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Designing for Your Inner Kirk and Spock

It’s happened to all of us. We’re driving along thinking about why we never seem to use all the ink in a pen (yet we always find empty pens) and, suddenly, we realise we’re driving at 60 MPH in a 35 zone.

Sure, we can argue the reasoning why people choose to speed, but the most startling are those times when we simply don’t intend to. Why is it that we make these sorts of mistakes? Why don’t we just pay attention?

Even more importantly, how do we get the users of our designs to pay attention?

A Tale of Two Minds

The truth is that we’re each used to thinking of ourselves as, well, “Me"—the being that reasons and decides. However, as Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast & Slow, it’s more important to see ourselves as a combination of two competing, cooperative characters: the automated System 1 and the reflective System 2.

I like to think of them as Kirk and Spock.

Mr. Spock vs. James T Kirk. Photographer: JD Hancock, CC 2.0 A. Flickr Creative Commons

First up, Captain Kirk is System 1. He has a lot of decisions to make and goes with his instincts. He doesn’t pick the optimal solution, but the quick-and-dirty method gets the job done. System 1 is our instincts and habits. However, like Kirk, it gets ahead of itself and leaves us wondering why we just made a bacon and yoghurt smoothie. While these heuristics and biases can leave us a giant mess, most of the time they work just fine.

Spock is the thoughtful, self-reflective System 2. He logically solves problems and can explain exactly how he got there. When Kirk is uncertain how to proceed or unsure of what he is seeing, he solicits Spock’s analysis. However, if Spock gets bogged down, he may spend forever trying to optimize when it no longer matters. He is limited in exactly how many problems he can solve at once. Thinking takes time and energy.

Just as in the show, our 'Kirk' system is the captain. Most actions (walking, tying our shoes, driving, etc.) are conducted on autopilot. When we pay attention, we engage Spock. Unfortunately, attention is a finite resource, and focus takes willpower. This is the "Cognitive Miser" hypothesis: we pass off the more demanding tasks to our automatic systems, saving effort. When we’re tired, we’re more likely to do things that come more naturally to us, like order that double-chocolate lava cake.

Cognition Shapes Design

So, if our users more often act like a Starship Enterprise captain than an optimally-calculating Homo Economicus, how do we best design for them?

1. Use contextual clues to inform Kirk

Poor behaviour can be the result of information imbalance. People generally intend to do well, but then get lost somewhere along the way. Spock knows that something is wrong, but Kirk is getting all the signals that everything is perfectly fine.

2. To change behaviour, conserve and redirect energy

Spock gets tired. The more energy a user of our design wastes, the less willpower they’ll have to commit to it. We shouldn't waste our audience’s attention; simpler, more direct interactions will drive results.

In summary, we’re not always as rational as we wish we were. Design is about appreciating and anticipating what we are, not who we idealise ourselves to be. By appreciating the tradeoffs between our conscious and automatic processes we can encourage ourselves, and others, to focus on what matters.

Trey Roady

Trey Roady

Trey Roady writes about cognition and the development of responsive, resilient, and ethical sociotechnical systems as The Eccentric Cog.  By day, he’s a PhD student in Texas A&M University’s Human Factors & Cognitive Systems Lab. He also holds credentials as an Associate Human Factors Professional.


He lives with his wife, daughter, and two mutually antagonistic cats in a house filled with (too many?) books.

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