The Dawn of Cognitive Experience Design

Jul 17, 2018 6:49pm
Posted by: Frank Capek

I have been watching and participating in the convergence of human-centered design and the cognitive and behavioral sciences for more than 30 years.  I am convinced this convergence will accelerate and lead to the emergence of a new field that could be called Cognitive Experience Design.  Our work on Design for Behavior is aligned with this convergence because it focuses on the cognitive processes that influence behavior. 

For the past several decades, the fields of Human-Centered Design (HCDand User-Centered Design (UCD) have focused on developing creative solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in every step of the process: from observing the problem, brainstorming, conceptualizing, developing, and implementing the new products, services, or solutions. These approaches often rely on in-field observation to identify latent needs and create products that customers don't know they desire or may even have difficulty envisioning.  In many cases, these approaches directly engage the audience in a participatory process of designing “with the customer” rather than “at the customer.”  This is sometimes referred to as Participative Design.

In parallel, the applied science of Cognitive Ergonomics emerged in response to the design challenges associated with complex systems and machines; leveraging advances in cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence.  Cognitive Ergonomics, as defined by the International Ergonomics Association, "is concerned with mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, as they affect interactions among humans and other elements of a system.”  These systems can range from the cockpit instrumentation and controls for a jet fighter to the control room design of a nuclear power plant or advanced manufacturing facility.  It can also include the design of environments intended to optimize the interaction of people and their work.  Key topics include: mental workload, decision-making, human-system interaction, human reliability, work stress and training to improve both performance and human wellbeing.

Neuro-Ergonomics has also developed as a subfield of Cognitive Ergonomics with a focus on enhancing human-system interaction using neural correlates to understand situational task demands. Rather than using psychological explanations, it more directly addresses the neurological basis of performance. It includes work on adaptive automation, which uses real-time assessments of the user’s workload performance to make the changes in the system to enhance performance.  One of the applications is driving safety, particularly for older drivers with cognitive impairments. Neuro-Ergonomics includes research into Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) focused on using brain signals to operate external devices without motor input, as well as work on Virtual Reality for training and testing operators to work in dangerous environments without putting them in harm’s way.

While Human-Centered and User-Centered Design have focused on the traditionally “right brain” approach to designing creative solutions to the problems people face, Cognitive and Neuro-Ergonomics have focused on the traditionally “left brain” engineering of rigorous solutions that fit and influence how people think and perform. 

Cognitive Experience Design

These are beginning to and, I believe, must continue to converge.  There are several Human-Centric Design visionaries that have been focused on understanding the mind of the user.  For example, Don Norman, who is currently the director of The Design Lab at University of California, San Diego.  An expert in the cognitive approach to design, Norman is well known for several outstanding books including “The Design of Everyday Things.”  He has argued for the development of designs that naturally fit our minds, rather than having our minds adapt to the design.  In his book “Things that Make us Smart: Defending the Human Attribute in the Age of the Machine,” Norman uses the term Cognitive Artifacts to describe artificial devices that maintain, display, or operate upon information to impact human cognitive performance.  

Despite this focus, the fields of Human-Centric and User-Centric Design are largely devoid of any real science for understanding how people make sense of and interact with products, services, and experiences. Instead, they rely on a well-intentioned, empathic process that, in practice, is highly dependent on the intuition and creativity of the designer.  Over the past decade there has been substantial developments in the fields of cognitive science but too little of this has made its way into the traditional design community.

There are several specific domains that provide examples of the convergence of design and cognitive science.  This includes Cognition in Architecture and Neuromarketing.


Cognition in Architecture

Although we spend more than ninety percent of our lives inside buildings and other “built spaces,” until now, we have understood very little about how the built environment affects our behavior, thoughts, emotions, and well-being.  As a result, much of the architectural practice has been largely divorced from the experience people have living and navigating in built spaces.  

Architects are increasingly recognizing that taking the perspectives of occupants and visitors is vital for designing buildings and spaces that improve the wellbeing of those users.  In the process, leading architects are starting to apply theories and findings from the cognitive sciences, particularly visual and spatial cognition, pattern recognition, and navigation behavioral patterns, to address human cognitive and behavioral needs in built environments.  These approaches focus on how people perceive their surroundings, how they orient in a building or space, how they make sense of and memorize the environment, and how they find their way from A to B.  Architects are starting to use methods that include real-world observation, virtual reality experiments, eye-tracking and behavior simulation to create built spaces that are easier and more comfortable to navigate, as well as lead to the emergence of positive life and productive work experiences.

