Designing for confusion

written by   Arvid Janson

For some reason, we tend to think of ourselves as rational people. It’s stupid of course – we’re not. Some economists may try to tell you otherwise, but the fact remains that most of the time we are all just acting on instinct, without ever even noticing it.

While we are very capable of making rational decisions, we seldom use that opportunity, and for a very good reason: the world is just to complex for us to be able to take the time to actually analyze our surroundings all of the time. When we see a four wheeled metal box, we don’t take the time to analyze each part individually, instead we look at the whole package and decide that it’s probably some sort of car.

We interpret our surroundings based on our previous experiences, and only when we really need to do so we take the time to analyze a problem. The latter is obviously a much much slower process, and it’s especially inefficient if said car is rushing right towards us.

In 2000 psychologists Stanovich and West coined the term Two System Thinking, in an attempt to explain how these two processes work together in solving problems.

Two system thinking

For some unthinkable reason Stanovich and West decided to call these two systems System 1 and System 2, where System 1 represents our instinctual, emotional thinking and System 2 is the rational part of our brains.

System 1 is active most of of the time, and it is constantly feeding us with information about what is going on in our surroundings. It’s great at drawing quick conclusions, and while the results are often good approximations they sometimes tend to misfire quite badly, especially when it comes to statistics and similar problems. But, as System 1 requires very little effort, it’s conclusions feels very familiar and we tend to accept it’s results with little to no afterthought.

System 2 on the other hand is used to actually do concrete calculations, to weigh options against each other, and to balance probabilities. The results are often quite good, but as they require so much effort, we tend to avoid actually using it. Also, these calculations do have another drawback – besides just taking a long time. As a result of trying to weigh all options against each other, System 2 often trap us in a state, where we fail reach a conclusive result – and in turn end up choosing nothing.

While it’s quite possible for us to override the results of System 1, we seldom do so – it’s just to much work.

System 1 in web design

In web design, we try to cater towards System 1 as often as possible. In those cases, however, we try to steer clear of the term “System 1” and try to chalk it up as “providing good usability”. In reality though, what we’re trying to achieve when we talk about usability is quite simple: we use familiar design patterns, colors, and obvious call-to-actions in ways that makes the user (unconsciously) know what to do – without thinking.

As previously mentioned – while System 1 may be limited in it’s analytic ability, it’s extremely powerful in it’s persuasion ability. So much in fact, that this has actually become a problem for online marketers. One of the primary functions for System 1 throughout evolution has been to prioritize what we need to focus on in our surroundings. A roaring lion chasing you typically gets pretty high priority, while a tree in a pine forrest typically gets down voted.

As users brains become more and more accustomed to what typical components of webpages look like, we start to rate the contents without even knowing it: suddenly banner ads have become the trees of the internet. We know that they’re there, but we don’t even see them as System 1 is telling us that square boxes are unimportant.

Activating System 2 on purpuse

So to circumvent this problem marketers are using more or less discrete methods of forcing users to watch ads. Some are wonderfully annoying, and include – but are not limited to – popups, expanding ads, and interstitial ads. But, one of the more interesting approaches may actually be Facebook’s recently launched Timeline. While pitched as a way of tracking all mayor life events since you were born, the seemingly confusing layout may actually have a hidden agenda.

By grouping different types of material in similar boxes, laid out in an irregular manner, Facebook is forcing us to actually start to think about the content – which inadvertently may trigger System 2 in our brains. And, in theory: with our internet shields down, we are once again susceptible to the adverts which were previously invisible. A concept that should be quite interesting to companies who are purchasing said advertising spots, and also to Facebook, who presumably gets paid per click.

If this is made on purpose it’s really a quite ingenious approach to reinvigorate the banner ad – and for that I salute you Mr Zuckerberg.