The Sciences of Human Understanding

Interaction Conference

Founded in 2008, the Interaction Design Association Conference brings together practitioners interested in all things around interaction design. Interaction 12 took place in Dublin, Ireland on 1–4 2012. Interactions 13 is set to take place in February 2013 in Toronto.

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The Surgeon General of the United States says that “youth violence is an ongoing, startlingly pervasive problem.” Despite the fact that “the majority of aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes are never reported to the police,” one out of every 3,000 youths aged 10-17 are arrested for serious violent crimes – homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault – each year. While the predictive risk factors include family aspects we might all expect – low socioeconomic status, poor parent-child relations, broken home – many of the individual risk factors apply only to males and the most predictive risk factor of all in this troubling laundry list is simply “being male”.

By now you are surely wondering, “Um, isn’t this supposed to be an interaction design publication?” Yes, of course, it is. But the domain relevant to digital products that is most important, least understood, and represents the greatest opportunity for remarkable growth and advance is the degree to which we understand our users.

To be sure, a focus on users is nothing new. In computing devices it dates back at least to the long-standing Scandinavian tradition of cooperative design, later applied to IT artifacts around 1970. There is an entire subculture in the digital design community built around the idea of user-centered design. Memes about narrative, storytelling and ethnography punctuated the 2000s, and we generally believe we have refined, evolved framing and methods for considering users as part of the product development equation.


Divining Human Understanding

Going back to my opening about the epidemic of violent crime in young males, how well do we understand that problem? It is certainly recognized as a problem, by the highest governmental authorities. A litany of risk factors and predictive models exist, so people more likely to participate in violent crime can be identified by parents and teachers and kept track of as they wind their way through adolescence and young adulthood. Yet, as a society, we dismiss such perpetrators as criminals, animals, evil and inherently bad. We do this despite the fact that there is overwhelming evidence that their gender – a coin toss at birth – and socio-familial situation are the drivers behind their destructive behaviour.

Let’s break those two things down: why gender? To better understand that we need to learn a little about endocrinology, the field of medicine focused on our hormones. Androgen is the term for hormones that stimulate and control the development and maintenance male characteristics, including those in the Surgeon General’s laundry list of risk factors. There is a long history of castration in human cultures all around the world, as even before the science behind it was understood, people learned that men without testes were far less aggressive. Enlightenment era heroThomas Jefferson even created legislation in the state of Virginia after the Declaration of Independence was signed making castration the punishment of choice for a handful of crimes. The amount of testosterone production varies widely from one man to another, and indeed those who are – from the standpoint of modern civilization – cursed with very high levels of testosterone are far more likely to prove unable to stay within the behavioural bounds dictated by our society.

Another critical discipline for understanding behavioural differences by gender is neuroscience. Like most of the United States sick care system, the preponderance of investment in and attention to neuroscience has to do with the work of neurologists, curing brain tumors and other diseases. But it is also the field that best understands from a mechanical perspective how and why we function. Male aggression is actually one of the more complex dynamics within the brain, involving all of the amygdala, hypothalamus, prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, hippocampus, septal nuclei and periaqueductal grey of the midbrain. While the complexity of each of these disparate brain factors’ impact on male aggressiveness is beyond the bounds of this article, needless to say there is a startling amount of science and real understanding into mapping observable brain structure, condition and operation to many critical human behaviours, male aggressiveness that leads to violent crime being only one.

Now, let’s consider the other main group of predictive risk factors for violent behaviour, socio-familial background. As just one example, MIT’s Abhijit Banerjee and Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan have done wonderful work on the psychology of why people can’t escape poverty. In a nutshell, they illustrated that since buying small, everyday comforts is far more costly to the poor than to the wealthy – representing a substantially larger proportion of their net worth – that poverty limits free will and in the process has a resultant drain on one’s overall willpower. Needing to make tough decisions and sacrifices much more frequently than their more affluent neighbours makes it far more likely that the poor will have willpower issues in other contexts. Such as, say, testosterone-fueled moments that spiral out of control. These are economists, studying issues of psychology and sociology, deconstructing behaviour in remarkably insightful ways.

While socio-economic status is only one vector of the socio-familial milieu, the example highlights the ample research and science which illuminates the conditions that finally culminate in serious violent crime. And it underscores an important point: while some criminals might be “bad” in some objective way, many of these criminals are simply very unfortunate people who are victims similar to those they’ve victimized: they happened to be born male, they happened to have high testosterone levels, they happened to be born into poor or broken families. Armed with this knowledge, surely we as a society can do better?

