Dopamine and the mind – why good designs go wrong

14.02.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss

Over the years, I have noticed a strange pattern: when executives (site owners) are asked to comment on design layouts, they often say there is too much text and demand larger pictures/graphics – whether these are relevant or not. These executives are disappointed and frustrated with the design proposals they see. On the other hand, if you listen to users (during usability testing, for example), they complain that these same pictures/graphics are getting in their way. Like the executives, they also exhibit frustration, but in a diametrically different way – “Why are you making me scroll past this crap to get to the information I really need?” 

My question was simple: was there a scientific reason for these dramatically different reactions to essentially the same designs? And I think the answer is “yes”.I’ve included a few salient footnotes for those of you who are scientifically inclined.

Thesis in brief (1)

Why do two groups of people seem to consistently disagree regarding the “attractiveness” of a website design? Could it be that there was a physiological reason for these reactions? In short, was our brain playing tricks on us or misleading us? Were our development and presentation techniques actually encouraging inappropriate client reactions?

Early research

I have known about the functions of neurophysiological “reward chemicals” since my pre-med studies at Washington University in St. Louis 1972-1976. In late 2007, having spotted the curious reaction pattern described above, I started to do some more serious research, focusing on the limbic system (2) and the nature of reward chemicals (3).

I made the assumption that if the pattern I had identified was universal, voluntary intake of recreational reward chemicals (e.g. nicotine, caffine, cocaine, etc.) was probably not at the heart of these reactions. So I looked for chemical rewards produced by the body itself. Soon, my inquiry zeroed in on dopamine, a chemical messenger similar to adrenaline. (4)

Dopamine – friend or foe?

Dopaminergic neurons appear to code environmental stimuli rather than specific movements. (5) This, in layman’s terms, means that pretty pictures stimulate dopamine release, which perhaps explains why executives favour graphics over blocks of text in dummy design layouts.

Although this reaction seems obvious (pictures are more attractive than text), it was reassuring to know that there was a scientific reason for this.

Task-solving activities

The second part of my question dealt with why test subjects so often reacted badly to eye-candy (i.e. gratuitous pictures/graphics).

There are various viewpoints as to the role of dopamine and the task-completion process. For example, Pennartz et al. (6) asked in 2009:

“Given the parallel organization of corticostriatal circuits, the question arises how coherent behavior, requiring integration of sensorimotor, cognitive, and motivational information, is achieved.”

Perhaps part of the answer to this critical question can be found in Taizo Nakazato’s research, published back in 2005 (7):

“During the task performance, dopamine concentration started to increase just after the cue, peaked near the time of the lever press, and returned to basal levels 1–2 s after the lever press.”

By way of background, this study deals with rats pressing a lever to receive a food reward. In internet terms, I equate this behavior with humans pushing a button/clicking a link to receive an informational reward. In other words, task accomplishment produces a reward – in this case chemical.

Actually, though, it appears that the anticipation of task-completion triggers dopamine release (8). And it could be that executives about to see a proposed design for the first time may be anticipating the presence of pretty pictures.

Yet the essence of the problem seems to be that if something delays/hinders task completion, dopamine release actually causes post-action frustration. Dr. J.G. Fleischer describes this phenomenon quite succinctly: (9, 10)

“If the [subject] does not receive the reward when it expects to receive it, then there is a depression of dopamine release, which is consistent with the negative preduction error that would occur in that situation.”

In other words, if something gets in the way of task completion, dopamine doesn’t get where it’s needed (“depression of dopamine release”). I suggest that perhaps the pretty pictures and eye-candy that were anticipated and appreciated during the presentation phase, are actually getting in the way of test subjects who expect a more relevant response to their query (i.e. clicking on a promising link). If we make people scroll to get to the stuff they want (and expect to receive), they experience dopamine depression.

That said, a more recent study by Wanat et al. (11), suggests that further research is needed:

“[The] enhancement of reward-evoked dopamine signaling was also observed in sessions in which the response requirement was fixed but the delay to reward delivery increased, yoked to corresponding trials in PR sessions. These findings suggest that delay, and not effort, was principally responsible for the increased reward-evoked dopamine release in PR sessions. Together, these data demonstrate that NAcc dopamine release to rewards and their predictors are dissociable and differentially regulated by the delays conferred under escalating costs.”

In other words, the tougher it is to achieve a result, the greater the dopamine reward. This somewhat contradicts my thesis – and yet these findings also indicate that the response is situational. Hence, I feel certain that Wanat & Co. are actually looking at a different side of the problem, unrelated to task-based frustration, but that related to task-completion in a triumphal ”I just made it to the summit of Mt. Everest” kind of manner.

