Shaken or Stirred? How Knowing Audience Habits Can Make or Break UX

UX designers are always looking to digitally knock down barriers and help facilitate desired actions from a user. And understanding user cognitive habits is the first step in winning users over to a website.

What are Cognitive Habits?

Cognitive habits are the repeated responses you give in the same situation without really thinking. A habit is generally learned through repetition and may be created through a variety of influences, such as culture, technology, environment and personal preference. However, determining the appropriate habits to examine for segmenting or categorizing your audience properly is tricky, and it’s starting to evolve at a much faster pace.

What We Already Know

In User Experience Design, we already leverage some cognitive behavior research through the industry best practice of adhering to accepted conventions for layouts. This includes the placement of logos, navigation, login, and advertisements. Cognitive habits are also reflected in many eye-tracking studies, which indicate “F-shape” patterns as popular hotspots for users looking at sites. (Note: this pattern has some cultural influences and lends itself more heavily to “left to right” reading languages.) On the flipside, these standards also lead to browsing blindness, like when users skip the top advertising banner or the right rail.

What’s Changed?

The rapid adoption of portable devices has changed online behavior drastically in the past decade. However, cognitive habits can be rooted in long-term habits and will vary from generation to generation, so researching and understanding your specific audience is critical to online success. For example: How old is your average user? Where does he or she live? What does he or she care about? If you understand a user’s cognitive habits in everyday life, let’s see how you can piggyback off those habits to better engage the user with your user experience strategy.

How to Uncover Users’ Cognitive Habits

First and foremost, you need to know the basics about your users, and what types of devices they are comfortable using so that you can develop your user experience strategy around those devices. For example, we know that most of today’s tablet users can easily tap buttons around the edges of their screen—but what if you’re designing an alphabet or reading game for young children? Research shows that kids are likely to rest their hands on the edge of tablets, which prevents the screen from registering their taps. Therefore, buttons should be designed further away from the edge.

Second, proper audience segmentation is critical to being able to create and focus user experience design on any digital channel. To successfully create that segmentation, you must:

    • Survey the audience to understand their current habits on the internet.
    • Try to limit the audience demographic to a central core of users, because it’s harder to be everything to everyone.
    • If possible, review the business goals and see if the audience segments can be expected to align with what you are trying to achieve. If not, a revisit of those goals might be in order.
    • Test your audience through prototypes and focus groups to see actual behavior and finally, adjust your goals based on the test results.

Sounds easy, right?

The catch is that your work is never really done. Cognitive habits are always evolving, making research more critical to determining which investments to make in the digital space. Every year in January, the Consumer Electronics Show displays the latest technology trends that are fighting their way into the marketplace. I find this event so fascinating, because more and more gadgets are collecting, reporting, or pushing information on devices that change how we interact with data. We used to only have a computer. Now we have phones, tablets and smart watches. And in the near future, we will start using smart refrigerators, cars, surfaces, and glasses.

Not every person will adopt these new technologies right away, whether for personal or financial reasons. Therefore, as devices diversify, the audiences become further segmented in how or what will engage them online. Investing in a digital strategy that researches the targeted user groups and their habits can inform how to design your experience in a way that feels completely intuitive to them.