What are heuristics?
Heuristics, is the term that describes the psychological concept behind the brain making quick decisions on an everyday basis. We are bombarded constantly by huge amounts of information which the brain does an amazing job of processing in record time. Even with the enviable processing power that the human brain possesses though, we would be overwhelmed very quickly if we were forced to think through every piece of information presented to us before making each decision required to keep our busy lives moving forward. The cognitive overload would be simply crippling.
To combat this problem, over millions of years we’ve evolved a way of skipping over large amounts of that processing. By recognising common and repetitive issues, we make use of past decisions and draw on our experience to jump to conclusions. A heuristic, is simply a mental shortcut that gets us making decisions faster.
We rarely employ heuristics consciously. On the contrary, they are like tiny apps that run in the background of our brains operating system, looking for opportunities to add a little efficiency to our everyday lives. A heuristic's role is to get us thinking fast (it cares little about what we do with those thoughts). That said, the brain uses this technique because the result is usually correct (from where we stand personally).
Some common uses that the brain employs heuristic thinking for are:
- Problem solving - by breaking problems down into less complex concepts
- Decision making - by creating rules of thumb that we instinctively follow
- Effort reduction - by giving us less to think about, reducing our cognitive load
Examples of some common heuristics
Since the development of the heuristic theory (circa 1970 by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman), many different heuristics have been identified, such as:
- The Affect Heuristic - Uses emotional response to guide our decision making. In other words, how something makes us feel will dictate what we decide to do about it.
- The Availability Heuristic - Uses recent events or things that come to mind quickly (memories that are immediately available) to influence our thoughts.
- Facial Recognition - Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have taught us to recognise human faces extremely quickly, and not just on actual live humans… You see faces everywhere, don't you?
- Mental Models - Provide us with a guide for how things work. Toasters, Buses, Governments, we tend to have a pretty good grasp on how all sorts of things operate.
- Pattern Recognition - Allows us to quickly identify groupings of similar things.
- Social Proof - Seeing others have previously made a certain decision, gives us confidence to do the same.
These are a few examples, but there are many more (and likely some still to be identified). As we evolve as a species and develop different technologies, there is also potential for new heuristics to evolve with us. The important takeaway here, is that we all to some degree use these mental shortcuts hundreds (maybe thousands) of times a day. Understanding them, is the key to improving people's lives.
Using heuristics in web and app design
Designing great online experiences is about understanding humans and how we react to different stimuli. In the digital world we demand things faster than ever and measure response times in milliseconds. By understanding some of the common heuristics evolution has baked into the human operating system, we can build products that compliment our way of thinking.
- Using mental models, we can build features that users instinctively understand without providing instruction. We should aim to use common layouts, identifying elements (names, icons) and processes for regular features such as: navigation, register & login and contact forms. Don’t reinvent the wheel where standard practice exists.
- By ‘Framing’ or ‘Priming’ a user, we can help navigate them down certain paths. We can use wayfinding techniques to highlight the paths of least resistance and create content that guides our users with as little effort required from them as possible.
- By using heuristics such as ‘The Consistency Principle’, we can create familiar environments that need little additional support for navigation and discovery of content. This can help foster feelings of control where users are more likely to explore further and deeper.
Again, these are just a few examples, but hopefully illustrates how understanding the basics of even just a few common heuristics provides all sorts of opportunities to make life easier for our users.
Warning - Heuristics lead to cognitive bias
A final word of warning. Heuristics help us make quick decisions, they don't necessarily help us make the right decisions. The brain just wants to get things done and move onto the next taxing task. Heuristics are just one of the tools we’ve developed to help us along the way. If they are the poster child of efficient thinking, then they certainly have an evil twin standing in the background, its name - Cognitive Bias… More on that later.