Stephen P Anderson on giving form to ideas

This article first appeared in issue 241 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

This article first appeared in issue 241 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

“I’m a big fan of working on the walls,” smiles Stephen Anderson as we settle into our chairs. And he most certainly is. Over his shoulder, the once-white wall looks like the London Underground map – only with more colours and squares.

According to his business card – a simply drawn, monochromatic rectangle – there’s a lot to the man: product strategy, design and psychology, author, speaker, leading … the list goes on. Indeed, such is the menu of skills, the card itself is quite a piece of design. No one word seems to dominate, leaving your eye to meander around and somehow discover new things. Modestly, nestled in the list is his web address:

Anderson tells us he’s worked as a consultant for firms such as Nokia, Frito-Lay, Sabre Travel Network, and Chesapeake Energy, and scores of tech startups. He is, however, best known for his fascination with psychology and design. He’s the author of a book called Seductive Interaction Design, and also self-published Mental Notes – a deck of oversized playing cards. Each card gives an insight into a human behaviour. The cards are designed to serve as a brainstorming aid too: deal the deck, pick a card and discuss it.

“I give form to ideas,” Anderson smiles as he begins to explain himself. “There’s a phrase on my website that I kind of like: envision unseen opportunities. I like that because it gets to the heart of what I think design is about: you see an opportunity that other people don’t; designers figure out some way to express their idea and get it out into the world.”

Looking to somehow summarise himself, Anderson carries on. “I’m not a big fan of titles but, if I had to describe myself, I’d say Designer with a capital ‘D’ – the big sense of the word.” Like his business card, however, there’s always a little more to discover. “I’m a lifelong learner,” he goes on. “I’ve been married nearly 20 years now, and my wife said she knew my interests and career wouldn’t be the same five, 10, 15 or 20 years later.”

Stephen started his working life as a schoolteacher. After leaving that, he did odd jobs, paid by the hour. “Was there a Eureka moment where I decided the web [was] for me? Definitely – when I got an offer letter and saw the salary! No … I had a growing interest in graphic and web design. I’d been doing logos and business cards, that kind of thing.”

All this took place during the high times of the dotcom boom. At the time, Anderson knew two developers who had just secured their first $100,000 of seed funding. That banked, he became their first employee. “I handled everything from getting the logo embroidered on a shirt to the pop-up booth to the website,” he recalls.

“I’m very much self-taught,” Anderson continues, expanding on his journey. “Or taught by the people around me. I started out doing graphic design and then discovered there are marketing and branding considerations, after that you start to think about usability – people have to actually use the stuff I make. It’s not just there to look pretty! I started to realise that you can design the best site in the world, but it doesn’t mean people will actually use it,” he adds.

Design psychology

All this led to a growing fascination with the psychology of interaction, and a desire to really understand the human drives that make us find sites and products appealing. “All this happened around 2003,” Anderson remembers. “I worked with a designer and his whole approach wasn’t about the design, but more about [users’] expectations. He had this approach that was very rooted in anthropology … observing humans, their expectations and their behaviour.”

As their project developed, the designer (identified only as Rob) forwarded some ideas that clearly had an indelible effect on Anderson. “He came up with some design principles to guide the project, things like ‘people are curious’ or ‘they want to seek out what’s going on in social situations’. That was the first time I really started thinking about these human drives and behaviours, and how they could drive the design. He got his inspiration from people watching – things like watching people gather at the mall or window shop.”

As we chat our conversation moves on to Anderson’s design heroes. “Who would I like to go to the pub with? Walt Disney! If you really study Walt Disney – the first 20 years of his career – he’s one of these guys who is relentlessly pursuing the next big thing,” he enthuses, adding, “he’s very much interested in the latest and greatest technology and how it intersected with whatever he was working on.”

“So, at the time it was animation, later on it was theme parks. But, if you look, well before the whole Mickey Mouse thing he was always playing with technology. There were 75 Silly Symphonies cartoons over a 10-year period, and the whole reason they were done was to experiment with things like audio and animation syncing. They were the first to experiment with Technicolor. Walt was always playing technology, so I like that. Not so much about film, but more because of that inventor personality – somebody who sees opportunities that other people don’t. I’d like to talk to him about where his ideas come from and how he learns.”

Continuing to mine the territory of 20th-century entertainment icons, conversation turns to a talk Anderson did a few years ago about things designers and web workers can learn from the making of the original Star Wars film. At this juncture he pauses, lifts up his webcam and plays it across a shelf that’s positively groaning with Star Wars paraphernalia.

“I use that film as a case study,” he continues. “Nobody understood it; [George Lucas] would start waving his hands and describing Wookiees and rolling trash cans … his friends were like: ‘what?!’” What fascinates Anderson most is Lucas’s work with the artist Ralph McQuarrie, who produced sketches that help convey the film’s potential. That hadn’t been done before – nobody had submitted a script with supporting concept art.

