How to create ‘brain-friendly’ designs that stick

Garish colors, animated GIFs and pop-up ads — oh my!

Those are just some of the less-than-friendly elements that can distract readers and reduce comprehension, according to Alex Remington, Washington Post product manager. Joined by SND collaborator Brian Steffens, Remington  discussed his recent research findings on “brain-friendly design” at SNDSF on Saturday afternoon.

Designing for the brain was first studied by Paul Bolls, a 2011-12 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow. Together, Remington and Bolls collaborated to investigate how brains process, mentally engage with and respond to news design that is “brain-friendly.”

“Brain-friendly design is more of an outcome than a prescription,” Remington said. The basic idea: elements that promote understanding and retention of data.

In their study, 80 adults read four news stories, two of which were brain-friendly and two of which were brain-unfriendly. The researchers looked at desktop, mobile and tablet interactions and analyzed the data to see which stories were more cognitively engaging.

To measure the level of engagement, they recorded psychophysical measures, such as heart rate and the levels of ionization on the skin. For example, a person’s heartbeat and perspiration will change depending on how closely he or she is paying attention to a particular message.

At the end, Remington and Bolls quizzed the research subjects to see if they remembered the content. Their results aligned with their hypothesis: “brain-friendly” designs were linked with higher information retention. 

During the Saturday session, Remington showed online news articles to illustrate the differences between brain-friendly and unfriendly design. For example, one headline and story were separated by four photos. Another had a smooth transition from the headline to the story but had a distracting sidebar. Another had trapped white space that affected smooth reading.

“It’s not how the story was written, but we were trying to measure and evaluate the design of it,” Steffens said.

Some examples of distracting elements and features included odd spacing, autoplay, jarring colors, and flyover adds. On the other hand, friendly elements are more digestible for the reader, like shorter paragraphs, clean, uncluttered pages, a smooth flow, readable type, giving more control to the reader.

“Whatever the main story element is on the page, as much as possible you want everything on the page to reinforce it rather than detract from it,” Remington said.

But even with valuable information on how to create better experiences for readers, there is still a need for advertisements, which are often considered distracting elements. This is a common dilemma in journalism of having to earn revenue while producing great stories.

Steffens brought up Medium as an interesting case.

“How do you adapt that style and still earn revenue?” he asked. “The goal of advertisements should be the same goal of the newsroom.”

And to tackle that, we might need to redefine how we think of advertising.

“Is the real model based on number of clicks and views? Or do we want advertising to be more like news content, more engaging more time on story, following the same design principles, promoting understanding and comprehension?” Steffens asked.

Remington is not trying to say that advertising is bad. Rather, there needs to be a balance to keep readers engaged.

“We’re not trying to say ads are bad, but there’s a tension that’s necessary,” he said. “There’s a quantitative argument on both ends: revenue argument, but also cognitive argument.”

Ultimately, as journalists and designers, the goal is for the reader to take away something from the experience, otherwise the story didn’t serve its purpose.

“We want the viewer to be able to understand what you presented to them. If it’s too complex or difficult, they’ll walk away,” Steffens said. “I’m not saying to dumb it down to a 5th grade level, but you want them to take away something.”

Click here to learn more about brain-friendly designs. 

Have examples of brain friendly and unfriendly design? Send them along to  [email protected] and [email protected].