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WebDev, UX & a Pinch of Fantasy

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100 Things Every Developer Should Know About People

With Barbaric Book Reviews I bring you interesting reviews and useful insights from awesome books that I have read. I also bring myself the magic of everlasting memory so that I don’t forget these tidbits of knowledge as I grow old and wither.

Some months ago my good friend and UX sorcerer Erik Claesson recommended me yet another UX-related book titled 100 Things Every Designer Should Know About People by Susan Weinschenk. I finished it a couple of days ago as I was flying back to Stockholm from the frozen confines of the north of Sweden (Luleå).

The world is frozen brrrrr

I thought it would be interesting to write a short article to summarize the things that I have learned from it. Some of them I already knew, since there are some recurring topics in UX and psychology literature, but some repetition never did no harm to anyone.

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The basic premise of the book is that, if you know how people work, what makes them tick, how a person sees, thinks, feels and decides then you are in a better position to design an effective *something* for them. And so the author explains how people work based on numerous research experiments, with many anecdotes and examples, and rounds it up with design advice. Within the book you will learn that:

People Remember Only Four Items at Once

You may or may not be surprised to know that we can only hold three or four things in working memory, and that, as long as we are not distracted and our information processing is not interfered with. (And now you may be wondering, as I do, how the heck were we able to ascend to global domination? Well, cats can only hold two to three items. That extra item gave us the edge).

The solution to this problem is to help our human users by chunking the information - grouping the information and providing in it chunks. Yeah, that’s how we do with telephone numbers:

7 2 3 0 2 2 5 1 5

is much harder to process than:


So whenever you are designing an application, try to limit the information you provide the user to four items at once (use progressive disclosure to provide only the information people need at the moment), or group the information in chunks.

It is interesting because I remember how, not so long ago when I started my career as a software developer, we designed an application to minimize the number of clicks that took to perform a particular task. Progressive disclosure, on the other hand, requires more clicks, but the book describes how less mental weight, less thinking provides a far better user experience even though it may require more clicking from the user part.

People Have To Use The Information To Make it Stick

We are programmers, we live in an ever-changing world where a library, framework, whole ecosystem appears, matures and disappears at the speed of lightning. So we are used to learn new stuff all the time. How do we best learn stuff? How do we move things from working memory into long-term memory and effectively learn them?

Well, memories are stored as patterns of connections between neurons. Whenever these neurons are activated then the connections strengthen. When we repeat the information enough times, the neurons form a firing trace that can be reused to retrieve a particular memory. This mechanism is how we learn: through repetition. The coolest thing here is that our brains are constantly changing and evolving as we learn and practice new stuff. Additionally, it is easier to learn something if we can associate it to something that we already know.

How can this help us when we design an application for our users? First, if we want our users to remember/learn something then we need to be repetitive, which can be achieved through consistency, or redundancy. Secondly, customer research can help us understand the current knowledge of our target audience and design our application in terms that relate to that same knowledge/schema and thus make it easier to understand.

People is Very Affected by Their Lizard Brain and Insticts of Survival

A constant theme throughtout the book is how the lizard brain (old brain, reptilian brain), the part of the brain involved with survival and whose main worries are food, sex and danger still has a huge impact in the way we behave and feel.

That’s why food and sex pictures catch our attention unconciously, why we like to have many choices or be autonomous so we can feel that we are in control and thus out of danger, how we feel at peace in pastoral settings when food supplies, protection and visibility are available to us.

I thought that was super interesting and I will try to catch myself in the future whenever my lizard brain tries to control my human body.

Smell Evoke Emotions and Memories

So the Thalamus is the part of the brain between the cerebral cortex and the midbrain. Among other things, it is in charge of processing sensory information, and so, it takes visual information from the eyes and it sends it to the visual cortex. All of the senses follow this mechanism but for the sense of smell.

The sense of smell my friend, sends its information to the amygdala, the part of the brain where emotional information is processed, and that’s why people react emotionally to smells. Additionally the amygdala sits beside the memory center of the brain, which cause smells to evoke memories.

Cool right? I just saw this very characteristic of how people feel been leveraged by a realtor on TV. While doing an open house showing, she:

  1. baked a cake provoking all prospective customers to instantly and automatically feel at home in that new house,
  2. and not only that, she also left open painting cans in strategic places which aroma would make customers think/feel of a new recently painted house (the house had not been repainted) and new beginnings…

Shrewd woman that was.

How to leverage this when we are building applications? Hmm I have no idea yet, but there’s some people building digital scent technologies and the iSmell (for real).

People Will Always Make Mistakes

Yes people will always make mistakes, and we as developers need to design our system in a way that people can recover from these mistakes. Either in a transparent way, like whenever there are errors/problems the system can recover itself without affecting the user (for instance, a mobile app transparently switching between online and offline modes when the connectivity disappears), or by using meaningful and helpful error messages that:

  • Tell a person what he or she did
  • Explain the problem
  • Instruct the person what to do next, how to correct the problem
  • Are written in active voice and in plain language
  • Show an example

And I am taking an example of the book here to illustrate this point (this will feel very familiar to you):

#402: Before the invoice can be paid it is necessary
that the invoice payment be later than the invoice create date

This message would be much more helpful in the following shape:

You entered an invoice payment date that is earlier
than the invoice create date. Check the dates and
reenter so that the invoice payment date is after
the invoice create date.

While in the topic of making mistakes the author also discusses how we make much more mistakes under stress, or when we are multitasking (which humans apparently cannot do, as much as my girlfriend would like to use that skill as a flag of woman superiority :) ). This was super interesting because I have never thought about my target user doing a call with a customer while using our application (multitasking), or in a stressful situation trying to get some data or something done quickly, and therefore I haven’t taken that into account when designing an application. In an ideal case, I would have taken this into account and designed these particular areas in the application that are used multitasking or under stress to be EXTRA simple and EXTRA easy to use. Good to know, for the future.

In Closing

Pretty interesting book that will teach you a lot of curious details of how we humans work and will make you reflect on how you can leverage this knowledge on human behavior when you develop your applications. Additionally, it will also provide you with lots of interesting anecdotes/stories that make good conversation topic and will make you look very smart (who doesn’t look smart when talking about the Thalamus). :)

Other cool stuff that you will learn are how:

  • people minds wander 30 percent of the time and what to do about it,
  • the more uncertain people are the more they defend their ideas, so the best way to change their believes is to get them to commit to something very small,
  • people create mental models and have expectations of how things should work, and that’s why it is good to do customer research so you can adapt your application conceptual model to that mental model of your target audience,
  • people process information best in story form and with anecdotes and examples,
  • time is relative and how it is mental processing that makes something seem to take a long time,
  • people filter information according to their own beliefs, and how you can never assume that what is glaringly obvious to you may be for your users,
  • people sustained attention lasts less than 10 minutes,
  • people are more motivated as they get closer to a goal, and how you can use the illusion of progress to motivate people,
  • people expect online interactions to follow social rules and that’s why it is not cool to ask a user for her credentials as soon as she comes to our website,
  • people thinks that other people are much more easily persuaded than oneself can be, whihch is also related to the want-to-be-in-control feature of the lizard brain
  • etc, etc and etc :)

The author has another book called Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click that is often cited in this book and looks like a it could be a good continuation. We will see… I will not be so easily persuaded… :)

Jaime González García

Written by Jaime González García , dad, husband, software engineer, ux designer, amateur pixel artist, tinkerer and master of the arcane arts. You can also find him on Twitter jabbering about random stuff.Jaime González García