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What The Matrix teaches us about design psychology

What The Matrix teaches us about design psychology

Readers with exceptional taste in film will have no doubt been ecstatic to hear the recent news that The Matrix trilogy is getting a fourth instalment, with Keanu Reeves and Carrie–Anne Moss making a leather–clad comeback (if you haven’t seen the original saga, it’s kind of complicated; here’s a short synopsis).

Aside from indulging my passion for highly quotable dialogue and unwarranted overuse of CGI, I’m bringing The Matrix into a UX blog because it’s full of allusions to real–life psychological principles. As a UX practitioner, I’m interested in patterns of thought and behaviour that influence how people make decisions when using an interface. So without further ado, here are few principles found in The Matrix that are relevant to experience design, starting with Zipf’s Law.

1. The principle of least effort (sometimes called Zipf’s law)

The Matrix Neo

       Neo swats off Agent Smith single–handed. Retrieved from GyfCat.


“Come on. Stop trying to hit me and HIT me.”

Zipf’s law relates to choice. If there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will usually choose the least demanding course of action – they’ll choose the blue pill.

In the 1940s, linguist George Kingsely Zipf pointed out that an abundance of words exist in natural languages (like English), but humans typically communicate using a relatively small selection of these words. This is due to our tendency to communicate efficiently, using the least effort possible. In the 1980s, librarian Thomas Mann noted the same pattern when people look for information in libraries; people tend to stop searching as soon as minimally acceptable results are found. Today, it’s easy to see how this plays out; how often do you peruse page three on Google?

The principle of least effort is so foundational to a great UX design that you might not even recognize it when you see it. To borrow a metaphor from Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering:

“Think of it like a room’s air conditioning. We only notice it when it’s too hot, too cold, making too much noise, or the unit is dripping on us. Yet, if the air conditioning is perfect, nobody says anything and we focus, instead, on the task at hand.”

It sounds like common sense and a simple idea, and indeed it is, but its effect on how we design products and services is profound. Carving out and designing for the path of least resistance is a challenge that most organisations online still don’t get right. For further reading, I’d recommend Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think” which is superb at explaining what’s involved in simplifying users’ tasks at an interface level.

 2. The principles of grouping (Gestalt principles)

The Matrix Cypher

      Cypher was quite happy to go on living in the Matrix. Retrieved from Shazoo.


“…there’s way too much information to decode the Matrix. You get used to it, though. Your brain does the translating. I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, redhead.”

Gestalt principles relate to the human trait of seeing disparate elements as a complete object. Like when Cypher was caught enjoying the matrix a little too much (he really was the worst). Our brains constantly try to perceive meaning and order even when we’re looking at something that is random or incomplete. This means UX designers should be aware that users may discern meaning from how you position items, patterns, colours and content, whether or not you’ve planned for it.

For example, one Gestalt principle is the ‘Law of closure’, whereby people tend to perceive incomplete shapes as a whole object before they see any individual elements.

 

IDF Gestalt principles

Law of closure. Retrieved from Interaction Design Foundation.

3. The continuity principle

The Matrix pills

      The two options offered to Neo didn’t look too different at first. Retrieved from Youtube.

 

“I know what you’re thinking, ‘cause right now I’m thinking the same thing… Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?”

The continuity principle may have been at play in The Matrix, which states that similarly looking and positioned items are similar and related to each other. The stakes were much higher in choosing the red pill, but the way Morpheus presented it to Neo made it seem less scary – after all, it was the same size and shape as the blue pill. Perhaps if the red option was presented in a syringe, or locked in a guarded safe, or concealed in a jar of Marmite (yes, I’m aiming to be controversial) he may have thought a little harder about swallowing it.

Continuity principle

      The continuity principle can encourage users to consider more products. Retrieved from Amazon.


Think about how Amazon presents recommended products. One minute you’re looking for a sweet–ass black leather cyber–punk trench coat for Halloween, and next you see a row of long, tailored designer jackets, each image having similar proportions, spacing and white backgrounds. It’s an excellent technique for cross selling.

4. The principle of loss–aversion

The Matrix chair

       Trinity and Neo. Retrieved from SciFiMovie.com.


