5 Steps to More Creativity Using Brain Science

Want to be more creative? Whether you are an artist, writer, scientist, web designer, marketer, sales person or business executive, being more creative means you’ll come up with more and better ideas and have more fun while you are doing it.

If you want to have more creative ideas you need to work with, not against, the part of your brain that comes up with ideas: the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain focuses on finding answers and solutions. It combines separate ideas from the rest of your brain and makes connections between them. But the pre-frontal cortex has some interesting and idiosyncratic ways of working, so there are things you can do that help it do its work, and things that hinder. Below are 5 things you can do to help the pre-frontal cortex, and thereby help you be more creative:

1.Find “your spot” and go there: In order for the pre-frontal cortex to connect up different ideas in your brain, and come up with that great creative idea, it has to be quiet, still, focused and not distracted. This means you have to be doing an activity that does not require much conscious thought. Everyone has a certain activity/place that is where they get their most creative ideas. For me it is water… if I am in the shower, or washing dishes, or swimming laps my mind kind of “spaces out” and then all these creative ideas pop in. For some people it is when they are going for a walk, for others when they are gardening, or in bed about to fall asleep… Figure out the activity/spot where your creative ideas come to you and then make sure you do that activity regularly.

2. Forget about it: In order for the pre-frontal cortex to work you have to consciously forget about the “thing” that you are trying to be creative about… So if you are trying to solve a business problem, come up with a new design for a web page, or decide what to write in your blog, the best thing to do is to forget about it entirely. This allows time for your pre-frontal cortex to go combing around your brain for ideas. If you stay focused on the question and keep mind chatter going on about it, then the pre-frontal cortex will be too distracted to go solve the problem.

3. Give yourself time: You will need to be patient. You will need the time to forget. So give yourself enough “elapsed” time… you will need at least a couple of hours and sometimes days or weeks to come up with creative ideas. The more you let go and the more you go to your “spot” the faster the creative process will happen. Similarly, if you want others to come up with creative ideas you can’t just say, “Quick, I need an idea about XXX!” and expect them to have a good answer. The pre-frontal cortex needs time.

4. Work with others: Multiple pre-frontal cortices are better than one! Give the whole team the problem or issue you are trying to solve, then let each person (each pre-frontal cortex) have time to work on it alone. Then bring the team together and let them share their ideas. And then take some more time to let the pre-frontal cortex absorb the ideas from the group. Then bring the team back and you will have some truly great creative solutions.

5. Act on your ideas: When I’m in the shower I get some really great ideas. The trick is getting them written down as soon as I get dried off! and then acting on them. Don’t forget to follow through.

P.S. I had the idea for this blog on creativity… you guessed it, in the shower!

Photo: Creative Commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/

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Be Like Obama

An article from Time on April 2, 2009 describes how President Obama used a secret group of behavioral scientists to craft his campaign, and how he continues to use the group to implement policy changes in the government and consumer changes in behavior.

This secret group includes many of the well known names in the field of persuasion, including Cialdini, Ariely, and others. The secret group is advising the Obama adminstration on how to use the principles I talk about it my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? In my book I explain how to use persuasion principles such as social validation, reciprocity, commitment and others to create web pages that persuade visitors to take specific actions.

So now when you redesign your page to be more persuasive you are joining the ranks of people “in the know” including President Obama!

Use Community to Encourage Self Service

I was speaking today with a friend/colleague about their project to try and get people to use a support website for technical help rather than call the help desk. She asked me how they could get people to use the website instead of call in. People will call in if the help desk is really helpful. For example, I have Apple Care for my Mac. They are usually very helpful. I’ll pick up the phone and call them. But when I have a problem with my HP laptop at home, I’ll do anything to avoid calling the HP help desk (not at all helpful). I’d rather go online and search on my own. But then comes the next interesting question. Which is better? the vendor tech support site or searching on google? Definitely searching on google! Support self-service works well when the user can direct the search… they can refine the search parameters and when the search results have enough detail so the user can see if they will be useful, including telling a story.

Recently I searched for a problem I was having with Powerpoint on my Mac. Entering my search query into Google, I quickly found someone who wrote a story that sounded just like my story. Sure enough, when I looked for more details I discovered they were having the same problem, and they wrote back in with the solution!

