Susan Weinschenk – Q&A with The Brain Lady

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Susan Weinshenck

Susan Weinshenck has a Ph.D. in Psychology and over 30 years of experience as a behavioral psychologist. Her clients call her “The Brain Lady” because she applies research on brain science to predict, understand, and explain what motivates people and how they behave. Dr. Weinschenk is the author books like How To Get People To Do Stuff and 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

In March, Dr. Weinshenck joined us for a remote Q&A at Dominion Enterprises. Attendees came prepared with insightful questions related to their experiences at work, their interest in design psychology, or their love of her work. She weaved together theory and practice in all her answers, and she was able to immediately recall the supporting research. We’d like to share some of her insights with you.

How do we get people to pay attention to our app when they are overwhelmed with other habit-forming apps?  

We kicked off the evening with a question from one of our members-at-large, Chris Horton. He wanted to know how to communicate with his products users, especially when they needed to know about business-critical changes. If everyone is constantly pushing app notifications and email updates, will consumers get overwhelmed and ignore it all? Weinschenk agreed that notifications and alerts are useful. People respond to any change which alerts them to new information. But it can get overwhelming. She advised us to stand out from the crowd by making those notifications truly meaningful, creating a great product people want to use, and then using things like auditory stimuli to get attention.

Susan gave a thorough explanation of conditioned responses (all the way back to Pavlov). She described how unpredictable, intermittent feedback plays such a significant role in forming habits to these apps. The anticipation of a “ding” makes it addicting because it releases dopamine. This is same type of response that leads to gambling addiction (or why your dog continues to beg at the table when you give him food only some of the time). Now we are overwhelmed with those “dings” so we no longer know which ones we truly need to respond to.

How you can break through the barrier if you’re just adding to the din? Susan recommend thinking about ‘What are the most important notifications people need and want?’ instead of overloading them with notifications.

Should we use more specific or more generic information to engage users?

More specific information will get more clicks. Also build in urgency. Decision making studies over the years indicate that we have a fear of losing things. So incorporate information about what people will lose if they don’t react soon.

In a few sentences, how do you get people to do stuff?

Understand something about the person and figure out which way to motivate someone will work best.

Power house motivators:

  1. the need to belong
  2. desire for mastery
  3. power of stories.

Food, sex, and danger will also always grab attention.

What do you do to motivate yourself? Or do you see through the tactics because you study cognition?

She said that no matter how much we know about motivating others to do things, we are not immune to responding to cues designed to get us to change our behavior. So many things happen unconsciously.

She also said that she loves her work, so she is often motivated. She discussed how important it is to tap into being creative.

  1. Tell your executive brain about what you are doing. Be clear with goals.
  2. Go away and do something completely different.
  3. Go back to it so brain can evaluate all your ideas and give you insight.

Be accepting of your personal creative cycles. Understand what your cycle is for creativity. Creativity is hard work.

How do you get others to be creative – if you can’t force it, how do you ideate?

People must find their own creative outlet. Ideate in sessions. First, establish the question. Working together collaboratively does help.

Regularly brainstorming is not useful. You do need to get ideas out. The first six to ten ideas that come out are not great. Keep going.

If you have a new group, have them work on something that isn’t the real problem first. Ask them to work on something interesting and fun. Get used to the process and each other.

Give people constraints within which to work.

How do individual differences in technology use and preferences impact the design process?

Weinschenk pointed out that customization for individual consumers is a hot topic lately, but it might not be what everyone wants. She noted that research findings varied by generation. It’s important to get good research on these differences since the way you interact with technology as a youngster – up to age 10 – will shape your mental model of technology for the rest of your life. Technology that is ubiquitous when you are growing up forever colors your expectations for how you will interact with technology. For example, a 4 year old wants to swipe a big screen TV. Gen Xers have been doing a lot of the design work even though they are the smaller demographic compared to Millennials and Baby Boomers. So their mental model for how the interact with technology has impacted their design work.


Here is a roundup of resources from Susan Weinschenk if you want to learn more:

1. Videos and Tutorials:

2. Articles

3. Books

4. Follow:


Thanks to Kelley Howell and Alex Proaps for contributing to this post.


One thought on “Susan Weinschenk – Q&A with The Brain Lady

    1/25 Talent: Susan Weinschenk | Interaction Design said:
    January 27, 2016 at 5:35 am

    […] For an interview with Weinschenk by Dominion Enterprises, click here. […]

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