Originally published on “Matters” by Designit
“Studies show that [behavior] leads to changes in the brain!” How many times have you seen a headline like that? Sounds scary, doesn’t it? At least until you stop and think about it. It gets less scary when you remember this fundamental truth: Experience leading to changes in the brain is called learning. (Next time you see one of those headlines, try replacing “changes to the brain” with “learning” and see if it still sounds so scary.)
The fact is, having experiences and interacting with the world leads to changes in the brain. This is a good thing, because these changes (“learnings”) help you function in the world. For example, when you first learn to drive, it’s difficult to coordinate all the different skills you need to be effective until your brain develops the connections that make it easier. Once you learn how to drive, your brain is different from the brains of people who never learned.
We all experience the world through the experiences taken in by our own brains, and past experiences influence what — and how — we perceive and remember the world around us. Consider the phrase “Liberté égalité fraternité.” Depending on whether or not you’ve studied French history, your brain will respond differently. This is because you may or may not be able to link the phrase to other information stored in your memory.
Why This Matters for Designers
When clients want to replace field research with internal subject matter experts who were once a member of their target audience, this makes me very nervous. Take, for example, the hypothetical case of an accountant who joins a product company creating software for CPAs. The experience of working at a product company (learning about the underlying technology; watching the software go through various iterations; focusing on business objectives and constraints) produces brain responses that are different from a CPA who spends that time, well, accounting. Don’t get me wrong — it can be incredibly valuable to have that person to learn from, but their brain will respond differently that of the end user. They shouldn’t be considered members of the target audience any longer.