Brain Hacking: The Neuroscience of UX
“Camp is fine Mom, but are you keeping my streak alive?” I overheard one of my campers talking to her parents on the phone. At the time, I had no idea what a snapchat streak was, but by the way she spoke about it, I thought it was her pet hamster with an unfortunate nickname. The camp had a rule that the kids were not allowed to keep smart phones, instead they had the old Nokia phones to contact their parents. I later inquired with the campers what a snapchat streak was since I kept hearing them talk about it. I learned that a snapchat streak is awarded to users when they send a snap to the same contact every day. Multiple campers had given their phones and snapchat passwords to their parents so that they could maintain their streaks. I was shocked at the level of commitment these adolescents had to a social media platform.
Snapchat and its analogous platforms have grown exponentially in recent years (The rise in social media, 2019). Their success is most likely due to their user retention and increased usage. Studies suggest that the reason users are so engaged is because these platforms trigger what is called the brain’s reward pathway (Meshi et al., 2015; Sherman et al., 2018). The existence of neural reward pathway was first discovered in 1954, by Milner and Olds. They implanted electrodes in various parts of rats brain’s and and configured them such that each time rat’s pressed a lever they electrode was activated, electrically stimulating nearby brain cells. Milner and Olds discovered that rats would press a lever to receive electrical stimulation only to stimulate certain specific parts of their brain. In those cases, they would press the lever for hours, often foregoing opportunities for food or other rewarding stimuli. Milner and Olds concluded that activation of these specific brain regions must be highly pleasurable for the animals and they must be part of a reward pathway. Further studies have since revealed that the same pathway is elicited by drug usage, sex and various other desirable activities, and is correlated with the release of the chemical neurotransmitter dopamine.
Social media platforms have created their own version of Milner and Olds experiment with humans replacing rats’ and by awarding users with likes and satisfying content that stimulate the brain’s reward pathway. What is most amazing about these products is that these companies were not designed by neuroscientists, rather, computer scientists, entrepreneurs and even college drop-outs. They have done what neuroscientists spend their careers trying to understand, how to successfully manipulate brains of individuals to keep them engaged. There is even a term dedicated to the process called ‘brain hacking.’ It is defined as “the application of techniques and/or technologies to affect an individual’s mental state, cognitive processes or level of function” (Tech Target, 2018).
Newer products and platforms are now striving for the kind of retention and usage that social media platforms have garnered. These new products are doing so by employing more user experience (UX) researchers (Andy Smith, Linkedin, 2019). The role of a UX researcher is to understand how users react to a product and give product feedback to product managers, software developers and product designers. Currently, UX researchers gather product feedback through usage data and user surveys or focus groups. There are a number of possible flaws with the current methods that UX researchers use. For one, usage data tends to have noise, so various factors such as location and surrounding stimuli can influence product usage. Therefore, understanding users behavior from data usage is generally time consuming for data analysts. In addition, questionnaires and self reported data tend to be biased and do not always accurately reflect an individual's actual behavior (Chao, 2011).
So, how can UX researchers effectively create a product that is as influential as Snapchat was to my campers years ago? How can they crack the brain-hacking code? For one, they can start by looking at the brain. In the following parts we will discuss neural processes involved in product usage and ways companies can measure neural processes.
Chao, Y. L., & Lam, S. P. (2011). Measuring responsible environmental behavior: Self-reported and other-reported measures and their differences in testing a behavioral model. Environment and Behavior, 43(1), 53-71.
Dar Meshi, Diana I. Tamir, Hauke R. Heekeren, The Emerging Neuroscience of Social Media, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 19, Issue 12, 2015,Pages 771-782, ISSN 1364-6613,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2015.09.004.
Olds, J., and PETER MILNER. "Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other brain regions in the rat./. comp. physiol." (1954): 419-427.
Sherman LE, Hernandez LM, Greenfield PM, Dapretto M. What the brain 'Likes': neural correlates of providing feedback on social media. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2018;13(7):699-707. doi:10.1093/scan/nsy051
Natania is a M.A student in Cognitive Affective Neuroscience at Bar Ilan University.
Her thesis focuses on Human Robot Interaction, and she is interested in finding better mechanisms to measure human responses to social robots. She doesn't really have free time because she is a Mom, but in those rare quiet moments you can find her reading. Her favorite author is John Steinback.