Originally Published 2017

I originally wrote this piece for the Quora design team’s recruiting blog. There’s a lot more I’d love to add to this because it is now 5 years old, but there’s still interesting content here.


Designers and their companies struggle to avoid the engagement trap. This isn't because they're idiots but because metrics can reflect usage that comes from one part our brains, while the user's decision of what makes your product worth their time comes from another. Distinguishing these can be useful.

Daniel Kahneman's Nobel Prize winning work, accessibly described in Thinking, Fast and Slow, is not only a fascinating standalone read, but is also extremely applicable in day to day work in software Product Design. It explains these two parts and how to tell which one is at work. If you haven't read it, you really should, but let's face it, you don't have the time right now, so stash that for later. Look at the image below:

https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-e7c7bd0453e342d3cee4e22ecf9787b6-pjlq

As surely and quickly as you saw that the young woman’s hair is dark, you knew she is angry. You sensed that this woman is about to say some very unkind words, probably in a loud and strident voice. A premonition of what she was going to do next came to mind automatically and effortlessly. [This] was an instance of fast thinking.

Now, look at the following problem:

https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-82d25fe0486755fc4a8d2b3e4646e05a

You knew immediately that this is a multiplication problem, and probably knew that you could solve it, with paper and pencil, if not without. A precise solution did not come to mind, and you felt that you could choose whether or not to engage in the computation. If you have not done so yet, you should attempt the multiplication problem now, completing at least part of it.You experienced slow thinking as you proceeded through a sequence of steps.

You just saw the distinction between the kinds of thinking these two systems trigger, and as designers when we put something up on a screen, we're making the active choice of what we trigger in those who give our products their attention. To keep the basics of System 1 and System 2 in the back of your mind as you read this, here's a handy chart:

https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-c25f7fa4241f7478542467b6bdd6fe64

Products are designed to bias towards triggering System 1 or System 2, and no, System 1 isn't always for the worse.

https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-e71c58d11701850044c6fb4105b36ab4-pjlq

And your choice as a designer is not just in the output of what you show your user, it's also in your choice of input.

https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-781cf00d2d3cc5654bebc64904eaf731-pjlq

There are countless examples, and they extend beyond images, into video and in particular music — ever notice the catchy jingles that transition you to ads on the radio? Again, System 1 isn't bad, and we wouldn't make it through the day alive without engaging it, but it is a more primitive part of our brains. It is subject to many cognitive biases and shortcuts, and vulnerable to spending substantial time using a product before realizing if it's valuable to them.

A short case study is Facebook. Images are boldly presented. Headline space on articles is limited so publishers write to provoke. Text is truncated. Reactions are highly emotional.

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