“The psychology of engagement” - Mo Syed at UX People

 by Martin Belam, 5 December 2011

At the end of November Kings Place hosted UX People, organised by Zebra People. Here are my notes from one of the sessions...

“Design is complex in a mathematical sense. You could design an infinite number of things” - Mo Syed at UX People

Mo Syed gave one of those talks that reminds me that I haven’t read as much about psychology as I probably should have, but that I’ve picked an awful lot up by osmosis along the way.

Mo showed how one of the basic principles of existence - if you spend more energy finding food than you get out of the food you die - applied to the online world. His talk was full of examples of removing friction from processes to get users to their end goal faster.

Simple tricks like aligning the path through a form in order to stop the eyes having to wander around or the mouse having to zip about can reduce the amount of time it takes to make a purchase.

He showed the Amazon homepage as an example of a ruthlessly optimised website design, with a scanning pattern in the F-Shape that emerges so often when you eye-track people looking both at print or digital products.

He compared the elegance of Apple’s online store, where the products are up-front-and-centre with Maplins another electrical goods retailer. Their hero promotion taking up all the space above the fold was about reserving items to be collected in store. It screamed out to the user “don’t buy on the web, come visit our shop instead.”

Information foraging theory teaches us that people will continue to look for something whilst there are cues that they are getting closer to their goal. This is true in the physical retail world as well as in the virtual world. There is a reason that boutiques selling wedding dresses are not designed the same as Primark said Mo.

He also cautioned against overloading the user with choices. “We want to buy something we are happy with. That is not the same as buying the best thing” he reminded us.

Mo Syed talked about how cognitive bias affects decisions making. We cannot help it, but as humans we make associations between different pieces of information just due to their proximity. An £11 dinner dish looks better value for money if it appears under a promo for a whopping great platter of food costing £110, and studies have found that people will estimate the value of items to be worth a higher price if they themselves have just written down an unrelated high number.

When asked what he thought about “dark patterns”, Mo said seeing this psychology stuff at work “makes your stomach churn a bit, because you feel like someone is manipulating you”. However, he argued, whenever you communicate something you have to take a position, and your choice of words and imagery should be conscious. If you are not designing with an awareness of these aspects of human behaviour, then you can’t design with a specific outcome in mind. In that case, Mo argues, you can “only roll the dice”.


Next week I’ll have the last of my notes from the sessions at UX People - Leisa Reichelt’s passionate and inspiring talk about “Strategic User Experience”.

Keep up to date on my new blog