Subliminal learning for user experience

Remember this hilarious moment from ‘friends’, when Rachel helped Chandler with an audio recording to break his smoking habit! That was a subliminal message giving.

The source of our first impressions, likes or dislikes, or the body language we understand instinctively, correlates to something inside our sub / unconscious mind. This mechanism helps us reduce our cognitive load- pressure on our conscious mind; By processing this data subconsciously and quickly we react the way we do. For an experience designer the information stored in the subconscious / unconscious mind of a user is like a goldmine: It would not only help designers to understand users and come up with solutions, but also allow them to influence and change the user behavior.

“Subliminal learning” has two aspects, one is to know about the instinctive behavior, and the other is to induce it. Instinctive behaviour is sometimes very mysterious, puzzling and individualistic; it has hidden a huge spectrum of information. To tap this information and to learn from it, its very important for designers to understand and empathize with users, because instinctive behavior often defies logic and reasoning. Empathizing with people, taking them into confidence will increase the chances of them expressing openly and freely, which would provide designers insights into user preferences and behaviours.

Just as an individual has unconscious mind — a reservoir of life experiences — every individual also inherits the collective unconscious — that is all that the previous generations have experienced collectively, expressed through cultures, customs and traditions. Every individual is also a member of a society or community exhibiting specific belief systems which too has great influence on how people act or react. People react differently when they are alone or when they are with their loved ones and differently on social occasions. It is worth considering talking to people at their homes as well as at public places. It is important for designers to observe users in all situations, and the information thus derived would be invaluable.

The “iceberg” image of the unconscious mind was first conceived by Ernest Hemingway. This model can help us understand how human mind works. We have a very limited conscious compared to the rest of the mind we are unaware of. All the instinctive reactions, emotions, fears etc are driven by the large unknown part of our mind. Can we view our unconscious mind as clearly as we can view our conscious mind? The spiritualists answer this in affirmative, but it is outside the scope of this writing. However, what is significant for designers is to realize that observation of superficial user behaviour is not enough; it is far more important to develop insights into the deep unconscious motivations, because subliminal indicators are gateways to instinctive human behaviour and subliminal messages are powerful tools to influence minds.

Inducing behaviour is comparatively difficult. Whoever attempts to penetrate new thoughts, need to study the mind at a whole new level. For instance, which colors provoke what thoughts? How do people react to a specific sound / music? What are their reactions to primitive imagery? What do they believe? Knowledge about this could help designers to figure out and induce certain ideas in people’s mind. Classic example of induced subliminal behaviour is the influence of “coca-cola”:ad.

Red is used as the brand color symbolising vigour, energy, freshness and the serial arrangement of the dark coloured bottles suggest movement towards infinity. it promises to satisfy insatiable thirst. The high tempo music is in perfect consonance with the theme. People who get exposed to the bombarded ad subconsciously start liking the product. But how does it happen? Red color represents bold excitement and confidence, people prefer it because of that. The advertisement is presented in a very refreshing way, new actors, exciting exotic and trilling locations and eventually how this product fulfills the need of the thirst.

As designers, inducing thoughts, changing behaviour is a task which can be accomplished only through visualisation of the user experience. Creating product around behavioral guidelines, understanding the target audience / demographics are intertwined. Designers need to know how specific colors, images or sounds would affect perception. Re-branding also helps companies to re-induce people. Look at Apple inc. every evolution had a reason and this evolution is necessary as the demographics keep on changing.

‘Apple’ symbolizes the biblical ‘fruit of knowledge’ and at once evokes the garden of Eden. The Apple’s first logo establishes this. The second logo focuses on apple, the fruit, partly eaten (as though by Adam and Eve). The third logo eliminates color and makes the fruit a real transparent symbol of knowledge.

Subliminal learning is probably one of the most important aspects of design. We try our best to understand the people for whom we are designing the product. But do we really ‘know’ them? Have we considered their instinctive behaviour? In recent years designers have realized importance of subliminal learning and have attempted to implement it. It will be really intriguing to see where the path would lead us to.



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