Designing for the gut

This post has been translated to Belorussian by Patricia Clausnitzer.

I want you to watch this video from a recent Sarah Palin rally (hat tip: Marshall Kirkpatrick). It gives us “who” I’m talking about.

While you could chalk up the effect of the video to clever editing, I’ve seen similar videos that suggest that the attitudes expressed are probably a pretty accurate portrayal of how some people think (and, for the purposes of this essay, I’m less interested in what they think).

It seems to me that the people in the video largely think with their guts, and not their brains. I’m not making a judgment about their intelligence, only recognizing that they seem to evaluate the world from a different perspective than I do: with less curiosity and apparent skepticism. This approach would explain George W Bush’s appeal as someone who “lead from the gut“. It’s probably also what Al Gore was talking about in his book, Assault on Reason.

Many in my discipline (design) tend to think of the consumers of their products as being rational, thinking beings — not unlike themselves. This seems worse when it comes to engineers and developers, who spend all of their thinking time being mathematically circumspect in their heads. They exhibit a kind of pattern blindness to the notion that some people act completely from gut instinct alone, rarely invoking their higher faculties.

How, then, does this dichotomy impact the utility or usability of products and services, especially those borne of technological innovation, given that designers and engineers tend to work with “information in the mind” while many of the users of their products operate purely on the visceral plane?

In writing about the death of the URL, I wanted to expose some consequences of this division. While the intellectually adventuresome are happy to embrace or create technology to expand and challenge their minds (the popularity and vastness of the web a testament to that fact), anti-intellectuals seem to encounter technology as though it were a form of mysticism. In contrast to the technocratic class, anti-intellectuals on the whole seem less curious about how the technology works, so long as it does. Moreover, for technology to work “well” (or be perceived to work well) it needs to be responsive, quick, and for the most part, completely invisible. A common sentiment I hear is that the less technology intrudes on their lives, the better and happier they believe themselves to be.

So, back to the death of the URL. As has been argued, the URL is ugly, confusing, and opaque. It feels technical and dangerous. And people just don’t get them. This is a sharp edge of the web that seems to demand being sanded off — because the less the inner workings of a technology are exposed in one’s interactions with it, the easier and more pleasurable it will be to operate, within certain limitations, of course. Thus to naively enjoy the web, one needn’t understand servers, DNS, ports, or hypertext — one should just “connect”, pick from a list of known, popular, “destinations”, and then point, click — point, click.

And what’s so wrong with that?

What I find interesting about the social web is not the technology that enables it, but that it bypasses our “central processor” and engages the gut. The single greatest thing about the social web is how it has forced people to overcome their technophobias in order to connect with other humans. I mean, prior to the rise of AOL, being online was something that only nerds did. Few innovations in the past have spread so quickly and irreversibly, and it’s because the benefits of the social web extend beyond the rational mind, and activate our common ancestors’ legacy brain. This widens the potential number of people who can benefit from the technology because rationality is not a requirement for use.

Insomuch as humans have cultivated a sophisticated sociality over millennia, the act of socializing itself largely takes place in the “gut”. That’s not to say that there aren’t higher order cognitive faculties involved in “being social”, but when you interact with someone, especially for the first time, no matter what your brain says, you still rely a great deal on what your gut “tells you” — and that’s not a bad thing. However, when it comes to socializing on sites like Twitter and Facebook, we’re necessarily engaging more of our prefrontal cortex to interpret our experience because digital environments lack the circumstantial information that our senses use to inform our behavior. To make up for the lack of sensory information, we tend to scan pages all at once, rather than read every word from top to bottom, looking for cues or familiar handholds that will guide us forward. Facebook (by name and design) uses the familiarity of our friends’ faces to help us navigate and cope with what is otherwise typically an information-poor environment that we are ill-equipped to evaluate on our own (hence the success of social engineering schemes and phishing).

As we redesign more of our technologies to provide social functionality, we should not proceed with mistaken assumption that users of social technologies are rational, thinking, deliberative actors. Nor should we be under the illusion that those who use these features will care more about neat tricks that add social functionality than the socialization experience itself. That is, technology that shrinks the perceived distance between one person’s gut and another’s and simply gets out of the way, wins. If critical thinking or evaluation is required in order to take advantage of social functionality, the experience will feel, and thus be perceived, as being frustrating and obtuse, leading to avoidance or disuse.

