Originally published on “Matters” by Designit


“Studies show that [behavior] leads to changes in the brain!” How many times have you seen a headline like that? Sounds scary, doesn’t it? At least until you stop and think about it. It gets less scary when you remember this fundamental truth: Experience leading to changes in the brain is called learning. (Next time you see one of those headlines, try replacing “changes to the brain” with “learning” and see if it still sounds so scary.)


The fact is, having experiences and interacting with the world leads to changes in the brain. This is a good thing, because these changes (“learnings”) help you function in the world. For example, when you first learn to drive, it’s difficult to coordinate all the different skills you need to be effective until your brain develops the connections that make it easier. Once you learn how to drive, your brain is different from the brains of people who never learned.


We all experience the world through the experiences taken in by our own brains, and past experiences influence what — and how — we perceive and remember the world around us. Consider the phrase “Liberté égalité fraternité.” Depending on whether or not you’ve studied French history, your brain will respond differently. This is because you may or may not be able to link the phrase to other information stored in your memory.


Why This Matters for Designers

When clients want to replace field research with internal subject matter experts who were once a member of their target audience, this makes me very nervous. Take, for example, the hypothetical case of an accountant who joins a product company creating software for CPAs. The experience of working at a product company (learning about the underlying technology; watching the software go through various iterations; focusing on business objectives and constraints) produces brain responses that are different from a CPA who spends that time, well, accounting. Don’t get me wrong — it can be incredibly valuable to have that person to learn from, but their brain will respond differently that of the end user. They shouldn’t be considered members of the target audience any longer.


Similarly, going through the experience of field research; of seeing end users struggle to achieve their goals; of hearing the kind of language they choose and the stories they tell; of getting to know them as actual human beings and not bullet points on a research report; all of this changes your brain in a very useful way. It makes you better at making design decisions for those end users because it brings into play your social animal skills of empathy and compassion. A brain that has gone through that experience is a very valuable brain indeed. And there is no other way to modify the brain than through experience.

End Users: The Value of Personal Experience

Look, I get it. I know you don’t have the time or money for another big research initiative, and you have all the market and design research insights you really need for this stage of the process. But if you are serious about user-centered design, then you should be investing in the brains of your product team by giving them the experience of talking directly with your end users. This is a no-brainer for designers (ha! see what I did there?), but this also goes for product managers, developers, customer service reps, and so on — basically, anyone whose decisions or behaviors impact your customers’ experience. This also goes for every new member who joins your team, even if their brains you’re only borrowing for now (e.g. design consultants). Some direct exposure to actual end users makes all the difference, even if it means conducting a handful of interviews over Skype, or watching videos of previous research efforts.


You have to invest in every brain because these brains will make different, better, user-centered product decisions.


To get deeper into how to uncover insights from your research, check out this 2-day workshop through Cooper Professional Education.


Jenea Hayes

Jenea Hayes

Design Director, Cooper Professional Education


Jenea Hayes is a Design Director and Cooper Professional Education instructor at Designit San Francisco.

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