As neuroscientists learn more about how the human brain works, companies are paying attention.

Imagine this scene, in the not-so-distant future, inside a device manufacturer’s Silicon Valley headquarters: The company’s designers and engineers have made a bold decision to hook up volunteers to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which can measure brain activity and blood flow over time in response to stimuli. The subjects finger a new smartphone prototype that is slimmer and lighter than any of its predecessors, with a bigger screen and blunter edges. And the designers carefully watch the brain responses, seeking clues to what might excite customers to buy yet another gadget.

This hasn’t happened yet and might not for some time. Yes, neuroscience technology, such as fMRI, is advancing rapidly and is aiding doctors and scientists in mapping the brain to better understand human behavior. But any effort to use this data to create products with attributes that nudge customers to them remains a challenge. As much as it would make designers’ lives easier, “there isn’t a buy button” within the human brain, as Read Montague, who holds duel professorships at University College London, in neuroscience, and at Virginia Tech, in physics, pointed out in a recent interview.

Still, neuroscience does offer some tantalizing hints about how the brain functions and reacts and how we behave. In the 1960s and ’70s, electroencephalography, or EEG, was used to detect electric fields in the brain, but had no spatial precision. In the ’80s, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, could take anatomical snapshots of the head. But it was the arrival of the fMRI in the mid-1990s that has been the game changer, because this tool is like a “microscopic blood movie,” Montague explained in a TEDGlobal presentation.

An fMRI measures hundreds of thousands of tiny sites in the brain and records microscopic blood flow that is tightly correlated with neural activity. Montague compares the fMRI to watching a computer program at work or “safely eavesdropping on brain activity,” describing it as “so powerful, it’s scary.” This hasn’t gone unnoticed by companies, marketers, and Madison Avenue advertisers. Sports car manufacturers, for instance, have tried to pinpoint design features that trigger testosterone. The nascent field known as “neuromarketing” measures brain waves in response to products, ads and packaging to figure out what compels consumers’ subconscious. Some believe this kind of controversial brain digging has the potential to enhance what we can discover through traditional market research (and design research) because it delves so much deeper than asking questions or observing activity and behavior.

The Challenges of Brain-Based Design Research

But why you prefer Coke or Pepsi, sports cars, iPhones, or any product, Montague explained, is driven not just by responses from the reward processing part of your brain, but also from many stimuli like memory or some factor in the external culture. “Maybe you like Coke not because of the taste, but because you remember the Coke polar bear ads at Christmas,” Montague said. In that sense, you could put a gadget like a slimmer, sleeker iPhone in front of people and see if the brain sends any signals that can be detected by researchers. But such signals do not necessarily indicate that the iPhone designers got the product right. “There are too many other factors in play,” Montague said. Think of the memories associated with madeleines in The Remembrance of Things Past—life imitates art in this sense.

Plus, even if brain research on a handful of test subjects could tell you something about the design of a product, it doesn’t mean that a particular product will have mass appeal. “We might be able to tell you how the brain [works], but we can’t tell you if an individual or a global population will buy something,” Sarah Caddick, a neuroscientist and guest host at TEDGlobal, observed in an interview. That is, you can test a few people or a subgroup of consumers and see what happens, but whether millions of people will react the same way is only a guess. The problem is that we’re not homogenous; our individuality gets in the way. Then again, this type of microcosmic approach is similar to traditional market testing and design ethnography, which focuses on small samples.

Another limitation to the new frontier of brain-based design decisions: Although neuromarketers are attempting to predict future sales successes, they cannot tell us why a particular product, like those watches with built-in calculators from the 1980s, were only briefly popular and then became extinct. In other words, even if researchers observed the brain’s reaction to these watches—or any other now forgotten object—“I couldn’t tell you why the brain reached that conclusion,” Caddick said, just as a neuroscientist can’t easily explain why a tablet computer with hard edges is more appealing than, say, one that looks like a Dali-esque melted clock. “We know a lot about aversion and predicting attraction, but when it comes to designing a building or an iPad or a dress, we can only control and explain the physical properties,” Caddick, a policy advisor to the British-based Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which supports neuroscience research, said. “We can’t truly unpack the human experience. That is based on much, much more.”

Moreover, our brains are malleable and changeable, which poses another challenge to designing based on brain responses. How many things did we consider cool when we were 20 that became decidedly un-cool at 40, or even 30? The fickleness of the brain is especially true for adolescents. Human brain development doesn’t stop in early childhood, as previously thought, but continues throughout adolescence and well into adulthood, as reflected in the research of Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. The brain systems involved in decision-making, planning, social understanding, and risk-taking are still developing in adolescence, which might explain at least some of the dramatic behavior witnessed in the teenage years.

New Discoveries, New Directions

Interestingly, though, observing and analyzing volatile teen behavior could provide clues to how we can reach this mystifying age group. Blakemore believes such insights could be useful in devising, for example, public health campaigns against smoking or binge drinking. If the creative teams behind such campaigns focus on the long-term health consequences or the risk of getting lung cancer, as traditional campaigns have, Blakemore observed in an interview, not long after she spoke at TEDGlobal, there will be a lower impact because teenagers don’t really think about their lives 40 years from now. “It’s all about tomorrow or next week,” Blakemore said. “[They] think about the now. Adolescents care more about the real, immediate, and social consequences of their actions.”

To be more effective, designers of public service campaigns could focus on how smoking puts off potential partners because of bad breath, or the unsocial behavior of getting stinking drunk and vomiting. The teenage brain, Blakemore added, is more tuned in to the actions and reactions of other people—especially peers. It’s not so concerned with adults’ reactions. That’s why, as Blakemore suggested, “If you are designing for adolescents, it’s probably best to find an adolescent to do the designing.”

Clearly, we know more about the brain and how it works than ever before. We know about the motor system and how your brain makes a decision to execute a physical movement before you even know you have made the decision. We know how people respond to certain colors, how we perceive depth and how the brain processes visual scenes. Yet there’s still a lot we don’t know. And as we continue the search for answers—a recent Wall Street Journal story reported that consumer companies are using eye-tracking technology and three-dimensional computer simulations to discern what attracts consumers—we can only speculate and theorize why one product makes it and another flops. The outsized success of Apple products, Montague asserted, might have more to do with primate status behavior—the alpha male is cool and has something cool, so we want the cool thing too—than with streamlined features, great performance, and pleasant experience of the Genius Bar at Apple stores. For the moment we don’t know for sure how our heads are aligned with our hearts, in terms of product love. “Our knowledge of the brain just isn’t there yet,” Montague said. But as researchers continue to use everything from fMRI scans to eye-tracking devices, the mysterious and complex brain will yield more secrets, and when cross-pollinated with traditional market research and ethnography, will expand the power of design.

Illustration by Paul Samples, visual designer II at frog

Ernest Beck is a New York–based freelance writer and editor focusing on design and innovation. He is a senior editor at design mind.

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