four boy playing ball on green grass




Imagine you’re scanning music on your smartphone to decide what to listen to next. You’re looking at a list of songs. You decide which song you want, and then you move your finger to touch the name of the song to start it playing. What’s so interesting about that?

What’s interesting is that your description of what happened isn’t what actually happened.

Your experience is that:

  1. You make a conscious decision about what song you want to hear.
  2. You move your muscles to select the song.

But here’s what really happens:

  1. Unconscious parts of your brain make the decision of what song to listen to.
  2. Those unconscious parts of your brain communicate the decision to other areas of the brain that control your motor movements.
  3. Your arm/hand/finger start to move to execute the decision.
  4. Information on what the decision was (finally) appears in your conscious brain areas.
  5. You have the conscious experience of picking a song.
  6. You use your finger to press the name of the song.

Brain scan research by Chun Siong Soon (2008) shows that it takes about 7 seconds from the time you make an unconscious decision to when your conscious brain thinks you have made the decision.

Not Just For Motor Movement

But what about decisions that don’t involve motor movement? Maybe that 7-second lag is just for moving muscles.

Soon (2013) devised a different experiment to see if the same delay holds for making abstract decisions that don’t involve simple motor movements. He found similar results. Up to 4 seconds before the person was aware of making a conscious decision, unconscious areas of the brain had made the decision and started acting on it. In this experiment, participants had to decide whether to work on a word task or an arithmetic task. Two areas of the brain would become active signaling that the decision had been made, but the participant would not yet be aware of the decision. In fact, parts of the brain having to do with working with words versus doing arithmetic tasks were alerted as soon as the decision was made, and still the participant wasn’t aware that he or she had even decided.

The brain activity was so clear that researchers could not only see that a decision had been made, but also tell the participant what the decision was. The researchers knew what each person had decided before the person knew. Not only that, the researchers knew exactly when the decision would be made, as well as when the participant would consciously know that the decision was made.

People who write about this research like to discuss the implications of this research: Is there really such a thing as free will? Is it possible to stop action on a decision after it’s made, but before it’s acted on and before the person even realizes he’s decided? Is it possible to manipulate peoples’ brains so they think the decisions they are making are their own, but in reality those decisions would be stimulated from the outside?

Although these are all interesting questions, they may not seem to be very practical from a design perspective.

But there is a practical impact of this research for designers: How much do we rely on what people say they did or say they are going to do? It’s common for designers to interview their target audience for a product or service to find out things such as:

  • How do you do this task currently?
  • How do you go about making decisions about x?
  • Do you prefer A or B?
  • What would you do next?
  • Which of these would you choose?

Designers ask target audiences these questions before designing, while designing, and after designing. Many have been taught that asking these questions of a target audience and acting on their answers is best practice for design and market research.

But Soon’s research tells us that most—probably all—decisions and most mental processing of any kind happens unconsciously. So asking these questions and listening to answers that have been filtered through conscious thought may not be the best strategy. People don’t actually know why they do what they do, or when they actually decided.

Your target audience will answer these questions as though they really know the answer, because they’re unaware of all this unconscious processing going on. They can be very convincing with their answers of exactly what they thought and how they decided, and the exact moment they decided, because they really believe what they’re saying, even though that’s not actually how it happened.

Since few designers have access to expensive fMRI machines or the training to use them, we’ll probably keep asking the questions. But it’s important that we admit that answers don’t actually tell us what is or will be going on in the brains of the target audience.

As tools for measuring brain activity become more sophisticated, they’ll also become more affordable and easier to use. Eventually designers will all hook up test participants to machines to measure brain activity, heart rate, galvanic skin response, and so on. Some already are. There are some reliable biometrics tools available as I write this book, although some are still very expensive, and many are hard to learn to use.


  • Refrain from making design decisions based entirely on what people say they would do. You can take this information into account, but don’t use it as the basis for major design or redesign decisions.
  • Watch how people actually interact with your products and services, then use this insight into their behavior to inform how to change them to better suit people’s needs.
  • Biometric equipment for body/brain measurements will only improve and become more affordable. Begin planning how and when you’ll incorporate this feedback into your designs so you don’t have to rely on the (faulty) conscious verbalizations of your target audience.



  1. Logistics news and Trends Avatar

    Thanks for sharing this information

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