How to Design a User Experience Like a Biologist

User ExperienceWhat goes into creating a great website? There’s the images, the copy, the colors, the fonts, the buttons, the margins, among all the other things that play a role. All of these items are just pieces of the larger picture–the one that encompasses the entire user experience.

“A lot of internet marketers find it easy to forget that the whole business revolves around pleasing their customers from the get-go. But what they don’t realize is that the experiences of users have a direct correlation to how well they perform in search engine rankings,” says Mary Anne Kelly of her own Affiliate Marketing blog.

But UX design goes deeper than search engine rankings. Good UX design penetrates into the heart and mind of the user and works off of their innate motivations and natural human tendencies. Aarron Walter, director of user experience at MailChimp, puts it best when he says, “User experience is not only about seeing the big picture of how our applications and websites are used, but also about how they are made.”

So who could give better advice on how to design around natural human tendencies than a former biologist? Richard Banfield CEO & Co Founder of Fresh Tilled Soil, a UX web and mobile design firm, and an actual former biologist, taught students just that at a recent class. He showed us how to design around each of our elements that make us human, starting with our brains.

The Brain

The primary reason humans evolved to have such large brains is to move our bodies and manipulate the world around us. No other animal has the range of mobility that our arms, hands, legs, and feet afford us. We have the unique ability to use tools, and even though our tools have changed over the years, the contexts in which we use them have not. Don’t over- or underestimate the power of touch in ux design. To be a good tool, a user must be able to handle it simply and effectively.

The other aspect about our brain that makes us unique lies in the fact that we experience emotions. Without emotions, our brains would find themselves incapable of making decisions. How we feel about a product really affects our motivation to use it.

The Persuasion Model illustrates that to get a person from a low motivation to a high motivation, we must remember that there are many different paths for a user to take to increase their motivation. People often find motivation in the level of difficulty they deem a task to possess. A product must not have a process that appears too difficult for a user to handle.

In addition to the difficulty level of a task, in order for someone to find motivation, something must trigger them to act. These triggers often come in sets of two, like rejection and acceptance (as is the case with Facebook), love and hate, and fear and hope.


Another important element in user experience is sight. Fonts, colors, images, faces, words, context, and associations all play a part in vision,but our mental filters determine the impact of what we see and remember. So if you’re selling an expensive product, but your design looks cheap, there’s a huge disconnect.

Humans are also the only animal that can “see” the future. Our brains allow us to imagine future outcomes and either get excited or nervous about them. Good designers will create a path for the user that will relieve the anxiety of pursuing the unknown. In this way, they will see the end goal, they will get excited about it, and they can get motivated to use the product.


Ultimately life comes down to sex. Being a successful human means being successful at transferring our genes to the next generation. In our modern information-driven age, though, we can also relate gene transfer to meme transfer. A meme is an idea that transfers information from one person to another without the need for sex. Therefore, someone who has the ability to successfully transfer information can also be considered a successful human being.

Images of people on websites also have proven to be extremely powerful motivators for initially acquiring users. Seeing another person using the product gives it a human side and allows the user to see who the product is intended for.


Humans are rational creatures by their nature. We draw upon data and our own logic to make our decisions. At the same time, we can also be manipulated into believing something different to what we see or hear. A great deal of this has to do with emotion, but  the way we were brought up has a greater pull.

Sometimes manipulation can be as simple as in the way a form is set up. A study found that countries that have an opt-out system of organ donorship have near a 100% participation rate in organ donors. In contrast, countries that use an opt-in system have drastically lower participation rates.


Human beings have brains for a reason and love to keep them working and engaged. For this reason, we can’t resist a good story. Storytelling is a powerful way for memes to transmit across time and speed up knowledge. Have your product walk the user through a story line in a way that they will find easy to understand and interesting.

All of these elements added together create the user experience. A good product works all of the users faculties in a way that is simple and easy for them.

For more great lessons, check out the other guides on the blog, or visit our class page.

Image Creative Commons License Public Domain via Compfight