers) are given the choice between two competing products with similar capabilities, the better looking and more intuitive one almost always wins. 

Understanding the underlying neuroscience of human decision making will empower your team to make more appealing digital products that work in harmony with normal human brain function instead of against it. A distinct advantage over your competition. 


Shower Thoughts: A Window into Brain Function 

Have you ever wondered why you have profound, odd, or just plain out-of-the-ordinary thoughts in the shower? It’s because your shower is so routine — shampoo, rinse, conditioner, rinse, and so on. Your brain isn’t perceiving any new or interesting information so it’s free to wander. Now, if a spider appeared on the lid of your face wash, your brain would snap to attention. That’s new (and important) information. Here’s a simplified look a what’s happening in your brain.

Basic Brain Activity, Demystified 

This shower scenario illustrates the widely-accepted, well-studied fundamentals of neuroscience. We don’t want to get too technical, so we’ll point to just three of the main brain regions at play here:

  • First stop, The Lizard Brain: The journey through the Lizard Brain happens almost instantly and completely involuntarily. You don’t control how this part of your brain responds to new stimulus, but it plays a massive role in how you respond to the world around you.
    • First, the Thalamus looks at all incoming information and decides whether it’s interesting and worth paying attention to. This is the part that detects motion, changes in color, etc. When something moves, makes a noise, or changes in some way, your Thalamus notices and passes that information along.
    • Then, the Amygdala gets information the Thalamus passes along and decides whether this new information is potentially threatening. If so, it triggers your fight or flight response and pumps adrenaline into your blood stream.
    • Then the Hippocampus takes over. Think of it as the librarian for your brain. It’s responsible for taking the input your Thalamus and Amygdala have passed along, matching that input to previous experiences, and serving up references to the relevant experiences and knowledge. It tells you whether something is familiar and intuitive.
  • Assuming your Amygdala hasn’t pumped your brain full of adrenaline, the information is passed to your Prefrontal Cortex. This is your high-functioning brain, your decision-making engine. This is the part you actually think with, and is where you rationally decide what to do about the information received.

If your shower proceeds as usual, your lizard brain rests and your thoughts flow freely. But when the spider shows up, your Thalamus sends that information to the Amygdala, your Amygdala decides the spider is a threat, and before you know it, you’re hopping out of the shower. The Prefrontal Cortex doesn’t need to get involved.

Now, if you’re not afraid of spiders, your lizard brain will just pass along the new information about the spider on your face wash all the way to your prefrontal cortex for analysis and decision making. 

Effective Design Uses Neuroscience to Its Advantage 

We promise this is more than a middle school science lesson; it does relate to digital product design.  

Successful, well-designed products walk a fine line. They provide users with enough new, interesting information that their brains are triggered to think more deeply (buy, or at least pursue your product further), but not so much unfamiliar information that their threat responses are activated, dismissing your product outright.

And remember, brains are conditioned to equate beauty (in addition to the familiarity) with safety and trustworthiness. All reasons why we’re willing to die on this ‘good design is non-negotiable’ hill. 

An Aside on C-Suite Buy-In

Many people in the C-Suite famously ask for proof of the ROI of design. This is outdated thinking. Neuroscience tells us with a very high-degree of certainty how people respond to new stimuli. Not using this science to guide your design decisions is akin to intentionally avoiding using GAAP for your financials. Why would you ignore something that gives you very high odds of success?

While you might not be able create a spreadsheet with data to quantify the ROI, you can easily understand the underlying neuroscience — every brain makes decisions this way, including the CEO. 

It’s important to know that design ego isn’t driving the need for great design. Great design is what works with your customers’ brains to elevate your product above the competition. If you ignore how humans think, you’re making a big mistake before you’re even out of the gate.

Innovating with Human Nature in Mind

If you’re wondering if innovation is possible when there’s so little room for novelty before you trip the fear receptors — yes, it’s totally possible. But innovation in digital product design happens at the edges, not in one fell swoop. 

You can’t, for instance, break the expected pattern of a ‘submit’ button on a form. You can, however, add three magic little moving dots, informing users (by triggering the Thalamus) that something is happening while they wait for confirmation. 

Using brain science to guide your design decisions is the best way to create and improve your digital products. It doesn’t matter if you’re creating something new or improving something already in market. The real innovation is creating something that works with the human brain, not against it.

Design Systems Make Science-Backed Products Possible  

One solution to incorporating brain science into your design process is — drumroll please — a design system.  

A design system is a single source of truth for your product’s appearance, behavior, and functionality. It’s a repository of common visual and technical elements that your teams can pull from with each new feature design or upgrade. 

Importantly, a design system ensures efficiency and consistency across departments. And it’s this consistency that allows the neuroscience principles to work naturally in the background as you iterate. 

A design system creates this consistency because your teams use established design elements (a navigation menu, for example) across all projects. So, the interface will look and function the same everywhere across your app. It won’t alarm your Amygdala, and your Hippocampus can easily tell you how to use it. Since the brain favors familiarity, your consistent design won’t trigger alarms and it will become more delightful to your customers.

What’s more, a design system all but eliminates the uncertainty many product managers face when their product gets passed to other teams. That’s because a design system safeguards the original, agreed-upon methods for everyone to use. And when you don’t have to worry if typography or interaction patterns will be consistent, you can stay focused on other ways delight, but not scare, your users. 

We Can Help

If you need assistance creating and implementing a design system, we can help. Not only do we routinely consult on design systems, we also have a deep understanding of the principles of neuroscience and how to work with them. With the science guiding decisions and the design system ensuring they are used correctly, your products will easily outperform the competitors and create real value for your customers, and your business.