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Cognitive seduction

Posted by Avadhut on 7 April 2007

While conceptualizing the wire-frame for the office Intranet, I was always confused with regard to the amount of complexity/ease-of-use I should build into the user interface. Should it be amazingly simple or should I make it extremely techie. Should I go according to the textbooks just because they enumerates rules? When will I do something new then? Conventions say I should make sure all hyperlinks are blue because all over the Web they are blue. Conventions say that tagging works for blogs, Flickr, and Youtube; it would be of no use for enterprise content. Conventions say that my navigation should be extremely simple. What new groundbreaking feature do I build into my site so as to make it stand apart from the rest?

On doing research for solutions to this problem, I came across this foreword to the book “Steps to an ecology of mind” by Gregory Bateson. While discussing games, Gregory Bateson makes this important observation:

…there are important emotions that we feel and go through and enjoy and find in some mysterious ways to enlarge our spirit.

So, is solving Rubick’s cube even remotely sensual to our brains? Is formulating strategies sexy? Absolutely. This is what is referred to as “cognitive seduction.” While most of us do not refer to the word “seductive” in non-sexual contexts, game designers do. They are experts at the art of “cognitive arousal,” and I am looking for ways to build these type of features that ensure “repeated playability” of games in a Web model. I am not talking about the use of sex and imagery to keep users/readers interested. I am talking about the type of “experiential pleasure” one might derive out of solving a puzzle, finding something new in an existing framework, interacting with someone in a social networking model, discovering something new about themselves, etc. The premise here is people derive pleasure by having to work something out or to engage cognitively in a challenge.

How does one go about doing this?

Lets try to establish a sort of list of different types of user experiences in conjunction with cognitive seduction:

  1. Discovery: user experience as the exploration of something new
  2. Challenge: user experience as overcoming an obstacel in achieving something, going past previous individual thresholds and knowledge levels, etc.
  3. Narrative: user experience as a story
  4. Self-expression: user experience as self-discovery and creativity
  5. Social framework: user experience as interaction with colleagues or someone unknown in an Web model
  6. Cognitive arousal: user experience as a brain teaser
  7. Thrill: user experience as risk-taking in presence of a safety net
  8. Triumph: user experience as an opportunity to kick ass
  9. Flow: user experience as extreme concentration, extreme focus, lack of self-awareness
  10. Fantasy: user experience as alternate reality
  11. Learning: user experience as an opportunity to grow and improve

No. Its not possible to build a model equipped with all these features. An excellent example of the implementation of the above features would be game design. But even the best game designers do not, and cannot, build a game to mirror all of these requirements. The idea is to make sure that whatever you build—be it a game or, as in my case, a social collaborative tool—incorporates some of these features into its basic model. Or at least it should be tuned to realize a few of the above mentioned user experience types. In simple words, I do not want to make a site extremely simplistic, I do not want to provide just excellent usability; instead, I want to provide a user experience. I want to make sure that every time I design a site, I keep in my mind that my users are smart. I want to give them some credit and reward them if they use my system in an innovative way I had’nt thought of before. I want them to surprise me. I do not want things to get boring very fast!

Am I on the right track here? Or is convention the only way?

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7 Responses to “Cognitive seduction”

  1. Charlotte said

    I really love your passion. (Thats what I was smiling about.)

    I see you’ve resorted to reading up—clearly, nothing was going to come off surveying people who have become increasingly averse to any kind of survey…

    Nice way to work out the demand side of things! If its one thing you can’t go wrong with it’s to play to the psychology of the consumer. Convention? We’ve seen it all before. All of us here are so apathetic to the intranet that its going to take something “radical” to tantalize our minds.

    I see you’re going in the right direction already. Bravo.

  2. Ergo said

    Hmmm…. I wonder….

    [bear with my long comment here. :)]

    Cognitive seduction is based on the premise that your end product–be it game, website design, whatever–matches the epistemological level of activity of your audience. Any discrepancy in this relationship, and the method fails to serve its intended purpose.