If you are interested in this area, I recommend checking out the book “Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design” edited by Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa (MIT Press).   For the best and most influential human-centric perspective, I also suggest digging into Chris Alexander’s brilliant work on experience-centric architecture.  Alexander’s theories about the nature of human-centered design have affected fields beyond architecture and urban design.  In software development, Alexander is regarded as the father of the pattern language movement, which influenced the development of object oriented programming, agile software development, and, according to the creator of Wikipedia, the first wiki.



Neuromarketing is a marketing communication field that applies neuropsychology to marketing research, studying consumers' sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli.  Neuromarketing seeks to understand how consumers make purchasing decisions and their responses to marketing stimuli in order to improve the effectiveness  of marketing campaigns and strategies.  

The term 'neuromarketing' was first published in 2002 in an article by BrightHouse, an Atlanta-based marketing firm.  BrightHouse sponsored neurophysiologic research and constructed a business unit that used fMRI scans for market research purposes. In 2006, Dr. Carl Marci founded Innerscope Research that focused on Neuromarketing research.  Innerscope research was later acquired by the Nielsen Corporation and renamed Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience.  Unilever's Consumer Research Exploratory Fund (CREF) has also been working on potential applications of neuromarketing.

Neuromarketing has begun entering the mainstream with university classes appearing as electives in Marketing majors.  If you’re interested in a thorough review of the field that avoids the hype of many popular business books, I’d suggest checking out, “Consumer Neuroscience,” edited by Moran Cerf and Manuel Garcia-Garcia (MIT Press)

The field is still not without controversy.  Joseph Turow, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, dismisses neuromarketing as another reincarnation of gimmicky attempts for advertisers to find non-traditional approaches toward gathering consumer opinion.  He is quoted in saying, "There has always been a holy grail in advertising to try to reach people in a hypodermic way. Major corporations and research firms are jumping on the neuromarketing bandwagon, because they are desperate for any novel technique to help them break through all the marketing clutter. 'It's as much about the nature of the industry and the anxiety roiling through the system as it is about anything else."


From Design Thinking…  to Design FOR Thinking

In addition to the developments above, there’s been a very significant wave of interest in Design Thinking across the business and non-profit communities.  It can be described as a method for practical, creative problem solving modeled after the approach designers typically use during their process of designing. Design Thinking typically incorporates several stages including: defining the problem, conducting field research, brainstorming ideas, prototyping, and testing.  These steps are often followed through multiple iterations of test and learn.

While this approach makes sense and is valuable, Design Thinking has passed into the realm of yet another management fad.  It’s often seen as a panacea for an exceptionally wide range of problems. In the course of popularizing this approach the disciplines of empathic research, personae development, scenarios, use cases have been oversimplified and have been largely ad hoc.  Practitioners often have limited experience or any real depth in effective design.  

While we believe the traditional design field needs MORE rigor, the wide scale adoption of Design Thinking has gone in the direction of LESS rigor.   Design Thinking is trying to get people to think like designers.   What we need is to design FOR how people think.


Design for Behavior and the Emergence of Cognitive Experience Design

I anticipate and Customer Innovations is actively working towards the emergence of an approach to influential design that incorporates a much more rigorous understanding and application of the leading models for the cognitive and behavioral sciences.  Our work on Design for Behavior has started down this path. It is and will continue to be a work in process.

The models and tools outlined in this paper represent the current state of our process and toolset for understanding focused on the key questions.  Who are these people?  What are they trying to accomplish?  How do they make sense of the situations they’re in?  What pathways do they or might they follow?  How do they make choices?  Based on this understanding, the approach helps highlight ways to make it more compelling and easier for people act on what they care about and what’s in their interests.

The focus on behavior rather than just cognition is important because that’s where the rubber hits the proverbial road.  Actual improvements in audience wellbeing come as a result of the actions people take.  Measurable improvements in organizational performance occur when the solutions positively and profitably influence audience behavior. Understanding and influencing behavior is dependent of a fully integrated cognitive, affective, and behavioral perspective on the audience.  

We see Design for Behavior as a subset of what, we believe, will eventually be a more holistically integrated and powerful discipline of Cognitive Experience Design

For more information about Design for Behavior, check out this overview:  CI - Design for Behavior Intro 2018

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