Designing for the hOS – Human Operating System

Remember as a child being fascinated by documentaries about primitive tribes who survived, even thrived, by being at one with their environment? They seemed to have had a sixth sense when it came to finding food and hunting. The hunters would know the direction their quarry was heading and how far ahead they were, not just by their foot tracks, but also by broken twigs, patches of fur, and other wilderness forensics. The hunter was in tune with the sun and wind and could make quick judgments based on observation and intuition.

We are all potential tribal hunters because all humans share remarkable powers of observation and intuition. It is what perpetuates our species. Primitive man was more directly dependent on these skills for survival than we are today, but we have the same senses, and the same brains. We are born with these capabilities: a shared hOS- Human Operating System. Our hOS learns from our experiences and enables us to fulfill our basic needs and pursue our wants. We are all programmed by our experience and adapted to our contemporary time and circumstance. We are continuously unconsciously sensing and responding to our environment and behaving accordingly.

Where primitive man used these skills to hunt prey and find dry firewood, we use them to do more mundane things like drive cars and, yes, shop and buy. Science tells us that we are not consciously aware of 95% of the decisions we make, an important requirement of living in a complex, potentially over-stimulating world. Our hOS is designed to push routine activities into our basil ganglia; an area of our brains that works quickly and reflexively to address familiar tasks. This frees our conscious mind to handle new things without being overburdened with stimuli, but more importantly, allows our emotional brain, the amygdala, to guide us by how we feel.

We no longer track rabbits in the snow, but when we shop we are utilizing the same skills of observation and intuition. We “know” where things on our lists should be, what should be adjacent to what, and when and how to use store signs and read situations from the behavior of other shoppers. We know what to avoid or ignore and what to engage and embrace.

But confusion leads to stress and makes our system crash. When our environment throws a threat at us, or doesn’t make sense, we get flush with adrenaline and want to run or lash out. According to Daniel Goldman the stress hijacks our amygdala and we act irrationally. In order to proceed we need to restart. This is a bad situation when we are trying to build brand relationships and create successful retail experiences.

The experience design must acknowledge this hOS reality and simultaneously accommodate and seduce… be basil ganglia AND amygdala friendly. It’s like a hit pop song the first time you hear it, with the unconsciously familiar rhythm and melody combined with a surprising “hook” and catchy lyrics that make us smile.

Experience design needs to accommodate the subtle cues that shoppers depend on to feel at ease, like instinctive navigation, intuitive adjacencies, and adequate information so they will not get stressed. Great experience design always needs to begin with the elimination of pain-points, otherwise the experience will be deemed unworthy… bad hunting grounds.

To be hOS-friendly an experience needs to have respect for the momentum that the shopper already has and the feelings that motivate them. What experiences are already cataloged in the basil ganglia that should not be challenged? What are the consistent cues that are shared across the retail landscape that create a perception of good hunting grounds? Don’t obstruct the need to be efficient, effective and unthreatened only to be different. Designing around these known needs will enable the emotional aspects of the experience to be fully felt and the differentiating aspects of the brand to be salient. They will allow the amygdala to trigger the positive feelings and emotions that drive preference and choice.

If our primitive tribal ancestor were along with us as we shop they would be impressed by our ability to hunt in this seemingly overwhelming environment called a store, let alone successfully complete an online order. But, underneath it all is the need to appeal to the same basic code, the same hOS, sensing and reacting, enjoying the hunt enough to return to your hunting grounds.