Conspiracy theories and UX - 5 things they both have in common
Perhaps living in the age of President Trump is to blame - but recently I’ve found myself increasingly thinking about facts, alternative facts, myths and conspiracy theories.
Let’s start with myths. All of the following aren’t true - but how many do you personally believe in, and how many does at least one of your friends or colleagues spout as truth?
A woman was bitten in the cheek by a spider, causing a red lump. Weeks later the lump burst and out crawled baby spiders.
The Daddy Longlegs spider has the most venomous poison of all spiders - we just don’t die from it because it’s fangs are too small to break our skin.
A dead scuba diver was discovered in a forest fire - having been accidentally picked up and dropped there by a water bombing plane.
A man woke up in a bath of ice in his hotel room, after being drugged by a woman who then stole his kidneys.
We use only 10% of our brains.
There is a dark side of the moon that never sees sunlight.
Full moons cause a rise in homicides and other crimes.
Dropping a coin from a tall building would kill someone if it hit them as it was pick up so much speed.
I won’t bother debunking all these, just look them up for yourselves if you think they’re true (they aren’t.)
But it’s interesting how often you encounter someone who does believe one or more of these - and, in fact, other myths that fall well and truly into the UX space.
For example I recently encountered someone who confidently told a room full of their peers that it is a well-known rule that people don’t scroll - therefore anything important has to be placed above the fold.
And not too long prior to that I had someone tell me (again quite confidently) that it was a well known fact that any content more than 3 clicks down from the home page would ‘never been seen’ and was therefore pointless.
Conspiracy theories and UX - finding common ground
Conspiracies are interesting, and like weeds they seem to be impossible to beat. No matter how many times you present a logical argument, the adept conspiracy theorist is always able to suggest some way the truth could, in fact, be a lie. Moon landings? Faked. Obviously.
So I thought I’d do a little digging into what makes people believe in myths or conspiracies, and whether there was any common ground with those half-truths and outright untruths that get spouted as gospel in the UX world. And I found 5.
1. The human brain is built to find patterns
Like it or not, our brains are great at finding patterns - handy when you’re walking through the plains of Africa and trying to spot something that might eat you, not so handy in today’s world. How many times have you seen conspiracy theories that are based on patterns? The Millennium Falcon at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, the woman walking on Mars captured by the Rover, and uncountable sightings of Bigfoot and Nessie.
We see patterns in clouds, we see Jesus in toast, I once had a photo of a Ghost in the bubbles of a Jelly I’d made for Halloween. We find patterns, even when there is no pattern to see. It’s called Pareidolia and it’s perfectly normal for us.
From a research perspective, it’s also incredibly dangerous. It’s very common in the CX/UX space for us to be asked to run research on a small handful of people - 5 or 6, say. And when just a few people talk for an hour, there is huge scope to see patterns that aren’t really there.
And once you see that pattern, the Ghost in the jelly, it’s almost impossible to stop seeing it. Our brains have conjured it into being and it lives there now, as real as anything else.
2. The pull of the crowd
Humans are very social animals - though you wouldn’t think that if you saw me at a networking event, huddled in the corner looking terrified. We tend to believe what others believe, as a default.
And that’s why so many people believe the Daddy Longlegs story - you hear that from ten others, and it must be true. The same is true for the faked moon landings and even Flat Earthers - the more people who believe in it, the easier it is to attract others to the belief.
There has been some very interesting research into the power of the crowd and how we can be influenced, both by others and by those in authority. Stanley MIlgram showed back in 1961 that a small group of people stopped on a street corner and staring up at nothing quickly draws a larger and larger crowd who will all stop and stare - at nothing.
The same is very much true in the UX space. And this is something we need to be extremely careful of; we can all too easily make statements that might be true under certain circumstances, or are flippant half-truths - only to see those be parroted by others and become myths everyone sees as truth.
I have seen this in action and been the guilty party. Many years ago I saw some research on eye tracking patterns and had the pleasure of running a similar eye tracking piece of research, for a customer which just happened to repeat the E scanning pattern that the research explained was common. When showing the results to a customer I mentioned the research and explained that this looked like a common pattern.
Several months later I returned to the customer - to hear an argument in a design meeting where someone wanted to use the right column for content. They were vociferously voted down, using the argument that the E pattern was the only pattern all users would use - and therefore the right column location in discussion would never be used. This had grown from a single finding into a truth that everyone absolutely knew was Gospel.
And of course, it was a myth. I argued for testing the location (as it solved several other issues the team was facing) and the eye tracking pattern had completely changed. All was well.
We have to watch what we say and how we present our results, lest we start fires others have to later put out.