Given this, no where is the recognition of the gut more important than in the design and execution of identity technologies. And this, ultimately, is why I’m writing this essay.

It might seems strange (or somewhat obsessive), but as I watched the Sarah Palin video above, I thought about how I would talk to these people about OpenID. No doubt we would use very different words to describe the same things — and I bet their mental model of the web, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google would differ greatly from mine — but we would find common goals or use cases that would unite us. For example, I’m sure that they keep in touch with their friends and family online. Or they discover or share information — again, even if they do it differently than me or my friends do. Though we may engage with the world very differently — at root we both begin with some kind of conception of our “self” that we “extend” into the network when we go online and connect with other people.

The foundation of those connections is what I’m interested in, and why I think designing for the gut is something that technocrats must consider carefully. Specifically, when I read posts like Jesse Stay’s concept of a future without a login button, or evaluate the mockups for an “active identity client” based on information cards or consider Aza and Alex’s sketches for what identity in the browser could look like, I try to involve my gut in that “thought” process.

Now, I’m not just talking about intuition (though that’s a part of it). I’m talking about why some people feel “safer” experiencing the web with companies like Google or Facebook or Yahoo! at their side, or how frightening the web must seem when everyone seems to need you to keep a secret with them in order to do business (i.e. create a password).

I think the web must seem incredibly scary if you’re also one of those people that’s had a virus destroy your files, or use a computer that’s still infected and runs really slow. For people with that kind of experience as the norm, computers must seem untrustworthy or suspicious. Rationally you could try to explain to them what happened, or how the social web can be safe, but their “gut has already been made up.” It’s not a rational perception that they have of computers, it’s an instinctual one — and one that is not soon overcome.

Thus, when it comes to designing identity technologies, it’s very important that we involve the gut as a constituent of our work. Overloading the log in or registration experience with choice is an engineer’s solution that I’ve come to accept is bound to fail. Instead, the act of selecting an identity to “perform as” must happen early in one’s online session — at a point in time equivalent to waking up in the morning and deciding whether to wear sweatpants or a suit and tie depending on whatever is planned for the rest of the day.

Such an approach is a closer approximation to how people conduct themselves today — in the real world and from the gut — and must inform the next generation of social technologies.

11 thoughts on “Designing for the gut”

  1. What a brilliant article. Wow! This is exactly what I feel about how different types of humans and technology interface with one another- so concise and succinctly written!

    I often feel like the heads of many industries that still run archaic technology (health care, banks, Office Depot, etc..) suffer from a “legacy gut” experience- as they were early adopters of tech and many had terrible experiences trying to adopt that technology. Development was slow, very expensive, and prone to crashes, training their staff was a job in and of itself, and customer usability was either non existent or dreadful- all of which is why they haven’t upgraded yet.

    Many small businesses still run custom applications written in DOS or 8 bit graphics and are yet to move on as they see the task of rebuilding their infrastructure as something so daunting it’s better to not even bother.

    We all have guts- they’re what holds us together and must be paid attention to. Thanks for reminding me :)

  2. You should read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, assuming you haven’t already. How we relate to technology is certainly not a new problem.

    When people sit down to choose what identity to wear before browsing, how should that be managed, do you think? I can see a world where you browse the internet with a Facebook frame around it, with the “raw” HTML of the internet scrubbed for safety similar to how FBML is today. Yes, I mean this ironically.

    I mean, instead of the client-side databases of HTML5, why not have an intermediary be my information bank, with identity management baked into the bargain? Also, assuming we got to choose who our intermediary was…Facebook, Google, some open-source alternative…would this be a bad thing?

  3. Chris,

    This and your piece on the social web with Jyri are major elements: I’m still trying to digest the later, so please give me a few days — but I guess my gut feeling would be:

    > the web must seem incredibly scary if you’re also one of those people that’s had a virus destroy your files, or use a computer that’s still infected and runs really slow.

    Wow, that sounds a lot like “Chrome OS will have a massive market share.” Think about it: flashing boot, no virus, no distinction between the OS and the browser, no file system… Add some HTML5-based simplicity, a working hybrid protocol for authentification-based transactions, and that’s the ideal computer for my mom.

