It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract attention to the specific web content that makes your site unique. Using concepts such as classical conditioning can help us understand how users think and act to amplify this attention and focus on the most important content.
Pavlov, Conditioning & User Experience
The concept of conditioning behavior is so well-known it’s practically pop culture. Pavlov showed that dogs could learn to salivate when he rang a bell, and since then, many of us have tried to adapt his theories for humans. In The Big Bang Theory episode where Sheldon uses positive reinforcement in an attempt to change Penny’s behavior, he gives her a chocolate every time she does something the way he wants. Wouldn’t it be best if our users felt rewarded for learning to navigate the digital spaces we design?
Inferences and Icons
Most of us have developed a series of involuntary but conditioned responses in how we use a website. We no longer have to learn the Internet anew with every session. From checking messages to making calls, calling up a map or taking a picture, icons allow us to organize a large set of tasks even using small devices. Many of these icons have become so conditioned into our set of Internet responses that they have become different kinds of inferences in the design world.
The best way to understand an inference is to think of a door. Some handles tell us to push, some handles tell us to pull. We don’t stop to think about this, and if the door reacts in a different-than-expected manner we get frustrated.
On web pages, there are certain icons we expect to behave much like these door handles. An ‘X’ in an upper right hand corner will close a window. A radio button implies a single choice while a checkbox can imply many. Links are underlined and buttons should be clickable. All of these inferences evoke a Pavlovian response in our behavior and should allow us to focus on the content of a site.
Don’t Push Users Away
What happens to content when our inferences are misleading? Much like the frustration involved with a door that only pulls open when the handle looks like it should be pushed, it can be embarrassing or even cause a customer to leave. In order to maximize the time we get from our users, it is important to keep the focus away from how the site works and draw attention to the message you want to send.
Steps to maximize the conditioning your users already have:
The fight for attention is exactly why we have to maximize the tools we already have. Basic browsing and icon navigation have become classically conditioned behaviors that we can capitalize on to bring focus to our specific content message.
(Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on the Content Insight blog.)