Rhythms of UX

Your brain is in fact naturally rhythmic, even when you’re not listening to music, and it fires at rhythms that vary depending on what you’re doing.

According to a research conducted by McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind in Canada, human’s neurophysio reactions to lower frequency beats are a lot stronger that those of a higher pitch. Researchers found that it’s easier for the brain to process rhythmic lower frequency beats than higher-pitched sounds.

Hypothetically, this might stem from how we evolved from primates in the jungles, where higher irregular pitched sounds often lead to danger such as the screaming of predators or the sound of disasters, while rhythmic lower frequency sounds keep brain in a much soothing and relaxed state. Furthermore abnormal rhythms have been associated with medical issues including schizophrenia, epilepsy, autism and Parkinson’s disease. So basically, a brain that is firing at a steady rhythm is more likely to be healthy.

A further look into this neurophysio preference of rhythmic interaction with the outside world, the same principles apply to not only sound, but visual and haptic stimulations. A curated experience that follows a pattern and avoids unexpected disturbances would be perceived as more rhythmic, therefore requires less effort for the brain to process and carries less subconscious risks of error.

This design principle of rhythm has been adopted by visual design and architecture for quite some time. You can easily find the manifestation of this design thinking in many iconic architectures; the gigantic wavy ceiling of Hong Kong International airport for example, delivers a subtle, continuous meditative feeling to the dwellers inside an otherwise busy, chaotic and overwhelming environment.

Less has been discussed on how UX / interaction designers should apply this principle to deliver more easing, meditative and pleasant experiences to users through technology. Tammy Guy wrote an article on UX Mag in 2014 calling for more rhythm in interface design. There’s also a book by Stephen P. Anderson about Seductive Interaction Design which talks about how to apply rhythmic design techniques to make the user interaction more seductive or even addictive. Online gaming for example, has long benefited from these techniques. 

However more design research is needed to fully understand the deep impact of rhythmic interactions, how they are created and how to apply them for positive human behaviours and avoid harmful side effects such as game addiction.

As a thought starter, here are three principles I’ve summarized based on my experience designing positive user experience:

  1. Apply systematic design thinking. Particularly for designing large scale platforms or complex systems, make sure you establish a system of logic, patterns, template / component library, colour palette and typography, as well as common terminologies and visual language, to ensure consistency and minimize the effort to learn and adapt. Try leverage affordance and apply well established design conventions amongst your audience.
  2. Simplify and establish interaction patterns. This is not just speaking to the individual interactive element or template, but user journeys as a whole. Allowing users to follow set patterns of tasks and actions will minimize the mental load of performing similar tasks therefore allowing more brian bandwidth to focus on the actual content. Andy Goodman’s Zero UI approach further advocates eliminating UI altogether to allow minimal, intuitive and rhythmic interactions naturally flow to deliver rich content and intelligent functionalities.
  3. Don’t forget to change. It is particularly important for designers to balance rhythm and change in the design. Although soothing, formulated patterns can also lead to boredom and abandonment. Humans are hardwired to be curious. Gradual and subtle changes are the best approach, unless you are creating an experience that’s meant to trigger extreme emotions. Allowing gradual, subtle changes can deliver extended attention spans and more interests.

 Happy to hear more thoughts and examples.

(Please note all content in this post is subject to the copyright of the author. Please contact Boz if you need further information. Video attached is not directly related to the post. Video Credit: Possible Metrics)

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