    Your comment feed, picking from Twitter and Louis Gray’s, plus the automated, working OpenID authentification… I’m loving my job a lot right now. 😉

  4. Great article, and it gets right to the point of how new technology has a shot at adoption. It also reminded me of this Google video,“What is a browser?” Many people don’t know or care about the tech; their connection is with whatever the tech delivers — a movie, the voice of a friend, information. Reducing operational overhead means decreasing the cognitive load required to complete an action, attention that is otherwise subtracted from the thing people really want to focus on.

  5. Chris,

    If you haven’t heard of the Jobs, Outcomes, Constraints model, you should check that out. It is premised on the idea that customers “hire” a product or service to help them achieve specific outcomes relative to constraints that they face (here’s a post on the topic if interested:, whereas so much of product design/management falls into the trap of attribute orientation.

    In any event, the Palin bit captures the second corollary of this; namely, that it is not enough to ask people what they want but to watch what they do, see how they think, and above all, come at them with a well-formed model that can be iterated, derived from (relative to said jobs/outcomes/constraints).

    It’s the distinction between, “you can do ‘anything’ with it” and being designed to perform a specific task supported by a clear workflow really well.

    Keep up the good work.


  6. Chris,

    This was a very good read. your last posts regarding the “death of the URL” are very intriguing (Even watched the entire Palin interviews, heh) . I recently saw this
    you probably have seen it already.

    It seems to me that this road Firefox is taking (expecting to take?) might not play well side by side with what you are suggesting… more strange new UI’s, more engagement with technology. clearly a new ground for more viruses/phishing. As an technical user, this new development by Mozilla is a step forward, but while users like me represent mere 10% (20?) of everybody… what does it mean for all the rest?

    It’s no surprise OpenID goes through such a long journey… it deals with a very delicate subject, who are we, how are we representing ourselves, one can argue it’s more philosophical than technical. Here in this article you’re trying to tackle both issues as equal parts (are they?). I’m trying to understand how this move might take place – the move to an identity-centric web. After reading your article it seems impossible than ever.

  7. Frankly, people are really more gut/emotional creatures than they are rational. That’s why many economic theories never really pan out in reality. And politics is proof of the irrationality of human beings, Obama and Palin supporters included.

  8. Geoffrey Moore did his wonderful revival of the technology adoption curve ( in the aged text Crossing the Chasm. To me it absolutely nails what’s happening here. It doesn’t bother the the sociological basis for the different groups of “thing adoption” or the conflicts of their relationships – but it nails their characteristics. And politics is a way old technology thing, even if new designs keep hitting the market. (Incidentally if you get in to what it the origin of a “gut feel” it’s gonna be very subcultural and care-giver-bias in nature – who cared for you and which subcultures do you respect?).

  9. Chris said:

    “It seems to me that the people in the video largely think with their guts, and not their brains. I’m not making a judgment about their intelligence, only recognizing that they seem to evaluate the world from a different perspective than I do.”

    Sounds to me like you have a slightly inflated view of yourself, Chris. Perhaps it was unintentional. You seem to be careful often, and caring. After all, you give the appropriate caveat. But I don’t think the caveat works in this case.

    Look, I’m not so much upset over your apparent political differences — you’ve made your loyalties clear from time to time — I really think this has little to do with politics and personality in that sense. (After all, I live in Boston, so there’s plenty else for a semi-conservative soul like mine to get frustrated with.) I just think you probably owe *those* “people in the video” a little more due: perhaps they think more with their brains than you understand. (Sometimes, for that matter, you seem to speak from your gut far more than you might admit to yourself.)

    Not everyone is afforded the opportunity to live in the Bay Area and work for major pioneering computer companies, or evangelize the future of open source standards and distributed social networking, and fly to the moon. 😉

    Not everyone is afforded the opportunity to be put on the spot, say, like you are. You have a lot of opportunity to practice saying polished, smart things in front of lots of nifty people. But your reaction to these folks opinions has been exhibitive and from the gut.

    It would have been much more understandable and you probably would have sounded a little more humble if you had just stated something along the lines of “these are people I just don’t understand.” Perhaps that would have been more honest. And what’s to disagree with there?

    Because from my point of view, they were very rational, smart people.

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