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Since the dawn of design and marketing, people have used their understanding of human motivations and behavior to design products and experiences. They’ve also employed those insights to identify a target audience and market the items to that group. Using a variety of data — including demographic and psychographic information  — they seek to craft design and marketing efforts that align with the human decision-making process.

Much of the knowledge they employ has its origin in a much more scientific field — neuroscience.

In this column, we’ll explore how strategic marketers and designers can apply (and are already applying) a variety of tools in neuroscientists’ arsenal.

Building on the scientific method

Designers and marketers are already building upon the fundamentals of neuroscience and human behavior. They draw insights from quantitative and qualitative research studies. They interview, survey and analyze website traffic to understand how and why users are behaving in a certain way. They create hypotheses based on these findings and test their ideas through prototyping and user testing. Sometimes, they’ll go as far as visiting users in their native environments (ethnographic studies), just to capture new insights.

A/B (or split) testing is at the heart of data-driven marketing but is also central to scientific experimentation. We can’t view the black box of a person’s thoughts as they interact with a website, but we can quantify consumer perception of a landing page by testing two versions that differ by a single element. While causation can be tricky to prove, iterating design or campaign changes can isolate them and better explain downstream behavioral effects.

Just like design, marketing itself has become a science. Marketers use a variety of industry-standard metrics to record levels of consumer engagement with marketing content. Clicks, conversions and impressions all represent varying levels of consumer engagement with content that can be measured and forecast over time. But while these metrics are standard and often very helpful, they aren’t the end-all in determining consumer intent.

They don’t necessarily answer why a consumer clicked your ad. The question that marketers’ insights try to answer is the question of motivation. So although the metrics quantify human behavior, it’s important to look at the story they tell over time to help answer why the numbers might look the way they do.

Applying neuroscience findings to design & marketing

In addition to using neuroscientific methods, specific findings on human memory, recall, perception and bias — and how all these factors interact — can also help marketers and designers move their industries forward.

Memory processing
For example, an understanding of the workings of memory processing can help marketers decide how much information to show on a website or in an advertisement. Studies have shown that, for most people, working procedural memory can only handle five to seven items at any moment. Too many stimuli will overwhelm users. This is one reason why simplifying designs is linked with better usability.

Depth of vision
Additionally, understanding the effects of color, depth and movement on the brain can help designers create cohesive experiences that drive users toward business goals. For example, by adding shadows and layers, designers can leverage the visual cortex’s innate ability to perceive distance to create a hierarchy between layers of information, purposely highlighting the most relevant pieces to draw the user’s eye.

Companies with a strong focus on design have leveraged this knowledge. In a direct response to the simplification and “flattening” of web design patterns, Google researched and modeled physical materials like paper to create Material Design, a design system inspired by how items on a real world desk would layer.

Google's illustration of the principles of Material Design.

Google’s illustration of the principles of Material Design

Behavioral targeting
The quantification of consumer behavior enabled by scientific methods is why behavioral targeting, arguably a kindred offshoot of neuroscientific research, has become an important tool in a marketer’s arsenal. By using it, you’re guaranteed an audience that has a statistically higher chance of being interested in your type of product than an audience of randomly selected individuals.

But as advertising targeting continues to increase in complexity, competition for consumers’ attention also increases. It’s not enough just to segment your audiences and target them with content that you think will match their interests — everyone else can use those platform tools as well. You must choose the audience segments that matter most to your business and create a product with a distinct value proposition. Then tell them about it with messaging that’s dialed into their motivations.

Brain plasticity & trends

But today’s valuable insights won’t stay fresh forever. Our brains are plastic, constantly evolving with our environment. Learning a new language, regaining motor control after a traumatic injury, or even just getting used to a new office are all miracles of our brains’ ability to adapt. Similarly, our brains are constantly being molded by the technology to which they are exposed.

Snapchat is a great example of an app taking advantage of evolving consumer motivations and behaviors. As tech consumption increases, our ability to retain everything to which we are exposed decreases, and Snapchat becomes a perfect fit for those folks unwilling to commit to the permanence of an Instagram or Facebook upload.

Snapchat also demonstrates its understanding of its audience by offering full-screen video ads that run 10 seconds or less. This creative is shorter than the standard 30-second YouTube or commercial TV ad, and, unlike YouTube TrueView ads, Snapchat ads are skippable at any point in the ad play. With such a departure from standard creative length and interactivity, how does Snapchat’s ad engagement perform when stacked up against its industry rivals?

In 2015, Media Science Labs, an industry-leading consumer neuroscience research organization, ran experiments with users exposed to creative on each channel in a controlled environment. They found (PDF) that Snapchat outperformed Facebook in-feed, Instagram in-feed, and YouTube TrueView ads on metrics they defined for visual attention.

In addition, they found that Snapchat ads also delivered higher electrodermal activity — a method of measuring emotional response — to the ad stimulus and provided a purchase lift of over two times the other ad formats when users were asked to rate their willingness to purchase the advertised product.

Media Science comparison of Snapchat ads to others.

MediaScience comparison of Snapchat ads to others

It’s worthwhile to note that Snapchat ads and TV ads both command 100 percent share of the screen, essentially hijacking users’ awareness and immersing them in the content experience, despite the leaner ad creative. It’s possible that the shorter attention spans and “instant fix” needs of today’s audience may be motivating a shift in lean ad creative and product strategy.

A well-targeted ad designed to speak to a particular audience segment can trigger the reward center of the audience member’s brain and truly motivate them to take action. In this way, deeply personalized design, paired with an ad delivery style aligned with user attention, can be a powerful combination.

Lessons of neuroscience

Neuroscientists are academically trained to conduct research like this that produces statistically significant results, but that doesn’t mean you need to hire a neuroscientist. Instead, look for employees with a strong background in statistics, research, interviewing and counseling — all skills that can contribute to any company’s design and marketing performance.

Depending on the complexity and number of users your product has, hiring specialists may be something worth considering. Many large companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon employ neuroscientists, ethnographers and data scientists to comb through user research. Most companies, however, aren’t that large and probably don’t need a fleet of scientists.

When it comes down to it, thinking critically and skeptically about your team’s strategic process — examining every effort through the lens of human behavior and motivation — can do wonders for your design or marketing strategy even if you have a liberal arts degree rather than a doctorate in neuroscience.

Keep the focus on exploring human behavior, and, with advancements in data science and technology, studying how people use digital products and designing solutions for them will continue to be a fascinating pursuit.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.