Truly Understanding Users

I’ve chosen the issue of serious violent crime in young males as my example because it nicely applies to all of the five sciences that should be essential learning to anyone serious about understanding users: endocrinology, neuroscience, economics, psychology and sociology. In each of these, crucial pieces of the human behavioural puzzle are provided:

  • Endocrinology: the study of the endocrine system which secretes hormones into the bloodstream and regulates the body;
  • Neuroscience: the study of the central nervous system which uses neurons to coordinate our actions;
  • Economics: the study of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services – crucial to the understanding of individuals in a fiercely capitalistic, free market society;
  • Psychology: the study of people and groups in order to best understand them;
  • Sociology, the study of a society in order to best understand that society and its inhabitants.

Needless to say that the role of some of the more social sciences on this list – particularly psychology – are already seen as having a role in successful user studies and understanding. However, the preponderance of research and publications on user studies deal more with principals and practices of the discipline and less with understanding the users themselves, much less in a deep, multi-disciplinary scientific way. The future of design will belong to those who are able to untangle what people do and why, even those who can predict and understand – using a scientific basis – what people are likely to respond to and why and how, as opposed to simply making gut decisions.

As it is a fairly straightforward matter to untangle the objective dynamics behind serious violent crimes in young males using these approaches, imagine the impact you can have on your product, service, company, market or even society if you have the vision, rigor and discipline to start truly unpeeling that most complex and layered of onions, ourselves.

Interaction 12

Dirk Knemeyer will be one of the presenters at Interaction 12. It is the fifth annual conference hosted by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). Each year, IxDA aims to gather the interaction design community to connect, educate, and inspire each other. This year it is held in Dublin, Ireland.

Dirk Knemeyer

Dirk has written over 100 articles for publications like Business Week, given over 50 speeches and presentations including keynotes in the United States and Europe, and has participated on 13 Boards for corporations and non-profit organizations. Under his leadership Involution has provided exceptional applications for over 100 satisfied customers. Prior to co-founding Involution Dirk was the Chief Design Officer at Thread Information Design, which designed and developed internal productivity apps for major corporations.

6 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: » The Sciences of Human Understanding Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive |

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  3. There’s a good nugget here – rely on foundational science(s) to better understand users – but I’m not sure that the additional layers come together to support that point, and provide direction.

    Fro example:

    “As it is a fairly straightforward matter to untangle the objective dynamics behind serious violent crimes in young males using these approaches…”

    Is it really that straightforward? And the objective dynamics (as opposed to all other kinds of dynamics?) are all that’s necessary on in order to reach understanding? And only these five sciences – no other disciplines / approaches are needed?

    I think as a pointer to fields that design is not properly aware of and learning from, this has merit – but I think the perspective requires critical refinement and further development.

    Or is this only meant to be a call to action?

    I’d like to see follow-ups suggesting which aspects / recent discoveries / core principles of these disciplines are relevant for designers seeking to understand people, and in what contexts. I know squat about endocrinology, for example, and I doubt that it would be useful for many in the UX community to subscribe to the leading neuroscience journals and try to directly parse primary articles in scientific discourse.

    I don’t say this to be snarky, just to point out that there’s more involved in making this viewpoint relevant to design in a meaningful way. And I think Dirk is maybe one of the people who can do it.

    So what’s part deux?

  4. Dirk on

    Thanks for your comments Joe.

    First, the title of the article as I wrote it was “Sciences of Human Understanding” without the “The”. I don’t claim it is a comprehensive list, but I do claim it is the core list.

    The science actually is remarkably straightforward – albeit incredibly complex and beyond the bounds of our typically learnt knowledge. That straightforward, math-like A-to-B-to-C nature, is what makes it all the more troubling that we aren’t connecting the various, disparate ends together and distilling meaningful social insight, and even better, paradigmatic change.

    I’ve spent the last year deeply researching these sciences, most particularly the three social sciences. I’ve learned more in that time than I did in the 6 years of getting my university degrees. This is a subject near and dear to my heart and will underpin the next phase of my career. I’m all-in, so to speak.

    From a publication standpoint I do see my role as raising awareness and making a call to action, not being the one to take people into the bowels of understanding. I’m putting my time and energy into developing the ideas into the new company I’m building. The big idea and big picture have historically been the nature of my publishing and speaking, here no different than before. My hope is to open the door to something new and important, and that some curious and ambitious souls will walk thru it.

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  6. Christopher Fahey on

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the design approach you describe may be centuries away from being possible, where we might have interactive systems that have the ability to ascertain a user’s psychological and neurochemical state of being.

    As of now, I can name countless examples of great, great design driven largely by gut, and informed by scientific general knowledge. I can’t think of a whole lot of great design driven by scientific method as you describe.

    Articles like this are easy to write without citing examples, and on their face it’s easy for us readers to nod our heads and agree in theory. I for one want to see this theory of design backed up with examples, not just to show that it actually works at all, but to inspire designers to start thinking of how they might begin to incorporate this thinking into their design process.