Visceral Response to Dishonesty in Experience Design

Evolution of XD Principles

Challenging XD conventions

A column by Dashiel Neimark
August 28, 2017

“You manifest your own reality.” You’ve probably heard some version of this message before. It’s almost become a cliché. But what does it really mean? Can you literally create your own reality? Well, no. You can’t simply change the physical world in which you live at the snap of your fingers. But what you can change is your mental state—and that just might impact the world around you over time. For example, people’s interactions with digital products influence their mental state. So, as more and more customer experiences become digital experiences, UX designers have the opportunity to design experiences that can be a catalyst for emotionally positive chain reactions among customers.

Finding ways to positively influence your mental state has always been a worthy pursuit. So I have put a lot of thought into my self-improvement philosophy—and to tell you the truth—it feels very secondary to me whether the world around me changes to reflect my internal changes. I want positivity, and I want it now! The most instantaneous way to feel actual positive change is to double or triple up your internal response to the positive moments that either have occurred or could occur.

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To actually measure the success of someone’s life in terms of happy and unhappy moments, you’d have to pull that data from their brain—and the brain is a highly inaccurate form of data storage. Every time we recall and reconsolidate a memory, we are actually modifying the memory, then restoring it to our biological storage container. In communicating this fact, I’m presenting an amazing opportunity to people.

You see, the brain is a funny thing. It can be tricked. People who push clichés like “Focus on the good things in life, not the bad!” or “See the glass half full, not half empty!” are actually correct in their thinking. By just imagining a positive experience that you’ve had—or could have—in your life, you can literally manifest personal success in your brain from a chemical standpoint.

In a research paper titled “The Effects of Mental Simulation on Coping with Controllable Stressful Events,” researchers Inna Rivkin and Shelley Taylor explored the effectiveness of visualizing alternative outcomes for some of life’s painpoints. They state, “Translating experiences into concrete mental images also may improve well-being and adjustment to stressful events. Mental simulation is the imitative representation of real or imagined events.”

The authors go on to say: “Because mental simulation does not require an audience or a therapist, and because people commonly employ mental simulation spontaneously in their lives and thus are well-practiced in its use, it is a potentially valuable intervention for people dealing with stressful events in their lives.”

Mental simulation is a great tool for human beings. Although, if we are being honest, mental simulation is nothing more than telling yourself little white lies. By using mental simulation to cope with stressful experiences, we are visualizing another possible reality in place of our current reality and, in doing so, are escaping the truth—if just for a moment—replacing it with a preferred ideal state of reality.

Ignoring my visceral reaction to engaging in psychological tricks and emotional dishonesty, the reflective part of me thinks that this could be a very useful and positive tool—one with wide-ranging applicability.

How Does Mental Simulation Apply to UX Design?

While the implied applicability of this neurological trick is fairly broad, when I first discovered mental simulation, I immediately saw its potential application to digital experiences. Just as we can use mental simulation to visualize positive experiences for the sake of boosting our mental state in moments when we’re coping with negativity, we can, to some extent, mitigate digital painpoints that we cannot completely eliminate.

In UX design, we spend so much time trying to eliminate painpoints for the user. We try to predict how and why they will use a digital user interface, mapping out their journeys, their prior experiences, and their goals and concerns, as well as many other persona-specific intricacies. We do this so we can design an experience that is easy and enjoyable to use—that is, one that won’t require mental trickery to avoid unpleasant experiences.

Even so, despite all our efforts, there are very few panaceas in experience design. No matter how much design thinking you throw at a problem in an attempt to create more happy paths and eliminate unhappy paths, you will likely create some interactions that engender frustration. The question is: what level of the experience causes the frustration?

The Three Levels of an Experience

As a preface to my answering that question, let’s take a moment to review Don Norman’s “Three Levels of Design.” According to Norman, there are three levels of opinion formation for every experience we have: visceral, behavioral, and reflective, as shown in Figure 1. We form each level of opinion quite differently.