    And in that sense, if you intend to consciously and deliberately incorporate certain features of the cognitive seduction method, you will have to at least *know* your target audience.
    Certainly, it would defeat your efforts to create an arrestingly challenging website that is not merely a pleasure to look at but demands one’s full focus and epistemic activity in navigating it, accessing its content, adding to it, etc., only for it to be regarded as too frustrating of an effort by your intended audience.
    And the same goes in the reverse case.

    Frankly, its like creating a work of art. Since we are conceptual beings, works of art that merely stimulate us at the sensory-perceptual level can lose its novelty very quickly; as evidenced by the rat-race to create ever more “SHOCKING” art by avant-gardists who function at the sensory-perceptual level. But then, the art that demands full cognitive focus, conceptual integration, and higher level epistemic activity, might prove to be an immensely enjoyable experience that will create lasting impressions–as evidence, observe the enduring impressions made by classic novels and literary works in Romanticism.

    To quote Rand on this, the “composition [of your website’s design] may demand the active alertness needed to resolve complex mathematical relationships–or it may deaden the brain by means of monotonous simplicity. The [viewer] becomes aware of this process in the form of a sense of efficacy, or of strain, or of boredom, or of frustration. His reaction is determined by the level of his cognitive functioning on which he feels at home.”

    So, the bottomline of my comment is this: cognitive seduction is indeed a seductive concept. But fundamentally, how you design your site should be dictated by your own selective processes in congruence with the organic unity, integrity, and flow of your design–and ultimately guided by the purpose and audience for which you are designing. Clearly, your site should, in the end, serve its utilitarian purpose because it is not intended to be a work of art. It is like architecture: you can build it however you like so long as it meets and fulfills its utilitarian function of an office building–and not remain uselessly as a beautiful piece of erected sculpture.

  3. Jerr,
    Maybe I was a bit too abstract about how the whole concept of cognitive seduction fits into a Web model. Thats probably coz’ I too was quite unaware of how I intended to do it. Yes, the website is there for a specific purpose, it has certain requirements to fulfill. And yes, at the same time, for me—the creator—it is a work of art, like a bike. An amalgamation of code and information architecture translating my ideas into a fully networked working tool. After doing a bit of thinking about how to make my website provide an experience to users, the most simplest solution I could come up with is by providing “growing space.” Requirements expected from the site will be fulfilled, plain, and simple. But the website will be like, for the lack of a better term,structured clay—moldable by the end user and yet within the provided scaffolding. I want to provide my viewers a sandbox to play in. In this sandbox, they will come up with up different innovative ways to use the tools already provided by the site of which I was probably not familiar with when I designed it. It is much like when the WordPress bunch went open source, they opened thier doors to the community that contributed in the form of various free plugins and skins. The people at WordPress weren’t aware that Wordpres—originally developed only as a blogging platform—could now be used by enterprises as a full blown content management system.
    I do not intend, nor do I think it is possible, to make my website reflect a true cognitive seduction model. Instead, I plan to use the terminology of UIs I stated in my post above as a sort of inspirational checklist—my small experiment in developing an evolutionary intranet.

  4. Ergo said

    Of course, you’re confidently on a brilliant track. I especially love your analogy, which served to exactly clarify your intent, of the growing space around a structured scaffolding, or like a sandbox.

    You know what you’re doing. Stop asking anybody! Just tell us how’s it lookin’. 😉

  5. Pink Imp said

    oh. i am not gonna be reading the entire post! but hut can SURE talk nineteen to the dozen!!! 😮

  6. Aron said

    you know, from your inspirational checklist, I think I’m experiencing many of those items, because everytime I find something new, for example, the sms service by google calendar, google reader, I actually experience cognitive seduction…:)

    I loved this post…there was so much new in it that I learnt…

  7. Avadhut said

    Is it any surprise then as to why people are “addicted” to the Internet? It actually does feel good to the brain!

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