Design Thinking: Going Beyond Basic Consumer Behaviour – Step 1 – Attitude

Attitude is one of the biggest drivers of behaviour that designers can tap into. And, there are two attitude types that control behaviour: Implicit and explicit.

User Centered Design and Psychology

Implicit Attitudes

Implicit attitudes are the automatic, subconscious attitudes we have towards something. They can influence choices and actions without us even being aware of them. Laurie A. Rudman (2004) believed these hidden attitudes are the result of four factors:

  • Early experiences – If you nearly drowned in a pool as a child, you’re more likely to have a fear of water when you’re older.
  • Emotional experiences – If you contract a gruesome affliction after eating a chocolate chip cookie as a child, you might always dislike the tasty treats even if the illness had nothing to do with the cookies.
  • Cultural biases – Growing up in a racist household, and spending time with others who hold the same beliefs, can increase your likelihood of having racist reactions towards others. They may even be completely unintentional.
  • Cognitive consistency principles – This is the human need for our attitudes, opinions, and ideas to be congruent and consistent. For example: If you like cake, and muffins are like cake, you believe you’ll like muffins before ever having tasted one.

Marketers often examine these attitudes, but designers need to consider them, too:

Will the culture the end users live in view a product favourably?
Is there a way to tap into existing attitudes during the design process to elicit a feeling of familiarity, and therefore, encourage adoption?
What information does the end user have or need?
Can elements of a design tap into the strong ties made during emotional and early experiences?
Is it possible to ensure products maintain a user’s cognitive consistency?

In North American society, individuals generally try to appear successful, even if they’re not. In fact, we’ve developed a schema for it and regularly make choices that will allow us to either fit into that schema, or make sure we don’t. Here’s what I mean:

When asked to picture someone who is successful, for example, chances are you get a specific image of a clean-cut individual in expensive clothing. The individual looks busy, but cool and “put together” regardless of how much stress they’re under. They look, smell, and sound like money. And while we may not be some Wall Street banker or big-time lawyer, we want to fit into the image of success we’ve created.

The need to be (or at least appear) successful isn’t always a conscious decision on our part, but it is one of the many subconscious attitudes that affect the choices and decisions of a good many of us. And anything that goes against that, will be quickly removed from our lives.

If a smartphone goes crazy the moment we get busy, for example, and we have to frantically fight with it to access information, we’ll quickly toss it out the nearest window. If it looks like one of those Fisher Price phones with the eyes we had as children, it likely won’t even leave the store in the first place. We need technology that can handle the pressure, keep us together even if the rest of our world is flying apart, and help us maintain our successful image. It has to work with us, in complement, without our needing to actively manage it.

How attitude affects behaviour and design
(Image Source)

Explicit Attitudes

Consciously formed explicit attitudes are the ones we can recognize, identify, and control. When we experience something, we have an emotional response to it. Then, we weigh the experience against our values and personality traits, form an opinion about the situation, and either act, or ignore it. The result of the final attitude depends on its tone (negative to positive) and strength (mild to passionate). Where an attitude falls on those scales will depend on the components that make up the attitude. Strength is a bit more complex, so for the moment, let’s cover tone and how we form attitudes.

Generally, attitudes consist of three components (the ABC’s of attitude):

  • Affective – Emotional reactions
  • Behavioural – How attitude affects our actions
  • Cognitive – Beliefs and knowledge of an object or situation

Attitudes aren’t solely affected by internal factors, either. The culture a target user grew up in, and the groups users associate with now, govern many thoughts. Gender and how a brain is wired can make a difference, too (Lewis, 2013). To sum up the attitudes of a consumer, marketers generally use standard demographic-psychographic user profiles.

Collecting Information on Consumer Attitudes

Getting accurate information about explicit attitudes can be a challenge. Designers and marketers often use surveys, but they need to be used cautiously to avoid many of the downfalls associated with this type of research:

  • Biased Phrasing – The framing of a question can greatly influence the types of responses given.
  • Participation – It can be difficult to find and collect data from a sample representative of the population.
  • Self-Reporting – Not all respondents will be honest. Some will give socially acceptable answers, or make a mistake when answering. And even if they are honest, they may not know exactly what it is they need, what they know, or what they don’t know.
  • Constraints – Surveys limit the type of information collected. This could prevent designers from stumbling across important information they could use later in the process.
  • Data Handling – It can be difficult to collect, process, and translate data in a way that’s useful for designers.

Surveys aren’t the only option for gathering information on attitudes and influences. Alternatives to survey research includes:

  • Use existing data – Tons of surveys and research has already collected data. Depending on the chosen audience, this may be useful.
  • Find alternative data collection methods – Users provide a ton of implicit and explicit information while doing other tasks. It may be possible to make use of this to get a good, overall picture of the end user’s behaviour.
  • Observational studies – Simple watching and recording observations can be an ideal way to learn about users, but also learn about what they don’t know (or have yet to identify).
  • Card sorting – Sometimes, the best way to learn how to categorize something is to have users create the categories themselves.
  • Interviews and conversations – Verbal conversations give designers the chance to keep questions flexible and adaptable. This allows the researcher to explore various areas of interest as they come up rather than being forced to stick to specific survey questions. These discussions also provide additional information through visual, non-verbal cues.

Now, the big question: what can designers do with this information now that they have it?

Attitude and Product Usability

While addressing explicit attitudes could simply include using the right colour and word choices, it goes much beyond that. In addition to the outward appearance of a product, designers must also consider which affordances, warnings, features, and options to include.

Designers need to be culturally sensitive and aware. Consider a new tablet design, for example. Making it to look like an Etch-A-Sketch would certainly check off nostalgia and novelty requirements for many buyers. But even the colour, buttons, and act of shaking it to erase could touch on early and emotional experiences for millennials. If the tablet is for older or younger users, however, designers would need to choose familiar (or almost familiar) images, icons, sounds, shapes, and other elements to take advantage of a user’s existing knowledge.

For target users with a high need to control their surroundings, an overabundance of options and customization may be necessary. Alternatively, users may not be all that technologically inclined, and therefore, thrive on technology that focuses on minimalism, simplicity, and flat hierarchical structure. Items for children may require extra planning to avoid serious negative consequences of mistakes. In short, designers must identify the major attitudes, pinpoint likely behaviours, and design their products accordingly.

Attitude is just one element of good design, and it certainly isn’t action. So, what turns an attitude into behaviour? The answer is strength. An attitude needs to be strong enough to lead a user to act on an attitude or opinion.

You’ll find more on the Seven Step Process to Good Design here:
Step 1 – Attitude
Step 2 – Strength
Step 3 – Behaviour
Step 4 – Models and Mapping
Step 5 – Hardware (External Workings)
Step 6 – Software (Internal Workings)
Step 7 – Feedback and Behaviour Dependant Design

(1)Rudman, L. A. (2004). Sources of Implicit Attitudes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2), 79-82. (Back to Top)

(2)Lewis, T. (2013, December 22). How Men’s Brains Are Wired Differently than Women’s. Retrieved February 23, 2017, from (Back to Top)

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