Drawing on my network

In late 2009, my online research led me to my grade-school best-friend, Jon Kassel. (12) Jon is now Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Jon’s speciality is addiction. Naturally, the effect of drugs on emotions represents a key part of his own research.

Jon and I chatted informally about the problem with which I was wrestling. And without putting too many words in Jon’s mouth, it seems my thesis holds water – certainly from a cognitive point of view, and more and more from a clinical-psychology point of view, too. I hope that Jon and I can work on this in more detail sometime.

Please note: my conversations with Jon served merely as litmus tests and should not be construed as formal endorsement of my theories on the part of Dr. Kassel or the University of Illinois.

Community research

Of course, it could be that the pattern I thought I had detected was merely a fata morgana, Maybe my community wasn’t seeing the same things I was. So in January 2010, I published a simple survey on SurveyMonkey, which I broadcast to the interactive-design community via social media and list serves. (13) All of my questions could be answered with a simple yes/no. Here they are, along with the results of the 144 people who responded within the first week:

1. Have you ever been at a client meeting where you or your company have presented detailed page mockups for a proposed website (a “comp” complete with graphics and “greeked” text)?

Note: This may or may not represent the culmination of a longer discovery/strategic/IA process, but exactly where this presentation occurs in the overall process is not particularly important in terms of this survey.

Yes: 97.9%
No: 2.1%

2. If you have been to a website design presentation meeting as described above, have you ever heard the client say, “Very pretty, but there’s too much text. We need more/better/prettier graphics.” (this is when clients start talking about including pictures of their pet cat.)

I see this mostly when senior officials have not participated in an earlier discovery/IA/wireframing process.

Yes: 70.5%
No: 29.5%

3. Having been present at the original design presentation, have you later observed (probably through a one-way mirror during a usability session) that respondents say “Don’t make me scroll through the damned eye-candy to get to the substance. Get rid of the picture of that dumb cat!”

Yes: 58%
No: 42%

4. So in short, do you see any correlation between requests for more eye-candy during the layout approvals, and irritation with the same eye-candy during task-based usability testing?

Yes: 59.9%
No: 41.1%

About 62% of the respondents were from North America, 30% were from Europe, 8% were from the rest of the world.

Even though this is a primitive survey, the statistical results are significant; the pattern I hypothesised is recognized by others by a factor approaching 2 to 1.

Today, “dopamine” seems to have become “flavor of the month”

I first mentioned this research en passant in blogpost I published in January, 2009. (14) I talked about it again briefly at the IA Summit in Phoenix, AZ in April, 2010. Today, the subject seems to be finally taking hold – most recently at the IxDA’s conference, Interactions 11, in Boulder, CO last week (February 2011). Here, Charles Hannon, presented the subject formally (e.g. as the main subject of a talk) for the first time in our community. (15) Although the subject has also been broached tangentially at EuroIA 2010 and elsewhere, I look forward to speaking with Prof. Hannon at some point; alas, I was not able to attend the Boulder conference.

A second empirical observation

When I first suspected that comprehensive design mock-ups might be creating problems, we tweaked the development/presentation process in my own company, FatDUX. Subsequently, we spent much more effort in guiding senior management through our decision-making process prior to showing actual color design mockups. Although we had always involved our clients in the earlier stages of the development process, we had never previously insisted on top-management participation.

My empirical observation is that if C-level administrators are made part of the comprehensive design process, there is less chance they will insist on bigger pictures or cuter kittens on the website. In situations where we have not been able to obtain face-time with senior officials, our designs are more often open to challenge. Only expensive rounds of usability testing have enabled us to reinstate the graphic-design best-practices we normally espouse.

Some background

Both of my parents were scientists and the value of the scientific method and controlled studies was something I learned in parallel with my ABCs. As a pre-med student at Washington University in St. Louis, I continued my scientific studies, although I did wind up in a so-called “unrelated field” (encouraged by my father, who helped me send my first e-mail back in 1982 (no typo) to his secretary at the University of Miami). I have since been involved in the creation and/or critique of over 1500 websites and online apps.

So in closing, I encourage you to do your own research to prove or disprove my contention. And if you’d like to share your own empirical observations and/or research, I hope you’ll leave a comment here or write me directly at

Here, I use “thesis” in the literal Greek fashion: as an “intellectual proposition” (θέσις), not a “dissertation” (dissertātiō).,+dopaminergic+neurons+are+fired&source=bl&ots=JMINA_81vP&sig=9fC8tPBQ6hGBzweK0B9y0Og3rIg&hl=da&ei=9_tYTeDyEozoOaTzsJIF&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEkQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

Twitter, plus the SIGIA list maintained by the American Society for Information Science and Technology, and the discussion list of the Interaction Design Association. The survey was published on 10 January 2010.