“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

People hate losses more than they love gains. Some studies have suggested that the thought of making a loss can have twice as much impact on our decision making as the opportunity to make an equivalent gain (Dawes, 2004; Tversky & Kahneman, 1992).

Morpheus made the blue pill sound like a loss: ‘wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to’. In other words, if Neo picked this option he knew he would lose his one opportunity to learn the truth about his reality.

A good example of this principle at play is in pet insurance marketing. Most of us with pets have no real idea of their genetic history or the likelihood that they’ll have future illnesses. Do you as an owner risk it (and get lucky that you don’t rack up expensive vet bills) or fork out for insurance ‘just in case’? Petplan in the US play on this by emphasising the potential financial impact of ignoring insurance for your little furballs.

Pet insurance advert

                                            Pet insurance advert. Retrieve from NNG.


All of the messaging a company communicates plays a part in UX. Remember though, there’s a fine line between showing customers that you know about their needs, and trying to scare the money out of them.

5. Framing

The Matrix Morpheus

       Neo weighs up the choices. Retrieved from Energy Matters.

 

“Remember, all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

A similar but subtly different principle of psychology is the “Framing effect”. It relates to how people react to a particular stimulus dependent on the context in which it is presented.

In a study by Levin and Gaeth in 1988, consumers rated several qualitative attributes of ground beef that framed the beef as either “75% lean” or “25% fat.” The consumers’ evaluations were more favourable toward the beef labelled “75% lean”. More importantly, the magnitude of this effect lessened when consumers actually tasted the meat.

The Matrix steak

       Cypher enjoys a virtual steak in The Matrix. Retrieved from Youtube.


In another study (1981), Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman asked participants to choose between two treatments for 600 people infected with a deadly disease. Treatment A would result in 400 deaths. Treatment B had a 33% chance that no one would die, but a 66% chance that everyone would die. Each treatment was presented in a positive and negative frame.

For example, for treatment A:

Positive framing: Save 200 lives.

Negative framing: 400 people will die.

Treatment A was chosen by 72% of participants when framed positively, dropping to only 22% when framed negatively.

Framing can very much influence thoughts, perceptions and ultimately behaviour based on how things are presented or communicated. Morpheus told Neo that he was only offering him the truth – coincidentally, that’s exactly what Neo was looking for. He could have said “Hey Neo, do you want to wake up in a robot incubator covered in fluid, get beat up a bunch of times and lose everyone you love?” Still the truth, not so persuasive.

In the online world, persuasion is a powerful tool. The effect of framing, when applied correctly, can influence customers to take the path that you carve out for them.

Conclusion

The principles of psychology tell us that humans typically behave in common ways when exposed to particular patterns of design. But understanding human differences is the lifeblood of UX and service design. Getting to grips with people and their uniqueness as well as their similarities is what keeps the UX and Service design industry so in–demand and highly valued in the ultra–connected, consumer–centric world of 2019.

Remember, your customer is not Keanu Reeves in the movies. Online, people are typically lazy, impatient, biased and fearful of loss; scared of going down rabbit holes with a product or service. Businesses and creators of interfaces and services should make their customers feel motivated and confident to follow the path of least resistance. Keep those red pills tucked away, seem unattractive if found and ensure your users remain calm and feeling in control. And keep them away from the matrix of complexity. We’re not all the chosen ones.

References

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Science  30 Jan 1981: Vol. 211, Issue 4481, pp. 453–458 DOI: 10.1126/science.7455683

Dawes, J. (2004), “Price changes and defection levels in a subscription‐type market: can an estimation model really predict defection levels?”, Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 35–44. https://doi.org/10.1108/08876040410520690

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. J Risk Uncertainty (1992) 5: 297. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00122574

Levin, Irwin & Gaeth, Gary. (1988). How Consumers Are Affected by the Framing of Attribute Information Before and After Consuming the Product. Journal of Consumer Research. 15. 374–78. 10.1086/209174.

Cover image: Retrieved from Comettv / Modified from original.

By Andrew McCrea

UX Strategist

Andrew is a UX Strategist at Fathom, and has been planning and delivering digital projects for over 14 years.

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