Figure 1—Three levels of experience
Three levels of experience

Visceral Experiences

Starting with the first level, our immediate response to an experience determines our visceral experience. What emotional triggers arise before you even have time to think? Are you pleased with the initial appearance, smell, or feel of any experience in which you are engaging? Does it immediately remind you of anything else—thereby evoking certain emotions by way of association?

Visceral reactions are like judging a book by its cover. Our initial sensory response is based less in logical reasoning than on how our own preconditioned mental models of the world clash or coincide with a new experience. For that reason, we have very little control over our visceral responses.

Behavioral Experiences

Behavioral experiences are quite different from our visceral responses. In this case, our reactions to a new experience are founded on empiricism, not based on our preconceptions. The behavioral level is all about forming opinions about our experiences in light of actions and how they aid or detract from our intended interactions.

Reflective Experiences

Reflective experiences occur when we have time to think about our visceral and behavioral responses. That is, once you leave a Web site, exit an app, or walk away from a touchscreen kiosk, how would you recall or describe your experience? The answer to this question typically blends the experience you just had with a user interface with your longer-term biases, preferences, concerns, proficiencies, deficiencies, goals, and motivations. Reflective experiences tend to be powerful indicators of the likelihood of repeat interactions.

Addressing All Three Levels of an Experience

Keeping this multifaceted view of user experiences in mind, it becomes easier to develop an effective plan for mitigating users’ painpoints and maximizing their satisfaction, as well as the usability of a digital—or non-digital—experience.

When addressing the behavioral and reflective levels of an experience, there simply are no tricks a UX designer can employ. You must engage in a user-centered design process, empathizing with your target users, learning as much about them as possible, and applying your insights in creating a rock-solid, usable experience that solves a genuine problem and helps users achieve their goals—all in an enjoyable, efficient way.

Of course, this is nothing new to UX designers. A design-thinking process should be the bread and butter of your design arsenal. What I believe may be new for a lot of folks though is the possibility of mentally simulating alternative realities, in ways that don’t cause the user to think the product designer is a crazy person or a liar—or both.

For example, if you’re designing a video game and want to eliminate the frustration of defeating a very difficult boss, you can’t simply make the boss easier to defeat or program a lightning strike to kill the boss and advance the user to the next level. That would be destructive to both the behavioral and reflective levels of the game’s experience.

But you can identify fleeting interactions that allow a momentary white lie—one that temporarily contradicts the longer-term messaging. The key is designing such white lies in a way that does not detract from the behavioral level of the experience.

So where should you inject these momentary, little white lies? Some user painpoints are easier to manipulate than others. Revisiting my bag of tricks for easing the user’s process of coping with worst-case scenarios, I realize there is one more: visceral dishonesty.

Visceral dishonesty is an effective method of manipulating a user’s overall internal review of a digital experience. There are two considerations when employing visceral dishonesty in experience design. Is the dishonesty blatant or subtle?

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Clash of Clans

My first example is a game called Clash of Clans. For those who aren’t familiar with Clash of Clans, it’s a mobile game that lets you earn loot, build up your army and resources, and wage war against other players. How much elixir and gold—the virtual currencies of the game—you can spend on leveling up your base’s buildings and armaments and expanding your army largely determines your success in the game. The game’s creators obviously designed it to keep people playing often and for prolonged periods so they can earn enough virtual loot to make such improvements. Although winning battles is also a point of gratification in Clash of Clans, seeing your gold and elixir levels rise is the most instantaneous form of gratification for players.

Players can earn virtual loot by successfully attacking other players’ bases and winning battles. Alternatively, they can simply wait for their base’s elixir and gold collectors—the structures that accumulate loot over time—to fill up, then tap them to take other players’ loot.

So, with all of this in mind, the experience designers for Clash of Clans have built in a form of visceral dishonesty: when players log into the game after being away for some period of time, their elixir and gold collectors have filled up, to some extent, with loot that they can instantly collect. Figure 2 shows the screen players typically see when they return to the game after being away.

