By Brian StudwellJune 23, 2014

Heuristics and Design

We use heuristics. We find patterns.

There are many problems in life and design that have a specific, one-off answer. There are infinitely more problems that are examples of a pattern. That pattern could be visual, emotional, financial, or any of the other “-al” words. In every case, the approach that we, as humans, take in solving a problem is to evaluate the past. We consider our previous experiences, unconsciously, and our minds recognize previous scenarios that resemble the current one.

“Heuristics” is a fancy word for rules of thumb or, more formally, experience-based techniques for problem solving. Deriving solutions quickly from past events does not guarantee an optimal outcome, but, in the interest of pragmatism, it greatly eases cognitive load when making decisions. Sometimes an educated guess, or “going with your gut,” can save hours.

The human brain (and the mind of every animal, to be fair) is a pattern-matching machine. We constantly seek to align new sensory input with data stored in our long-term memory. There are several theories of pattern recognition that we, as designers and engineers, should concern ourselves with; without delving into too much detail, we will address two—template matching and prototype matching.

1. Template matching

Template matching is the practice of directly comparing inbound sensory information to previously stored instances (templates). For instance, I see a dog and my sensory system collects data about the subject. The dog in this example is the same height and shape as my dog. It is wearing the same collar as my dog. It is running to me looking like I haven’t fed it in years, just like my dog. My brain registers these observations and I come to the conclusion that this is, in fact, my dog.

2. Prototype matching

Prototype matching is the mechanism by which our brains compare new information to a concept of average characteristics of a particular subject. For instance, if our data points in this example are furry, four legs, wagging tail, and barks, the subject is probably some kind of dog. It may not be my dog, but I can infer from previous experience that it is a dog.

In both scenarios, our observations are fed into our current mental state as fuzzy data—points of information that we aren’t focused on and, perhaps, can’t completely define but still influence our cognitive processes. Pattern recognition does not always occur instantly, but it does happen automatically and spontaneously. It’s a fundamental aspect of how we interact with the world. These amorphous blobs of information from the past push and pull on our active mind, making things feel right and wrong. That is my dog. Here, dog. Here. That’s not my dog. Gross, dog. Gross.

This passive association is what allows us to say, “I’m pretty sure that shelf will fit in my tiny apartment,” or in the praxis of evolutionary biology, say (translated from Neanderthal), “I’m pretty sure this cave smells like something that eats manflesh.”

Useful information.

This concept is vitally important to understand when designing for the web. Users recognize patterns. Period. Full stop. They don’t mean to. They don’t try do. They aren’t even aware of the fact, for the most part. And they can’t turn it off. We can’t turn it off. It’s just people being people. So when you or your organization establish a pattern of behavior or an information architecture within your site or application, your users will internalize it, even if you don’t want them to, even if you weren’t aware that’s what you were doing. This is one of the foundational concepts of usability.

Your users’ experience won’t just be affected by the patterns within your product. They will be steered by patterns from everything else that they’ve ever experienced. Before you even have a chance to show off your brilliant layout, daring colors, and perfectly harmonious typeface—not to mention your strategic, insightful, must-have content—your users are feeling things. Those things can be good, bad, or neutral, but they are there. They’re running asynchronous pattern-matching scripts, written by evolution, 24/7. If you don’t account for the patterns of the world and attempt to use or overwrite them, you’ll be missing an opportunity to help your users feel not only successful, but human.

Check out more resources on Brian’s blog.