Kahneman’s “Two systems” of the human mind and website user behaviour

While recently listening to this podcast with the author of “Designing with the Mind in Mind” Jeff Johnson, he made the point that most users are in a “zombie-like” state for most of their web-browsing experience.

Johnson references a theory of how the brain forms thoughts, hypothesized by Nobel Prize winner and cognitive scientist Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinkin, Fast and Slow”.

I did some more research into the topic in an attempt to understand how this theory of the mind can be used to understand user behaviour on websites.

Kahneman proposes that there are two systems of the human mind. The first, “System 1” operates automatically and quickly with little or no effort involved. System 1 skills include things like calculating the distance of objects, recognising familiar voices or reacting to an unexpected sound. In the case of website use, examples could be looking to the top of the browser window to find the navigation.

System 1 skills can be both innate (reacting to a loud sound) or learned (purple links mean visited links).

System 2 on the other hand, is slow and requires mental effort.

As eye tracking studies have shown, website users are known to skim over content quickly, looking for key bits of information of relevance to ‘pop’ out at them.

This concept of System 1 and System 2 is useful for explaining more about the processes involved in getting a user to switch from System 1 to 2 successfully (without website abandonment).

For example: the effort involved in closing the current tab and finding the information in a more user friendly website must be perceived to be less than the likelihood of staying and finding the required information on the website currently being browsed.

Find Kahnemann’s book Thinking, fast then slow here.

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