Figure 2—A player’s base in Clash of Clans
A player’s base in Clash of Clans

Wow! The player has just logged in, and there are a dozen or so icons showing the gold and elixir that have accumulated on his base during his absence. This provides a visceral shock of joy. (If you’ve played the game, you know the feeling.) The player can click these icons to store away this loot.

Players’ earning this loot isn’t exactly a lie, but it is, in a sense, dishonest because it gives them the visceral impression that they are rich! They aren’t. Collecting all that loot helps, but it won’t make a player the king or queen of Clash of Clans. Accomplishing that requires a lot of time and effort—two things that occur at the behavioral level.

Nevertheless, this form of visceral dishonesty provides a brief, but powerful dopamine release every time players come back to the game. It makes them want to continue playing the game. Even though the behavioral level of the game requires more effort, players’ overall reflective experience takes into account both the behavioral level of strategizing and battling and the immediate, visceral gratification of coming back to find a bunch of elixir and gold collectors ready for them to drain.

Thus, a visceral experience that is pure ecstasy counters the painpoints of the behavioral level—the time and effort the player must expend. The reflective experience level comprises players’ experiences at both the visceral and the behavioral levels—and their experiences at the visceral level largely offset those at the behavioral level.

Abercrombie & Fitch

There is perhaps no domain in which visceral dishonesty is more endemic than in the fashion industry. Viscerally powerful visual marketing promises everything from sex appeal to popularity, wealth, and sophistication. Although I am using Abercrombie & Fitch as an example, there are many apparel companies that demonstrate this point.

Let’s quickly take a look at the image on the Abercrombie & Fitch home page, shown in Figure 3. What comes to mind? For me, among other things, I see youth, sexual appeal, and casual confidence. This is the visceral reaction that occurs when viewing the A&F home page. This image is front and center and the user experience quite intentional.

Figure 3—Abercrombie & Fitch home page
Abercrombie & Fitch home page

What happens when someone buys this shirt? Do they become any of those things? Probably not. The behavioral-level experience of buying and wearing A&F apparel does not result in any of those visceral feelings becoming the shopper’s reality. In this case, I think that those who consider the reflective-level experience with a critical eye will find that an excessive disparity between the visceral experience and the behavioral experience actually creates a very negative reflective experience, diminishing chances of repeat interactions. Don’t the experience designers and marketing gurus over at A&F care? Or have they discovered that focusing on the visceral experience is just far more important?

Empathy and the Three Levels of Experience

Experience designers should consider these questions:

  • What are my ethical beliefs in regard to manipulating levels of dishonesty at the three levels of the experience? How do these beliefs impact my design goals?
  • How would my target users weight each of these three levels? Are these users critically reflective? Or are they content with experiencing visceral dopamine releases over and over again?

I would argue that we live in a society that increasingly values visceral experience. However, we certainly cannot apply this generalization to all products and experiences. Just as we engage in user-empathy methods that let us create personas, journey maps, and process-flow diagrams, we might also think about creating some sort of visual-empathy asset that shows how our particular target audience values each of the three levels of experience. Figures 4 and 5 show empathy diagrams for our two examples. 

Figure 4—Clash of Clans empathy diagram
Clash of Clans empathy diagram
Figure 5—Abercrombie & Fitch empathy diagram
Abercrombie & Fitch empathy diagram

UX Consultant at Slalom Consulting

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Dashiel NeimarkDash designs usable, enjoyable digital experiences that are driven by research and guided by the needs and desires of internal and external stakeholders. In his work, he draws upon his past experience in startups, UX consulting, internships, and freelancing, as well as the wealth of UX knowledge he gained through his journey to earn an MS in HCI. From concept to launch, Dash incorporates Lean and full-cycle UX tools and methods. He is always excited by future opportunities to play his part in delivering innovative digital solutions.  Read More

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