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The neuroscience behind a design system

Taylor Seamans

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After joining the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Experience Studio as a UI Developer this past July, my first main project was to work on the HPE Design System. The HPE Design System is a design, development, and research effort aimed at creating a consistent user experience across the breadth of software offered by (HPE). The HPE Design System will put in place a prescribed model for all HPE software developers to adhere to, optimizing the way HPE teams create user experiences for their customers.

I graduated last May with a B.S. in Computational Neuroscience, so, out of interest – or maybe habit – I’m constantly thinking about the way the brain interprets and perceives our experiences. Since I started work on the HPE Design System, I’ve begun to think more broadly about why we invest time in building one. Because, there’s a lot more to a design system than the slick, tightly-wrapped feeling that accompanies the term. A design system is more than just a library of components and design standards; it’s an entire visual and interactive language that engages with a user’s emotion, attention, and decision-making abilities. The way I see it, the benefits of creating a design system are grounded in three important aspects of cognition: emotion, attention, and decision making.

Emotion and memory

Our memories are incredibly emotionally driven. The saying, “Someone might not remember what you say to them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel” holds more weight than a simple push for thoughtful interactions. In a similar way, in regards to applications, a user may not always remember the words on the page or the exact images used, but they will likely remember the feeling of that experience. Like a go-to friend whose demeanor I know I can rely on in times of stress or joy, a design system allows various applications and products to form a united experience that establishes a relationship of trust with the user regardless of if this is their first time using an application or their hundredth.

Attention is limited

Humans are incredibly smart, but our attentional capacity is, in fact, quite limited. Working memory, which refers to the information that we are currently attending to or “working with”, has a capacity defined roughly at 7 ± 2 items and a duration of about 20 seconds. However, our attention can be aided by consistency and the ability to group information.

A well thought out design system helps a user focus their attention and break information into digestible pieces. By developing consistency in how information is presented and how a user is able to engage with that information, a design system liberates the user in a way that allows them to focus on what they’re trying to do as opposed to how to do it.

Decision-making

Ultimately, a user engages with an application to complete a task. Maybe that task is to check the status of a server or to manage user permissions, or maybe it’s just to explore a new topic. Regardless of the user’s goal, a design system enables and empowers the user in regards to this activity. By honing in on the ways emotion and attention drive our perception, a design system allows a user to make quicker, more accurate decisions about how to quickly achieve what the user set out to do.

Helping teams help customers

Beyond the end user’s experience, a design system helps expedite the design and development cycle for teams using it. In a sense, a design system is like bumpers on a bowling lane that gently redirect an application towards the ideal end deliverable. It provides templates and patterns to point them in the right direction, as well as resources and a community to engage with, amongst other things. A design system should be seen as being just as valuable to the internal teams designing/developing it as it is to the end user. It should be an aid to internal development teams in creating the best possible experience for the end user.

By establishing a consistent visual and interaction language, the HPE Design System enables experiences to be crafted with uncompromising integrity. These benefits are not found just at the surface level but grounded in the ways our brains perceive the world.

In conclusion, I’m really excited about the work I am doing on the HPE Design System and the improved experiences it will create for HPE customers as well as the internal teams using it. A design system leverages the knowledge we have about emotion, attention, and decision making to optimize the experience users have with an application. Check out the work that has started on the design system. For other updates from the HPE DEV team, be sure to keep visiting HPE DEV blog.