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Decision-Making in UX: The Two-System-Concept (Part 1)

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When it comes to intuition, Daniel Kahneman explains it best: “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.” 

As a UX designer, this quote from Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” resonates with me for one reason in particular: If you apply it to Kahneman’s two-system concept — which argues that two systems in your brain are in a constant battle to control your actions and behaviors — it gives scientific credence to our daily efforts.

As UX designers, our job is to build intuitive, innovative and overall easy-to-use digital platforms. However, these words have no foundational meaning unless we understand what heuristics influence their outcomes. So let’s explore that.


Kahneman’s Two-System Concept:

To start, let’s look at the aforementioned two-system brain concept. According to Kahneman’s definition:

System 1 – Operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control

System 2 – Is slow, effortful, infrequent, calculating and houses our ability to reason.

After reading both of these descriptions, can you guess which system favors intuition? If you guessed System 1, you’re right. Now, let’s merge Kahneman’s definition of System 1 with his definition of intuition:

A system that automatically and quickly recognizes past experiences with little or no effort.

This is exactly what a UX designer wants to achieve by creating an intuitive experience. We’re merely looking to match, or prime, a person for recognition and when that recognition works, it’s automatic and effortless. The person just knows how to interact with a particular object based on their previous experiences.


What is Priming?

Innovation is how we create trends, break molds and challenge the status quo. But if you consider our two-system approach, introducing people to a new innovative pattern forces them into a System 2 process where they have to exert effort to learn and understand a new pattern. This becomes a difficult balance: Too much of a new and unfamiliar pattern, and your users are less likely to buy in; too little of a change, and you’re not really setting yourself apart from competitors. 

We’ve all seen trend after trend in the design world become mainstays: Gradient design, metro design, flat design, parallax scrolling and thousands of other patterns. Why did these trends succeed? Because people became accustomed to these patterns through repetition, and have learned to expect them. This is where priming comes in.

In information architecture, we use priming to present data and point users to important information in a system. It’s the basis for how we create navigation structures and how we organize and categorize data tables. Since most users are looking to consume content, it’s critical to present content in a way that makes sense to them that’s why most of our efforts are focused on how we can associate, or prime, users to consume that content. For science, let’s do a priming experiment.

Read the following sentence: “He took his daughter to the aquarium.”

Now finish this word:  _ISH

Through priming, my guess is you spelled the word “fish.” If the first sentence said something about a genie in a bottle, your answer probably would have been “wish.” That’s your System 1 process making those associations without effort. 

When we build out an information architecture or develop a visual design, we’re looking for those very same associations: If we categorize a navigation structure, we would want the associative links whether it’s a parallel or hierarchical association to be strong. If we develop a visual design, we would want visual cues to prime the user for that particular interaction.

Looking at a navigation hierarchy, we could create something like this:

Fishing->Saltwater->Reels->Fly Reels->Inshore

By priming users in “search” mode with each category, they expect to find what they’re looking for the deeper they go in the hierarchy. 

Visually, we can prime users to expect an interaction as well. Rating stars are great examples:

Rate your experience.


By telling the user to rate their experience and displaying the star outlines, you’re priming the user to interact with it. Like previous trends, the rating stars were once a new concept — but with priming, the outlines became successful and familiar.

Identifying those links and priming users for new design patterns is how we introduce innovation. It’s something new to the user, but through priming, we can introduce it to them in a way that’s effortless and familiar. Furthermore, the less effort we force on the user, the easier it is for their brains to process information in general. This is called cognitive easing. When users get into a state of cognitive easing, it creates an environment where things just “flow” because it’s easy.


Building Intuitive Applications for the ‘Cognitively Busy’

Years ago, I helped a manufacturer redesign its business application as part of a consulting project. I shadowed the workers on-site, observing their physical work and learning how software aided their day-to-day activities. After having many discussions with the plant workers, the recurring comment I received was to “make the application easy.”

At first, I made light of these comments. But after reviewing additional feedback, I realized that the physical aspect of their job took a slice out of their cognitive pie. It depleted their systems.

These workers stand every day, using their hands to operate dangerous machinery, so they needed an easy-to-use application that allowed them to focus on safe production. We needed to provide them the information they wanted, when they needed it, and we needed to do it safely. In other words, we needed to manage their cognitive load, and build an application entirely geared for System 1. 

Sometimes, we have to put ourselves into a physical environment to understand limitations like these. People can be mentally, physically or emotionally cognitively busy, but you won’t truly understand these things unless you see it or hear about it in person. This is why I strongly encourage UX designers to implement empathy mapping for each project. After all you need to empathize with your customers’ needs first before you can build a product they love. 


Stay Tuned for System 2

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this blog, it’s this: Intuition isn’t magic or a buzzword. It’s automatic recognition of our past experiences that effortlessly aids our current experiences. Designing for intuition is central to great design because when users expect something, we shouldn’t deliver the unexpected. But if we put forth the effort to learn about people in their environments, we can deliver an even better experience than they expected in the first place. 

We have a lot more to cover, so subscribe to our blog and stay tuned for part two of the “Decision-Making in UX: The Two-System-Concept” series. I’ll be diving in the heuristics that impact and influence System 1, then introducing you to System 2.


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