  1. So better provide the with them many drafts and let them chose.

    Comment by Green Water Technologies - 00:00 01.01.0001
  2. Great article. I'm facing many of these issues as well..

    Comment by Hanslow - 00:00 01.01.0001
  3. During gameplay, pay attention to your opponent's build orders, unit selections, and overall strategy. This article points out a few of these key distinctions for the Protoss vs Protoss matchup.

    Comment by Knights Templar Shields - 00:00 01.01.0001
  4. well written. will keep them

    Comment by - 00:00 01.01.0001
  5. jual vcc murah virtual credit card verifikasi paypal akun paypal terverifikasi.

    VCC merupakan singkatan dari Virtual Credit Card yang tidak mempunyai bentuk fisik dan bebas dari iuran tahunan tetapi memiliki fungsi yang hampir sama dengan dengan kartu kredit, yaitu bisa untuk belanja online di seluruh dunia, beli aplikasi di Google Play, verifikasi PayPal, verifikasi Ebay dan verifikasi alat pembayaran yang lainnya. Sama halnya dengan kartu kredit, Virtual Credit Card juga memiliki data-data meliputi jenis kartu (baik Visa, MasterCard, Amex, Discover dll), 16 angka unik, masa berlaku, dan kode keamanan.

    Comment by vcc murah - 00:00 01.01.0001
  6. Hi BrianSJ, No that would be silly. But I assume your comment is meant to be facetious anyway. What I’m saying is that just showing a pretty layout to stakeholders/decisionmakers (at ANY level in the organization), is going to produce different reactions than those of people who are actually trying to use something. And the very reward chemicals that make stuff “pretty” in a design-approval scenario are exactly the same things that make something “unusable” in a more task-based scenario.

    Comment by Eric Reiss - 19:56 26.07.2011
  7. So show the executives video of people using the wire-frame, not the screen formats?

    Comment by BrianSJ - 19:56 26.07.2011

  8. All, I can be, I owe to my angel mother.

    Comment by Ken Griffey Jr Shoes - 07:24 18.02.2012
  9. Thank you for the article, I saw after the enlightened, my idea like you, just not good at expression

    Comment by Nike Heels - 03:19 13.04.2012
  10. I really enjoyed reading this post. I love your style of writing describing things.

    Comment by کاشی فروش - 20:34 13.04.2012
  11. According to the site patrons broke the news, Michelle Yeoh stomach

    Jeremy Scott Wings :
    Ken Griffey Shoes :

    Comment by Jeremy Scott Adidas - 13:48 10.05.2012
  12. That's a great helpful post you brought us. Thanks for sharing such a valuable info.

    Comment by Saffron - 10:17 17.08.2012
  13. Well written and thought provoking post. Thanks!

    Comment by New York satellite internet - 19:04 29.08.2012
  14. Although most people think that the best golf equipment is the most expensive golf equipment this is not actually the case.

    Comment by idateasia scam - 04:40 19.10.2012

  15. Many thanks regarding an additional helpful site.

    Comment by replica watches - 09:13 21.11.2012
  16. Sant Ritz facilities provide full family entertainment needs for your family and loved ones. Indulge in a serene and tranquil lifestyle right in the heart of Potong Pasir.

    Comment by Sant Ritz - 04:39 24.01.2013
  17. Twin Fountains EC has full and unique facilities, which includes a guard house, clubhouse, Function Room & Indoor Gym Tennis Court, 50m Freeform Pool Pool Deck, Wading Pool, Splash Pool & Family Pool Jacuzzi & Hydro Spa, BBQ Area Dining and Play Fountain, Fitness Alcove & Children’s Playground and Garden Trail.

    Comment by Twin Fountains - 08:25 14.02.2013
  18. Only expensive rounds of usability testing have enabled us to reinstate the graphic-design best-practices we normally espouse.

