The Brain’s hot button, the 6 year old & error messages

Product creators be aware, its the last thing we think of and the one thing our brains recalls!

Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”. In this case, my tired 7 year old daughter who freaked out over a badly worded maths instruction — Her hot button pressed and not letting go!! “Why can’t it just be clear?” she screamed!

I being a calm, patient mum (?) saw it was unclear, gave her a hug, made her breath and calmly, albeit 15 minutes later, assisted.

Fast forward 2 week and I’m shouting “Why can’t it just be clear?” to my smart watch which won’t charge and ‘Help’ is not helping. I had turned into my 6 year old-self and my mindfulness training had gone out of the window.

I had let this ‘Thing’ activate my “Hot button!!”

Turn outs I’m not the only one. Most people on finding an error do the same wrong thing, on average 3 times, making you hotter whilst losing the capacity to read ‘rationally’. And there’s lies the problem … in our neurology and psychology!

So what’s going on? Well lots actually:

  • Your brain is sending more information than all the phones around the world. Your brain is amazing and so its looking for short cuts ‘not to think’.
  • We spend 40% of the day not making decisions (according to a Duke University Researcher, 2006, The Power of Habit, C Duhigg) to avoid using the finite amount of brain power that we have every day.

Think about what you usual do after a long day: same route home, same kind of meal, same channel,? Mono decisions (Mark Zuckerberg’s T-shirts) are good as it saves brain energy (not so good for creativity but that’s a different story).

  • In fact our subconscious drives us (some say 95% of the time) and as the day goes on and ‘Ego depletion’ kicks in, we make even less rational decisions, using more habits verse decisions.
  • Even “less rational” do I hear you say — Yep. Much has been written in the last decade about how ‘Predictable irrational” we actually are (using Dan Ariely). Daniel Kahnman, nobel prize winner of, Thinking Fast and Slow, calls this System 1 and System 2 thinking and Professor Steve Peters sums up whats going on in our heads quite neatly in the Chimp Paradox using 3 characters:
  1. ‘Human’ part, is the ‘rational’ CEO part ( the prefrontal cortex) but reacts much slower than the other 2.
  2. The emotional chimp is either happy or easily upset (fight or flight response) and reacts 5x faster than Human.
  3. The ‘Auto pilot’ reacts 20 x faster than the Human and is ready to dive into action based on past events and feelings, i.e. accumulated intuition.

As any mindfulness course or Professor Steve Peters would say — its up to the Human to manage and evaluate its emotional responses and suggestions from both parties and then:

Not to “React”liked a crazed chimp but to pause and “Respond” like a proper rational, kind, calm individual! (Space hopper technique is good here *:)

Whats this got to do with product or error messages?

Both the chimp and Auto pilot hijack the Human especially if its happily going about its way and bham.. a change, a perceived hurdle, threat, “OMG — you want me to think!”.

If it turns out good, great! It will be logged and you’ll do it again. The thing is your imperfect memory doesn’t really remember detail, but give it a big negative (or positive) emotion and its a superhighway to the brain’s limbic system and in particular the amygdala (which takes care of the processing of memories, emotions and decision making) — a ‘lightbulb memory’ logged and clocked — a relatively bad and, or mentally taxing scenario and its panic button time (especially if your tired). The feedback loop of a product experience will drive their next relationship with you, or not and be shared socially!

As was the case of my daughter and I, error messages and poor instructions led to:

Chimp > Argh > Panic!

So what could you do if you stir the irrational chimp within, in relation to errors pages?

  1. Appease it. Sorry goes some way to help them pause and take a breath. Then don’t treat the action like it was wrong, but help them complete the action properly
  2. Make suggestions, “Why not try this’human kind language soothes the chimp, but still concise for the slower ‘human’ to pay attention whilst it controls the chimp. Ask your self what they really need to know?
  3. When your ‘hot’ tempered or n a rush you scan read or look for images to help:
  • Pages should be specific and contextual: Don’t write a list of FAQ’s and hope the customer will solve their own problems. Try to ensure you understand different errors so the page the customer see’s deals just with that one issue
  • Use an image — the brain processes a well structure image much faster than words
  • If its just copy, use the design/font to help them scan read, ideally 3 steps or clear sections
  • Don’t write the steps on one page and expect a user to remember them on another page, use a pop up?
  1. Add a ‘Contact us’ link to your page, even better, a contextual web chat. I get that businesses are trying to save operational costs but if the customer then has to spend 5 minutes trying to look for a contact number/email — well, you might as well say goodbye!
  2. Don’t use that page to Market to them or give them lots of other suggestions that might help their overall experience… its clutter on a page! Remember KISS!

As a business you could try making a habit of analysing the types of errors your product/service gets. Product and Designers, design for the optimal user journeys and don’t like admitting they may have got something slightly wrong. Step back and look for patterns in the analysis, it may even give you an opportunity to create a new product and may mitigate issues. I found this when dealing with Search errors and resulted in a new feature that solved fifty thousand errors a month. Donald A Norman in his classic book “The Design of Everyday things” covers errors really well.

In Conclusion

I believe that error pages / instructions / when things go wrong (delete as appropriate) are key in a relationship with the customer, but sadly, its the last thing that companies tend to thing about or invest time in!

Knowledge of the mind could and should, be extended to building and designing products for the way we really behave and irrationally think (again another story!).

A note to the customer seeing an error message/ bad experience:

I write this as my husband battled for 3 hours trying to install a NAS drive with “…OMG so not user friendly instructions!”. Breath, don’t let them stir your chimp or hit your panic button. Smile as you send a note to their customer service department stating how bad their instructions are. At least smiling will send a message to your brain that its all ok and your not sweating the small stuff!

  • Space hopper technique: Before reacting to a negative situation or comment, pause by imaging a space hopper jumping in between you and your reaction, then stop and thing how you want too respond — i.e calmly, rationally fairly !
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