3. We see what we expect to see
When I was a child we moved into a home where an old lady had passed away. My older brother gleefully told me this, along with the fact that several weird events had occurred in the home since we’d moved in.
One night shortly after, I heard a ghostly voice calling my name, whispering it in the dark. I was terrified and lay in bed for quite some time, too horrified to move or call out for help.
Eventually, the repetitive nature of the whispered name started to strike me as odd - and on closer listening, I eventually realised it was a gentle snore coming from my younger brother across the room.
The point being, we experience what we expect to experience. Confirmation bias is a problem that not only plagues the CX and UX space, but it has also plagued scientists since the dawn of science. Not only do we see what we expect to see, but we tend to discount what doesn’t fit into our expectations.
Confirmation bias absolutely plays a part for conspiracy theorists. If you expect the moon landings to be faked then you’ll see what you were expecting - a flag moves as it’s being planted, and it’s obviously a breeze. Shadows look out of place and it’s obviously multiple sources of (faked) lights. Any pixel out of place screams ‘fake photo’.
This can be of particular concern for UXers, as we usually have to encounter an interface before we research it. That means we tend to make decisions about what is likely to work, and what might go wrong. Sometimes we are explicitly called to predict customer behaviours by performing expert heuristic reviews and scorecarding, which can help to build firm patterns of expectation.
The challenge for all researchers - whether in the UX/CX space or beyond - is to understand confirmation bias exists, to accept we aren’t immune to it - and to counter it in our observations and responses.
4. Myths out-way facts, often
Think about this for a moment; how exciting would it be to discover that aliens really did exist, and are alive and well in a facility in Nevada today. Balance that against the belief that Roswell was just a weather balloon and no aliens were ever found. Which one is more attractive?
One reason that conspiracy theories abound in today’s world is that they are fun and attractive ideas. They are often complex, but offer a more exciting world than the one we would otherwise believe in. They can also offer us enticing and seemingly logical answers to what can otherwise be confusing situations we don’t have a simple answer for. Strange radio signal from space? ‘Aliens’ is a far simpler answer than an unknown source within an extremely powerful magnetic field probably generated by a rapidly rotating neutron star or black hole in another Galaxy.
The US Government ran some interesting research into myths and facts, which found that myths survived far longer than facts in people’s minds - and often supplanted them. This research was focused on flu facts and myths, and showed that after time the myths were remembered as facts and the facts were often forgotten.
Simple and repeatable myths such as ‘Users never read’ and ‘Everyone searches now’ are enticing in the simple logic they present us, they are catchy and easy to pass on. Just like the aliens who generated that signal from space, they are a simple answer to what is a complex problem - and just as likely to be untrue.
5. Myths use stories better than facts
Humans are storytellers. Since we discovered fire we’ve sat around it telling stories about ourselves, our environment and everything we see. Stories have power, they are memorable and entrenched in our thinking.
Conspiracy theories stay alive because they tell stories that are interesting and powerful. I personally give no credence to the view that the moon landings never happened - but the story that they were faked has weight, even when we know it to be untrue. Just imagining how it could have been faked, what would have happened, how they pulled it off - that’s powerful.
And just as powerful is the drive to provide a story and a simple answer to the complexity that is a human interacting with an interface, be it a website or an app.
Telling ourselves that all teenagers are phone-warriors who can solve everything with an iPhone and 30 seconds is a convenient story that explains a lot and feels right. Have a problem installing something at home? Ask a 12-year-old. Telling ourselves that an 80-year-old is going to fail in using this website because they will never understand it makes some sense, they can’t find the TV remote, how could they figure out this comparison site?
Both stories are powerful, and yet completely untrue. Sure, there are some 12 and 80-year-olds who will fit those moulds, but just as many will completely break it. It’s not uncommon for us to run research where the 80-year-olds do far better than the teenagers - in part because they’ll often move more slowly, read more, and pick up on more of the interface communication in place (where the teenagers can often rush through, and trip up more frequently). But those two ends of the scale account for maybe half of our tests, we’ll see every flavour of mix in-between.
Conspiracy theories, myths and stories we tell ourselves about who we research - all are dangerous and so easy to believe.
Don’t believe the hype
If I have one goal in writing this, it’s to try and raise your awareness of the fact that UX is no different to anything else. Conspiracy theories and myths can be found in pretty much every aspect of life, from our food to the wildlife around us and the heaven’s above. That includes our work as researchers and designers.
Our job is to question every story we hear as ‘truth’, and look to confirm or disprove it with no investiture on either side.
Or - just believe the radio signals are coming from aliens communicating to the spiders via the dark side of the moon in an attempt to bring about the end of the world via a space rock the Government knows is coming but has kept secret for years - and just go crawl under a rock.
It’s your choice, really.