When Google went from being just another new search engine to the search engine, I couldn’t stop comparing the company to the cartoon series, Pinky and the Brain. In my mind, the conversation between Larry and Sergey was identical to the two lab mice:
Larry: “Gee Sergey, what do you want to do tonight?”
Sergey: “The same thing we do every night, Larry—try to take over the world.”
For the cartoon, no matter what scheme Brain devised, the world was not his to take. Perhaps it was Bill Gates’ plan to put a computer in every home that stood the best chance of world domination. Steve Jobs and Apple followed up with more computers and added music. You might even say that the music injection was the language the entire world could understand.
It occurred to me one day that people like Larry, Sergey, Bill and Steve, and others like them, instinctively understand the human brain. They know that computers aren’t substitutes for our minds, but are extensions because, for starters, we create the machines. Fascination with our brains is everywhere. There are new books on the male brain, female brain, brain after a stroke, spiritual brains and how brains handle memory or heal disease.
It’s likely no coincidence that around the time Google was launched, an essay called The Extended Mind was published in the journal Analysis by two philosophers, Andy Clark and David Chalmers. They set out to prove that the mind is a system made up of the physical brain and parts of its environment. When your environment is dependent on computers for communication, for example, how does this affect your memory? Does texting with phonetic words mean the eventual loss of grammatically correct writing?
One way to take over the world is to make people dependent on computers for their survival, communication, entertainment and income. I find it no coincidence that Google explores ways to make its search and data an extension of our daily habits. The key theme between Larry, Sergey, Bill and Steve, and others like them is that humans love convenience.
I think user experience web design and Internet marketing success is tied to exactly the same idea.
Another interesting study shows how narrow our awareness is. Two psychologists, Daniel Simmons and Christopher Chabris, showed a video of two groups of students weaving around each other, passing a basketball. Half of them wore white shirts and the other half wore black. They were asked to keep track of how many times the basketball was passed by their team. At one point, a student dressed in a gorilla costume came wandering into the scene. Later, several students said they never saw the gorilla. Their brains regarded this information as extraneous information. (You can view the “basketball” video here.)
We extract only what we need for whatever our task may be. This same lesson can be applied to usability and marketing.
Navigation and memory
Search engines keep changing their user interfaces. This is not intended to drive you crazy. Rather, the companies are keenly aware of human-computer interaction studies and listen to user feedback. One of our many issues with search and web designs is our inability to recall where things are, how we got anywhere and how to handle information overload.
Creatures of habit, we’ve learned where logos are placed and become accustomed to global, supplemental, supportive and breadcrumb navigation. We scan and look for tidbits. We seek out only what we need to complete a task.
Design styles have changed over the years. However, you will still see home pages with 20-plus items listed on the left side navigation. If just one of those choices is the start of a task, a site visitor has started down a certain path. Ask them to recall what the other 19 items are and they can’t tell you because they didn’t want or need all that information. Duplicating that information with image navigation inside the main body aggravates the situation by removing confidence. Which click is the best for the task, the left side link or product image?
We are quickly adapting not only our brains to our laptops, but also our hands and eyes to sorting through and responding to information. New studies are being performed on how our brains seek out new ways to get information. There’s a rearrangement of neurons based on new methods of getting any feedback. This feedback is not just by sight. For us as internet workers, the creation of lists, forms, videos and detailed images contribute to engaging the brains of our targeted readers or market. Consider disabled persons accessing the Internet and those whose handheld devices are an extension of their body.
One area I see missing in ecommerce design is close up shots of craftsmanship in handmade products. A wedding site with models showing different styles of veils will sell better if the model is shown with several head shots and with close ups of the beads, lace, and length. With the time honored custom of shopping for wedding gown and accessories with family, sales online must find ways to emulate the experience of touching material, remembering a design that was like one Grandmother wore at her wedding and trying on head pieces to see how they look on different size women. We have yet to truly emulate physical feedback to our brains in an environment where touch doesn’t exist.
Pinky and Brain were never able to conquer the world, despite being genetically altered so they could speak to humans. Brain’s name is an acronym for “Biological Recombinant Algorithmic Intelligence Nexus”. Will Google become an extension of our brains? As we search for information via the Internet and make purchases online, we’re contributing to a new way of communication. Our brains are adapting to new behaviors. How we market online is attached to our greater perception of ourselves. Think social media and social media marketing, for example.
For a struggling world economy, companies that will succeed will be those who get unstuck from old practices in design and marketing and regard each of us as evolving humans.
This article was originally written by Kim Berg and published by Search Engine Land, January 23, 2009