Community forums seem to be the best way to get support help. Using the idea of social validation, people will often trust others more than they trust experts these days (especially true of the millennial generation). Really the model is that people are their own expert. They in fact are not searching for someone to give them an answer, they are searching for the “nugget” of information told in a story format from another person — the nugget that will give them a hint, an “a ha” moment that will result in figuring out the problem and the answer on their own. If you want to encourage self service, use community and others stories to encourage people to solve their own problems.

What do you think? Help desk or vendor support site or community forum from google? Which do you find most helpful?

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A Quick Summary of Some Interesting Research


Now that March is here, I thought I’d summarize and link to some great research I found during the last month….

There are gender differences in brain activity when people view something the describe as beautiful. For men it is the right hemisphere that is active, but for women both right and left hemispheres light up. For more information, see:
http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/02/24/men-women-beauty.html

Humans and mice make the same assessments of risk says Deric Bownds. I believe this gives more proof that decision-making is unconscious. For more information see:
http://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2009/02/similar-risk-assessment-in-man-and.html


If your product name is long and hard to pronounce the product may be viewed unfamiliar. Things that are seen as unfamiliar are also viewed as risky…maybe too risky. For more information:
http://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2009/02/if-it-is-difficult-to-pronounce-it-must.html

I hate those smiley face icons, but a utility company is successfully using them to encourage people to conserve power! For more information:
http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/smiley-power.htm


Smell unconsciously affects your judgments of other people. Even if you don’t notice that there is a scent. for more information:
http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2009/02/smells_–_even_smells_we_dont.php

Have your own favorites of recent research? Let us know….

Sell with Stories

It’s all about stories. Finca is a micro loan company. You give them some money and they loan it to people around the world who are trying to improve their lives. It’s a great organization doing vital work. Their website has good photos, but they could be even more effective if they would focus focus focus… Here’s a snapshot of their home page. There is a block at the top that cycles photos from people and small businesses that they loan to, and this photo block is great. However, they could use it even more… the one liner they have under the photo should start to tell a story about the people in the photo. When you click on the photo it should take you to a page where you get to see (with more photos) and read the story of the people in that photo (it takes you instead to their goal of a 100,000 village banks).

On their home page they also have a picture of some people at an event to open a UK branch… this is not a compelling photo, and it distracts from the photos above which are the real people who are recipients of the micro loan. And lastly, the yellow column on the right is also a distractor… small text, lots of text, small images… it draws attention away from the main STORY which should be the photos of the people.

In Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I write about how and why stories are so powerful. Finca’s home page would be more compelling if they would focus the home page on telling stories of the people that are helped by donating micro loan money, and if you could click on the photos to get the full story. The home page would be improved if they made it simpler, taking off other information from the home page… let it focus on story.

Do you have a favorite site ? or a site that you think is not persuasive enough? Send me the URL and I’ll review it here at the blog.

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A University Gets Neuro Savvy



With the economy the way it is right now I am guessing that colleges and universities are doing whatever they can to attract and keep students. Perhaps that is why we are seeing what is obviously a lot of effort being put into university websites. Even small, less well known colleges.

I happened upon one of these… this is a midwestern school of about 10,000, and whoever is working on their website is doing a great job at designing for the unconscious. There are lots of bold interesting pictures on the home page at the top… these scroll through as you watch them. They show interesting pictures of real students out in the world. The pictures themselves are stories, and they make you want to read more (as in click the Read More button) to find out the story behind the photo. When you do so you get a story, told as a story. As I write in my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? stories are powerful and get and keep the attention of the unconscious mind, as do pictures of people, which they have a lot of.

With competition for students getting tougher, and with students choosing to stay closer to home and save money, these savvy neuro tactics become important for all colleges and universities. Kudos to UW, Steven Point!

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New Research Shows Herd Behavior When Shopping Online

In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click, I have a chapter on Social Validation: When we are uncertain we look to others to see what our behavior should be.

Now some new research tests this idea online. In a series of research studies by Chen (see end for full reference), visitors to a simulated website were given two holiday traveling books to choose from. Both had similar sounding titles, were hardcover, showed similar number of pages, list price and availability.

In the first study Chen showed different consumer ratings. In some cases people saw that one book had 5 stars and the other had 1, or one had 4 and the other had 2, or both had 3 stars. The books with more stars were chosen signficantly more often. Ok, it’s not a big surprise, but it’s good to have some actual data. But read on, the rest of the studies got curiouser and curiouser…

In the second study Chen compared book sales volumes instead of star ratings. People chose the book that was selling the best.

