Updated at least twice a month; This is a blog on usability in India -of software, web, and, consumer products of India. I will also be blogging my observations on how usability affects marketing, product positioning, corporate branding, customer-service and sales. Write to me: sumank ['at'] gmail [dot] com World Usability Day 2006
STC Annual Conference 2007
STC Annual Conference 2006
Indian Express Interview

Invite me to speak Tech Writing Blog
Personal Blog
LinkedIn Profile

Sunday, September 26, 2004


Neuro-aesthetics, Perceptual Grammar, Art, and Usability

Last evening I was watching an interview of Vilayanur S. Ramachandran on BBC. Ramachandran explained how the human brain perceives, processes, and acts, when exposed to art. Why do we like a Picasso? A Davinci, or a Henry Moore? Why do we tap our feet while listening to a particular kind of music? During the interview Ramachandran dwelt upon a study on Seagull chicks' feeding habits. He calls it the law of Peak shift. I googled for it and found his BBC Radio interview on the same subject. Here's an excerpt from his interview on BBC Radio:
To answer this question, you need to go and look at ethology, especially the work of Niko Tinbergen at Oxford more than fifty years ago. And he was doing some very elegant experiments on seagull chicks. As soon as the herring-gull chick hatches, it looks at its mother. The mother has a long yellow beak with a red spot on it. And the chick starts pecking at the red spot, begging for food. The mother then regurgitates half-digested food into the chick's gaping mouth, the chick swallows the food and is happy. Then Tinbergen asked himself: "How does the chick know as soon as it's hatched who's mother? Why doesn't it beg for food from a person who is passing by or a pig?" And he found that you don't need a mother. You can take a dead seagull, pluck its beak away and wave the disembodied beak in front of the chick and the chick will beg just as much for food, pecking at this disembodied beak. And you say: "Well that's kind of stupid - why does the chick confuse the scientist waving a beak for a mother seagull?" Well the answer again is it's not stupid at all. Actually if you think about it, the goal of vision is to do as little processing or computation as you need to do for the job on hand, in this case for recognizing mother. And through millions of years of evolution, the chick has acquired the wisdom that the only time it will see this long thing with a red spot is when there's a mother attached to it. After all it is never going to see in nature a mutant pig with a beak or a malicious ethologist waving a beak in front of it. So it can take advantage of the statistical redundancy in nature and say: "Long yellow thing with a red spot IS mother. Let me forget about everything else and I'll simplify the processing and save a lot of computational labor by just looking for that."
Computational Labor Ah! Now, if you are wondering how this whole thing is related to usability, eat this: Isn't it a nice idea to study what our 'Long yellow things with red spots' are? And use it to build interfaces that afford minimal computational labor? Software borrows a lot from culture and nature; be it icons, metaphors, or task-simulation (shopping cart?). Can we take it a step further and borrow from Neurology and art?
Here is another interesting observation for those designers that crib about usability not allowing them to unleash their creativity: While discussing why goddess Parvati's sculptures and idols were created the way the are, Ramachandran explains the rationale that the ancient Chola artists used. Read the excerpt:
...But the Victorian Englishmen who first encountered these sculptures were appalled by Parvati, partly because they were prudish, but partly also just because of just plain ignorance. They complained that the breasts were way too big, the hips were too big and the waist was too narrow. It didn't look anything like a real woman - it wasn't realistic - it was primitive art. And they said the same thing about the voluptuous nymphs of Kajuraho - even about Rajastani and Mogul miniature paintings. They said look these paintings don't have perspective, they're all distorted. They were judging Indian art using the standards of Western art - especially classical Greek art and Renaissance art where realism is strongly emphasized.
How does the artist convey the very epitome of feminine sensuality? What he does is simply take the average female form, subtract the average male form - you're going to get big breasts, big hips and a narrow waist. And then amplify it, amplify the difference. And you don't say: "My God, it's anatomically incorrect". You say: "Wow! What a sexy goddess!"
But that's not all there is to it because how do you bring in dignity, poise, grace?
Well what you do is something quite clever, what the Chola bronze artist does is something quite clever. There are some postures that are forbidden to a male. I can't stand like that even if I want to. But a woman can do it effortlessly. So what he does is he goes into an abstract space I call "posture space", and then subtracts the average male posture from the female and then exaggerates the feminine posture - and then you get elegant triple flexion - or tribhanga - pose, where the head is tilted one way, the body is tilted exactly the opposite way, and the hips again the other way. And again you don't say: "My God, that's anatomically inappropriate. Nobody can stand like that." You say: "My God! It's gorgeous. It's beautiful! It's a celestial goddess". So the image is extremely evocative and it's an example of the peak shift principle in Indian art.
Let us see how the whole thing about 'exaggeration' relates to usability. Fitt's law says that the bigger and nearer the clickable area is the better the chances of someone clicking it (that's my interpretation). Bigger? Yes. So, here is what I'd advise any interface designer: While creating icons or links for important tasks. Exaggerate. I mean make that 'Buy' link bigger. But how do you make these important links, buttons, and icons stand out? Simple. Use the theory of elimination. Do what the Chola artists did: take the average links (information links like 'about us', let's say) and ensure that the links or buttons of important tasks like 'payment' or 'contact us' are accentuated (visually?). My handicap is that I am not a graphical designer; if you are one think of better ways to use the exaggeration idea.