“So, talking to George Lucas or Walt Disney [would be great] because of their personalities … What I really like are the similarities I see between Walt Disney, George Lucas and the Maker community… It’s that ‘let’s see what we can do with this stuff, let’s explore’ attitude. Where can it take us?” asks Anderson.

We move on to talk about more practical matters: what advice does Anderson have for a designer starting out on a new project? “One of the problems I see – and this is true of any size company – is that designers are so wired to be creative problem solvers. We have to pause and make sure we’re solving the right problems. I’m spending more and more time framing the problem – questioning the problem and the assumptions that have been handed to me.”

Practical problems

“I’m doing a talk in a few weeks about this,” he goes on. “It’s called Stop Doing What You’re Told [and it’s about] reframing the design problem. We have to really understand the problem. There are lots of requests for features. I always try and drive things towards what’s the outcome? Why are we doing this in the first place? What are you trying to accomplish as a business? What do you hope to help users accomplish?”

Of course, this sounds great in theory – but how can a designer actually do this when they’re meeting a demanding and self-regarding client? “One practical [tip] is what’s called The Five Whys. It’s simply just asking why repeatedly until you get slapped in the face.”

Momentarily he laughs, before turning deadly serious. He gives the example of a hotel website whose fortunes are on the slide. “Well, why do we need to design a better [site]? Why have sales been declining? When you peel back the layers and just keep asking why – usually four or five times – you get to the real problem. You’re no longer trying to address the symptom of a problem.”

Such linguistic trickery leads nicely onto Anderson’s primary hunting ground – psychology – and how an understanding of human behaviour can make us better designers. Of all the gambits and techniques available, what’s the most potent and persuasive? Which is the greatest tool of seduction?

“There are things like scarcity, social proof, there’s game mechanics and also intrinsic motivation … things like self expression, competition, curiosity. But what’s the thing that’s beneath them all? I always say its narrative or story. Underneath all the tactics and motivators people talk about, everybody has a personal narrative: something you believe about yourself and your future. On a personal level, if you understand somebody’s narrative you’ve figured out what makes them tick.”

As a tool of – dare we say it – seduction, it’s easy to see this kind of technique working. However, when it comes to the web, it’s hard to see how we could deploy it. “Sure, so that’s why we’re left with things like scarcity – ‘there are only three of these products left.’”

We talk next about a quote from one of his presentations: “The core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception – does the trick fool the audience?”

The line comes originally from an article written by the magician Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) in which he deconstructs the psychology of a magic trick. “There’s this theme that gets echoed around a lot that content is everything,” says Anderson. “Yes content is at the core, but at the end of the day we can publish this same content in a magazine, or on a website or through a feed reader – [and] people’s perceptions of the content will be different. There are a ton of studies that show this – even the effect of typeface on perception.

“There are lawyers now who are playing with the typesetting of legal briefs in the hope of changing the perception and outcome. And we’re not talking about Comic Sans vs Times here … we’re talking about subtle typographic differences most people won’t consciously pick up on. So it’s not just about the content, it’s about how that content is presented. By the time things get to our brain, they’re really the subjective concepts – perceptions of reality,” he says.

Talking with an expert in human behaviour – and one who is fascinated by how it can be hacked to alter perception – does, after a while, make you wonder if you’re being actively seduced.

As the conversation moves to Mental Notes and how he made them, we ask which techniques Anderson used to make his product look and feel persuasive? Are Mental Notes just his personal thesis spread across a deck of cards, or can we see his ideas and theories working actively in the product’s execution?

“The leather binder was designed by a friend of mine who does point of sale displays for luxury brands,” Anderson reveals. “I told him I wanted the same associations. [The case] has this air of a bespoke product. [Look at the] cards themselves: it would have been easier (and cheaper!) to make them playing card sized [but being bigger] sets them apart as something different. The illustrations: at the back of my mind I wanted something like New Yorker magazine illustrations … that mixture of humour and classiness.”

And then comes the most disarmingly honest assessments of how he constructed Mental Notes. “I have a higher price point that I sell it at. One of the cards is Value Attribution. We value things that we pay for. [Mental Notes] is a tool that I want people to actually use. If it’s free, downloadable as a PDF, people will never use it.”

Anderson explains that putting an illustration on each card was informed by his understanding of psychology too. “The moment I [added] an illustration with a label, my recall was significantly stronger. There’s a lot we know about memory and how memory is formed. When you have that visual to go along with things, it’s suddenly easier to recall.”

As the conversation draws to a close, it loops back to near its – and Anderson’s – beginning: teaching. “Never stop playing and learning,” he says. He continues to add, “We live in a time when things are changing so fast that you can’t rely on formal training, particularly training in school to get you through your career like past generations could. It’s more important than ever to learn how to teach yourself or become self-taught.”

With that pearl of wisdom, Anderson’s seduction of .net concludes. Was it convincing? Absolutely.

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