In the third study Chen tested consumer recommendations vs. expert recommendations. One group got this info: “Name of Book Here” is the leading book in the tourism area as voted for online by readers” vs. “Our advisors, experts in the tourism area, strongly recommend “Name of Book Here”. People chose the book picked by consumers more than the book picked by experts.

And in the fourth study, Chen tested a recommender system, (“Customers who bought this book also bought”) vs. the recommendation of the website owner, (“Our Internet bookstore staff strongly recommends that you buy…”) People followed the recommendation of the website owner 75% of the time, but they followed the recommender system 88.4% of the time.

Consumer recommendations are powerful. Social validation at work. Welcome to the herd!

Reference: Chen, Yi-Fen, Herd behavior in purchasing books online, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, (2008), 1977-1992.

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Don’t Personalize: Cluster Instead!

In a TED video filmed in 2004 and published in 2006, Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink and Outliers) talks about human variability. The talk is entitled “What we can learn from spaghetti sauce” because he discusses the evolution of commercial spaghetti sauces from only a few varieties to hundreds (at the time of the filming Prego had something like 36 sauces).

Although he is talking about variability in people’s preferences, one of the things that strikes me in the video is that there are clusters of preferences. If you collect enough data you will find that not everyone thinks/prefers/feels alike. However, you will also find that there isn’t unlimited variability, but that there are clusters. Gladwell’s point is that if you design for one preference (strong coffee for example) you will miss the preferences of many, if not most, people.

Market researchers and product developers, he would argue, ask the wrong questions. In fact he makes the important point that you can’t ask people their preferences at all, since preferences are largely unconscious, and asking them to talk about preferences invokes conscious thought. Most people don’t know what they prefer, or will prefer in the future, but they think they do. So they will give you an answer, but it isn’t accurate (watch out those of you who conduct focus groups!).

You might feel overwhelmed figuring out how to plan for or design a product for human variability, but there is a practical way to deal with this. You don’t have to design for each individual with all their variabilities. What you do instead is enough research to identify variability clusters. If you collect data (not by asking! but by testing and observation) you will find that most people cluster into a finite number of groups. And then you can design for those groups. Instead of designing for a million individual preferences you can design for 5 main clusters.

To apply this to the design of technology: Personalization of web sites and web applications, so that each individual can adjust what they see, might not always be the best way to go. If you’ve done your homework you should be able to place each person in the appropriate cluster and show them what they need. Then perhaps they can tinker a little from there. How less overwhelming that would be for both designer and user than starting from a generic template that fits no one.

To watch the TED video:
http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce.html

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Irrational or Just Human?


A favorite theme these days when writing about the unconscious mind and decision making is about how bad we humans are at making decisions. A perfect example is Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.

Don’t get me wrong… it’s a great book, and I recommend that you read it BUT I take issue with one of the basic underlying and overt assumptions. The book explores human decision making, and describes (in an easy to read and entertaining way) some of the research on how people make decisions. I write in Neuro Web Design about all the myriad ways the unconscious mind guides, decides, affects the decisions we make. No disagreement there. But where we disagree is Ariely’s assumption that if we would all pay attention to how irrationally we are making decisions then we would see the light and start to change. He is saying that we can overcome our innate tendencies to be irrational and instead choose to make rational choices.

He’s missing the point. We aren’t actually irrational. We’re perfectly rational — according to the UNconscious mind. It’s an adaptive response (see Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: The Adaptive Unonscious). And we can’t change. That’s like saying that people should stop seeing color. We can’t! It’s just the way we’re built. Our seemingly irrationality comes from the way the unconscious mind has learned to deal with the huge amounts of data that that logical conscious mind can’t begin to process in a quick manner.

I say we accept and embrace the unconscious mind and celebrate what it does for us rather than judging us as irrational. It’s not irrational. It’s being human.

Creative commons photo: http://www.flickr.com/people/christinasnyder/

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Close Up Photos More Persuasive At A Charity Site


This holiday season someone gave me a gift certificate to donate to the charity of my choice at www.globalgiving.com. You can browse through hundreds of worldwide charities and donate to the organization of your choice. Of course while browsing I noticed that some organizations were more persuasive than others. Some used photos very effectively, like the one above with the close up of a smiling girl. But in other instances the photos were not as powerful. In the second photo here the girls are too far from the camera to see their face. It’s not as powerful or persuasive. To make a plea for donation you need to show human faces that are showing human emotion. What better use of persuasion than at a site like this!