Ramachandran also talks about Grouping. The faculty of human vision according to him evolved mainly to discover objects and defeat camouflage. Ramachandran uses Richard Gregory's Dalmatian puzzle picture (see pic -new window) to explain the concept. It is intriguing to note that your brain actually biases you before your eyes make out what's in the picture. It again relates to how our brain strives to minimize computational effort. The lesson here is to ensure that interfaces afford discovery. It'll have a positive impact on learning costs of your product.
Perceptual Problem Solving
The most revealing (pun unintended) concept of all to me, was the law of perceptual problem solving (Ramachandran calls it 'visual peek-a-boo'). He stresses on how a nude behind a diaphanous veil is much more alluring than a full-color photograph. I can identify with that. For us guys, a cleavage is more exciting than a bare-it-all. Ramachandran offers an explanation to this: our brains evolved in highly camouflaged environments. Let's try and translate to this our work. Make alluring ad banners and product promos. To me, the most engaging words on the web (after 'free' and 'new') is 'more' or 'read more'. Think about it: a short two-line trigger to pull the user into your website with a 'more' link, instead of writing verbose copy. It seems as if we humans don't like spoon-feeding. We like to explore and discover stuff on our own. So, give it to your customers. Don't bare it all! I am just rambling away, do write to me and let me know what you think.

Less is more!
Ramachandran's law of isolation or understatement is in-line with how he thinks our brain strives for minimal computational labor. Ramachandran offers a simple yet brilliant explanation on why this law is the exact opposite of his peak-shift law (that argues for exaggeration): he attributes it to 'attention'. He says, your brain can handle only one neural activity at a time. In other words, you can't concentrate on two things at a time (watch TV on mute and try concentrating on what the radio is playing!). I understood it as 'more people appreciate caricatures than a complicated piece of art/painting.' The reason is your brain has less information to process while you appreciate a caricature. Now, how does this work for us? Keep your homepages simple and help users' brains to easily process the information you are offering. There could be more uses but I think entry points, landing pages (from a google ad, say) should not be cluttered. They should outline your business and help users quickly decide what to do next. I am still thinking about how neurology and neuro-aesthetics can help build better, friendlier interfaces... what's your take on the whole thing?

Add to:del.icio.us| Digg| Reddit| StumbleUpon| Technorati


Blogger Neodawn said...

Thank you for the link...
Loved it...

Your site is also cool...

9:55 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home