System and Real World Alignment

Behavioral Design: System and Real World Alignment

What are Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics? After analysing usability research, UX expert Jakob Nielsen created suggestions for user interface design that increase product usability and user experience. 

The Usability Heuristics use high-level principles to identify usability issues in a design. They’re timeless, even in an ever-changing digital context, as they can be applied across any interface or design style. Nielsen's standards have become a cornerstone of UX and UI design, introduced early in design education and repeatedly revisited throughout a designer's career.

The Basic Idea

There probably wouldn’t be any round-shaped soda bottles if people had paws instead of normal hands with fingers that can clench! But designers understand how human arms and digits work, so they create beverage bottles that consumers can comfortably hold by hand without thinking about it. That’s one example of system and real world alignment in behavioral design.

According to the usability heuristic, a system has optimal user interactions when it follows people’s reality, thinking, and natural way of doing things. It incorporates lexicon that everybody speaks and is comfortable with, rather than technical jargon that may escape users’ attention or require further research to understand. Incorporating relevant socio-cultural concepts in the design enhances users’ familiarity with the system, easing uncertainties associated with its features or general application.

Theory, meet practice

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Key Terms

Uncertainty reduction: This theory holds that people will try to avoid uncertain situations until they have reduced the uncertainty to a comfortable level.

Cultural markers: These are system design elements inspired by the target users’ cultural context/norms to deliver expected user experiences.

The Behavior Behind the Design

The Mere Exposure Effect

The mere exposure effect is our tendency to like things that we’ve experienced multiple times previously, while avoiding unfamiliar ones. It’s why we prefer food that we’ve liked before, going to the same type of holiday destinations that we previously enjoyed, and listen to the same type of music that we did a few years ago. For many consumers, such affection grows subconsciously through subtle, repeated exposure to a stimulus.1  

Uncertainty Reduction as a Driver of the Mere Exposure Effect

When people hesitate to select or engage with an unfamiliar situation, their main concern is often the uncertainties faced. Maybe they’re unsure of the right way to respond or anxious over the potential consequences of their decisions. Facing the same challenges/opportunities many times over can help produce the mere exposure effect by easing some of the initial concerns.

Advocates of the uncertainty reduction theory attribute such positive change of attitude to increased familiarity with an experience, which makes potential interactions more predictable and less off-putting.

As we encounter a once-unfamiliar situation repeatedly, we learn more about it. The gained experience gradually helps us ease our anxiety-driven hesitation to engage with new stimuli.

Case Studies

Culture-Aware e-Commerce Website Design: eBay and Taobao 

While trying to align systems to the ‘real world’, designers must remember that the ‘real world’ changes drastically depending on their userbase.

In a 2008 study, researchers investigated culture-friendly website design elements that could help enhance the usability of e-commerce platforms eBay (a Western website) and Taobao (a Chinese website).2 The research established multiple cultural markers that web developers can build into an interface to create more user-friendly applications for multicultural online shoppers.

Research Method

Participants were tasked with finding a specific iPod model on both the local and other culture’s website (Chinese versions of Ebay and Taobao for Chinese-speaking users and English versions of Ebay and Taobao for native English-speakers). The test was timed, after which the participants were asked to rate their online “shopping” experience based on four proposed cultural markers.  

The Findings

  • Items displayed per page: Although all participants acknowledged that Taobao’s home page was denser (displayed more items per page), only Western users found this uncomfortable. The theorized cultural difference is that Chinese shoppers are used to denser content per page with no spaces between Chinese characters.   
  • Hyperlink hints: Unlike English website versions, the Chinese sites did not add an underline as cue for page links. Chinese users didn’t perceive the difference, indicating their reliance on other forms of visual clickability cues, such as hyperlinks that change color.   
  • Browser windows per session: All Chinese users preferred to launch pages on a new browser window or tab, while English shoppers preferred to use a single browser window at a time. This suggested possible differences in problem-solving approaches across cultural contexts (sequential vs. multi-tasking).
  • Time taken to complete tasks: Although all groups took longer to complete the product search on the other culture’s website, English users spent more than double the time their Chinese counterparts needed on Taobao. They concluded that adopting website design to cultural expectations makes for far smoother, faster user experiences.

Aligning System Language With Users’ Lexicon: A Cosmetic Surgery Hypothesis

Say a plastic surgeon is looking to market his surgery clinic online by publishing informative and search-engine-optimized (SEO) content. Before he can explain his services to potential patients on his website, he has to be found through SEO. Keyword research has showed him the specific phrases people searching online for services similar to his are typing on Google.

For example, those seeking out a face lift don’t even know the medical term for it “rhytidectomy.” So they’re instead looking up things like “face lift” or “surgical wrinkle removal.” This simple layman’s language informs the doctor’s SEO strategy to grab new clients’ attention, after which he can explain any relevant medical jargon in detail.


  1. Lee, A.Y. (1994).The Mere Exposure Effect: Is It a Mere Case of Misattribution? NA - Advances in Consumer Research. (21), 270-275. Retrieved September 14, 2023 from
  2. Fraternali, P. & Tisi, M. (2008, August). Identifying Cultural Markers for Web Application Design Targeted to a Multi-cultural Audience. Eighth International Conference on Web Engineering (ICWE2008). DOI:10.1109/ICWE.2008.34

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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