    Comment by Beats sale - 14:14 08.03.2013
  19. Swim over and check out their fabulous assortment of swimwear, flip flops, towels and marc jacobs bags. Packed with Marc Jacobs UK-coddling fatty acids and enzymes from fresh ingredients such as avocado, olive oil, and honey, this do-it-yourself Marc By Marc Jacobs will bring your hair back to life with plenty of shine to spare.But unlike cutout clothing, cutout flats don't require a full Tod's routine to get everything right and tight. I try to avoid the madness that is central Marc Jacobs Handbags and as lovely as Shop Marc Jacobs at NET-A-PORTER is, the tourist factor and sheer number of people can make it a stressful zone to go into.Marc Jacobs Online wore her hair in loose curls, swept over to one side for a glamorous tods shoes, her singature slick of bold red tods handbags, and some seriously mega false Marc Jacobs Sale for a dramatic final flourish.Each one is intricately made, lovingly taken care of, and reasonably priced. We couldn't decide which one was prettiest, so we bought a few. You may know Mackage for its marc jacobs, but prepare to know the brand for a line of marc jacobs purses that are beyond good - way better than you would ever expect from a line's first foray into the tods handbags market.

    Comment by Marc Jacobs UK - 09:11 30.03.2013
  20. The school and its namesake town in Massachusetts were named after Lord Jeffery Amherst, a famed officer in the British Army during the 1700s. Hence, the unique moniker for the college's athletic teams.

    Comment by Celine Bag - 03:15 08.04.2013
  21. Although Oakley sunglasses can be a bit pricey, Oakley guarantees customer satisfaction <a href="">cheap oakleys for sale</a> with every pair, The lenses are adjustable and can be replaced with various colors if you want to, and each pair of Oakley sunglasses usually comes in different cool colors not just your usual black. Although Oakley sunglasses can be a bit pricey, Oakley guarantees customer satisfaction with every pair, The lenses are <a href="">oakleys cheap</a> adjustable and can be replaced with various colors if you want to, and each pair of Oakley sunglasses usually comes in different cool colors not just your usual black.

    Comment by oakleyley - 05:11 23.04.2013
  22. great eco site. it is always good to check it out

    Comment by ecopolitan ec - 10:45 10.09.2013
  23. great home by the sea. do not miss. check it out

    Comment by vue 8 residence - 08:08 11.09.2013
  24. great flora site at ec price. worth bookmarking

    Comment by inflora - 05:47 09.10.2013
  25. check out the only great sea view ec site

    Comment by sea horizon - 09:31 04.11.2013
  26. It is one way to move and that is everything we can have to change to know all about this part. -

    Comment by Scott Sohr Nashville - 04:07 13.12.2013
  27. A very nice post on the reasons why good design go wrong. The post is a very nice and informative.

    Comment by website creation - 12:54 01.04.2014
  28. Whatever our opinions are, we should set in our minds that everyone of us has a role in our society. We are molding our children's future by instilling to them what good things must be done and the bad things that mustn't do.

    Comment by sohbet - 13:48 16.04.2014
  29. Should some form of the majority of persons be a great dole to help develop some form of exciting abilitys abacus calculator, this crankys voters interest prerogative work out abilitys, most likely maybe be began overseas with all the torpor within the precise implement, also little by little idea protected some form of prescription drugs compare of undecorated truth.

    Comment by bitcoin hosting - 13:06 24.09.2014
  30. Sama halnya dengan kartu kredit, Virtual Credit Card juga memiliki data-data meliputi jenis kartu (baik Visa, MasterCard, Amex, Discover dll), 16 angka unik, masa berlaku, dan kode keamanan.

    Comment by website - 13:15 17.10.2014
  31. Logistically it takes time to swap out a technician to a new van and we do not want to overwhelm ourselves, although the sooner we switch the sooner we start saving.

    Comment by read more - 15:06 17.10.2014
  32. Sometimes you cannot understand how our laws are being implemented, well thanks to those who support and understand the plight of Hobbit pub and to Stephen Fry, he's really a good man.

    Comment by first date - 08:29 04.12.2014
  33. selamat malam bos

    Comment by - 13:18 07.12.2014
  34. great eco site. it is always good to check it out. thaks

    Comment by celana hernia magnetik - 14:18 22.01.2015
  35. great article thank you

    Comment by العاب طبخ - 04:10 27.05.2015
  36. great

    Comment by showbox apk download for android - 08:16 09.11.2015
  37. I really enjoyed reading this ultimate article. The best part in this article is the way you describe.

    Comment by myntra - 09:20 09.01.2016
  38. One of the best post. keep it up

    Comment by paytm login - 11:44 10.02.2016
  39. Nice article

    Comment by paytm coupon - 13:56 11.02.2016
  40. Very nice explanation about why good designs go wrong, Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Mark Steve - 08:16 16.04.2016
  41. I am totally agreed with your suggestions. Thanks for a quality post…….

    Comment by Delhi Engineering College - 10:02 16.04.2016

Leave a comment