Subconscious Thought Patterns & Digital Systems Design
The concept of technology capable of reading minds is, quite frankly, terrifying. Even so, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) — devices offering a direct line of communication between a brain and a computer — are being developed by companies like Facebook and Elon Musk’s Neuralink. In other words, they can read minds. They can decode brain activity to work out what someone is trying to say, translating that data into audible sentences. They can even connect multiple brains, permitting them to play a Tetris-style video game together using something close to telepathy.
Until recently, this technology was far from mainstream adoption, but “Braintalker” — a new Brain-Computer Codec Chip (BC3) developed in China — might bring it one step closer. The chip may make the technology more portable and wearable, meaning it could finally come out of labs and into the mainstream.
As scary as this seems, it reminds me of something I worked on a decade ago. In 2009, at the International Design Consultancy agency I founded in London (Formerly called Foviance, now EY-Seren), we worked on a mash-up of technologies designed to enhance our user research. We didn’t quite want to read minds, but we did want to get inside the heads of our client’s customers. At the time, I said,
“To some people, this might sound like black arts, but we’re already generating really useful data for clients about what elements of website design have the greatest impact.”
Our technology system comprised the following:
1. Tobii eye-tracking technology — designed to monitor what users are looking at, therefore making it possible for users to interact with computers using their eyes.
2. Electroencephalography (EEG) technology — a usually non-invasive electrophysiological monitoring method used to record electrical activity in the brain (we worked with Thom Noble at NeuroCo, the world’s first neuromarketing agency utilising this technology).
3. Biometric technology — designed to measure aspects of individuals’ biology (specifically, we used a pulse oximeter, a non-invasive device used to measure oxygen saturation of the blood).
As part of the project, we developed an algorithm to assess human interaction with digital interfaces, as well as how design of these could be enhanced to facilitate improved understanding of subconscious thought patterns, such as decision-making.
My reference to decision-making here as an “subconscious” process may come as a surprise to some, but a ground-breaking study by Soon et al. (2008) found that decision-making, as a process, may be more subconscious than previously thought.
Using advanced technology trained to recognise typical brain activity patterns before decision-making occurs, the results showed that, subconscious activity in the brain — up to 7 seconds before a conscious decision is made — can be used to predict that decision. In basic terms, the data told us the decision participants would make before they knew themselves. It’s worth noting that the prediction wasn’t always accurate, suggesting that, even if a decision is prepared in advance, it could be changed. So, free-will may still play a significant role in this respect.
At our agency, once we’d amalgamated the technology mentioned, we sought a media to test, and an online poker site seemed ideal. We were aware that PokerStars — the biggest online poker card room in the world — had been in operation in the United States since 2001. However, because that site targeted experienced poker players, it was unsuitable.
We needed to think differently, to look elsewhere for an environment in which we could attract novices. For that reason, we decided to test on the UK’s first online poker room. There, to evaluate how we could improve our system’s design, we’d find out what did and didn’t work for first-time online poker players. We’d measure their emotional engagement with the website, looking at:
1. What they anticipated
2. What excited them
3. What bored them
4. What caused anxiety.
Our findings demonstrated that first-time players would generally leave a game after three hands if they lost all of those consecutively, without ever returning. While data analytics could tell us this now, our system showed us what the consumer was looking at, thinking and feeling before they folded.
Using technology, we could see that, when players watched the third hand of cards, their gamma waves dropped, indicating increased tension. They would then fail to bluff, instead folding and leaving the table. Since this was contrary to our client’s needs, involving optimised engagement and conversion, we needed to develop an appropriate solution.
After considering several different solutions, we recommended introducing a tutorial to the site. This fed players a variety of information, on bluffing, holding and so on, allowing them to work on these skills and remain in games for longer.
This project represents just one instance of improving understanding of subconscious thought patterns like decision-making and thus improving the design of systems based on that. Whether this is achieved at such a level, or a level now possible thanks to the advent of sophisticated BCI technology, we must be very, very careful not to tip the scales to the detriment of users.
Designing in this way can, of course, be beneficial for everyone involved, but it’s not all sugar and spice. By optimising the usability of a system — that is, the extent to which [it] can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals, with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use” (ISO 9126/4 standard def.) — we risk opening the door to addiction. There absolutely must be balance if we’re to prevent this from happening.
Take the online gambling environment, discussed throughout this article, as an example of the potential fallout of an imbalance in this sense. For a majority, online gambling isn’t harmful. Nonetheless, campaigners argue there has been a recent spike in addiction, especially among young people. Addiction to online gambling can cause lives to spiral out of control, so the systems we design must influence users to continue gambling in a safe, responsible way.
Over and above measures currently in place — including self-exclusion, limiting the time users are permitted to gamble, and new age and identity verification processes — existing technology can be utilised to recognise negative behaviours in players, including addiction, and subsequently ban those individuals.