FEATURE1 February 2012

Designed for the mind


NeuroFocus CEO AK Pradeep on how neuroscience can help automotive and retail design appeal to consumers’ unconscious minds.

NeuroFocus CEO AK Pradeep on how neuroscience can help automotive and retail design appeal to consumers’ unconscious minds.

The effects have been felt in fields as disparate as economics and movie trailers: neurological knowledge is reshaping standards and operations in organisations around the world. While the specific applications of these brain-based insights differ, the effect is the same: the more we learn about how the brain is structured and how it functions the more our world is changed.

Neurodesign, as I define the phenomenon, draws upon the remarkable advances that neuroscience is bringing to our understanding of how humans perceive and respond to the world around them. The reason it offers such potential is that our conscious minds can only process a tiny fraction of the millions of bits of information we take in every second – the rest is registered below our conscious state.

By measuring at the subconscious level we take a deep dive to where stimuli are initially registered, providing the most accurate and reliable insights.

The results outline clear directions that neurodesign can take across many categories. Let’s focus on two fields, the automotive industry and the retail sector.

The brain prefers simplicity. This might seem strange since it is such an incredibly complex organ, but the brain is also the body’s energy hog, consuming 20% of the blood supply. It is built for maximum efficiency

Neuroscience and automotive design
Major purchases like cars involve a mix of rational and emotional decision-making. Getting the balance right in automotive design can mean a marketplace success and years of profitability following the upfront investment. Getting it wrong can mean not just a hit to the balance sheet, but a torpedo to corporate reputation and market share.

The process of designing a car is a lengthy and expensive one, drawing on aesthetics, functionality and affordability among other factors. Manufacturers have traditionally tried to understand consumers’ needs by asking potential buyers to express their thoughts and emotions in surveys and focus groups, to try to work out what consumers will pay for in their next purchase.

But by measuring the brain directly at the moment the subconscious mind registers and responds to a stimulus, we can deliver a more reliable picture.

What does this technology mean for the designers, manufacturers and buyers of complex and expensive products like cars? Neurological testing produces clear answers.

  • The brain prefers curves. In nature, straight edges represent risk. Sharply pointed objects can maim and even kill, and humans have learned to steer clear of them. Our advice to car makers and retailers is always to opt for curvilinear shapes instead of sharp edges.
  • Keep things clear and simple. Our short-term memory capacity is surprisingly limited. Typically we can retain half a dozen or so items in the forefront of our conscious minds at a time. If you overwhelm the brain with too much information or too many tasks, the prefrontal cortex will kick in and select which to keep and which to ignore.
  • The brain likes natural textures. Although we are often far removed from nature in our daily lives, our modern brains are 100,000 years old and still prefer surroundings that seem familiar and comforting. The material itself need not be real, but if the trim pieces in a car interior, for instance, resemble real wood closely enough to convince the subconscious mind, our brains will respond positively.

The common thread running through these best practices is that the brain prefers simplicity. That might seem strange since it is such an incredibly complex organ, but the brain is also the body’s energy hog, consuming fully 20% of our blood supply. It is built for maximum efficiency.

Neuroscience and retail design
Shopping is a highly stimulating experience for the brain, and store design is a combination of art and science, with the added element of imminent purchase.

To test what the subconscious mind responds to in a store setting, we created N-Matrix 3D, a virtual reality in-store testing system designed according to what we know about how the brain works in the retail environment.

Neurodesign in the retail sector will be a critical factor in the near and long-term future, driven not just by competition for shoppers’ attention and share-of-purse, but also by technology. As the importance of mobile devices and services in our lives increases, the environments in which we encounter and interact with brands and products will alter accordingly. We are already seeing the appearance of location-based services, QR codes, electronic coupons, and in-store touchscreen technology.

There are several principles that retailers should keep in mind as they consider how products, digital technology and architecture work together.

Firstly, we are designed to register and respond to motion in our environment. Spot the sabre-toothed tiger before he spots you, and you may live another day. Stores that integrate motion into their physical settings will capture shoppers’ attention and engage them more effectively. This can be done through in-store video, lighting, revolving displays, and other motion-based attractors.

Secondly, the brain relentlessly seeks what is new – making novelty a prime asset in the retail setting. I don’t mean traditional marketing which trumpets ‘new and improved’, but visual settings and services that surprise, engage and satisfy the brain. Product displays are an avenue where the unexpected can pay dividends. An example is the food company that followed our recommendation and began displaying its products in baskets rather than just stocked side by side on shelves. The materials used were also natural, which as previously noted is a core neurological best practice.

Marketers can create puzzles for the mind to solve through the use of ambiguity and error, applicable in fields like advertising and package design. Companies can grab consumers’ attention, engage with them emotionally and create memories by including deliberate aspects of error or ambiguity in their product offerings at the point of sale. An image of a cow on a trampoline to market milk is an example of tapping into error, while ambiguous facial expressions instead of ever-smiling faces in promotional materials are more likely to get our attention. Why and how is that cow on a trampoline? What does that model’s expression mean?

Speaking of expressions, another thing learned from neuroscience is that the brain is powerfully drawn to depictions of people – especially faces. We see this crop up in study after study. One piece of advice we offer to retail clients and brand marketers is to incorporate mirrors in store designs. The subconscious will respond well to this fundamentally compelling stimulus.

Brain sells
We believe that neurodesign in the retail sector will manifest itself in seven key points that form what we call the shopper experience framework:

  1. Key information about the store, products, and services – information that enables the shopper to fully enjoy the experience from the outset.
  2. The ability to interact with brands, products, and services throughout the store, through as many of the five senses as possible.
  3. Shopping as a means of entertainment. As younger audiences weaned on full-immersion experiences like video games enter the adult consumer arena, they will come to expect the same general sense of heightened sensory rewards when they’re out shopping.
  4. Education and awareness raising that keeps the buyer informed. Driven by the exponential growth in digital information sources readily available at their fingertips, consumers will set this bar as the price for their patronage.
  5. Simplicity. The brain is structured to process stimuli as easily and quickly as possible. This has powerful implications for store design. Retailers who construct store layouts to make the shopping process as smooth as possible will be rewarded by the brain’s engagement and subconscious satisfaction.
  6. Reinforcing the consumer’s sense of self worth, which stimulates the subconscious to assign higher value to the experience.
  7. A sense of community. Adding the element of a shared shopping experience that encourages a sense of belonging to a larger social group or contributing to the greater good, resonates deeply within the subconscious.

AK Pradeep is CEO of NeuroFocus

1 Comment

9 years ago

Interesting piece. After 30 years of being involved with neuroscience in various ways, my main questions are: 1. Who chose the visuals used to illustrate the article? 2. What were they intended to communicate? (Neuroscience Design) 3. Do you know what they actually communicate? (Engagement and subconscious meaning) 4. How do they reinforce various readers' sense of self-worth? Thank you

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