2012_09_featured_left_right Design

How The Left/ Right Brain Theory Improves The User Experience

Sometimes, it’s very easy to convince us. Be it in a discussion with friends, when buying a new pair of shoes, or when searching for a web service on the the Internet, if our intuition tells us to go for it, we feel confident that we are making the right decision. Then, other times, it seems like our intuition deserts us and it takes a lot more convincing to win us over for something.

It’s not a secret that our brains are capable of two different types of thinking. While the “left brain” can be considered rather objective, focusing on logic and analytics, the “right brain” is more subjective, emotional, and intuitive. Whether we use the left or the right part of our brain does not only affect our decision making, but also the way we perceive a website and how we interact with it.

Let’s take a quick look at the left brain-right brain theory to recap which part of our brain is responsible for what. Then, we’ll shed some light on how you can consider different ways of thinking in your design in order to optimize the experience for your visitors.

The Left Brain — Right Brain Theory

The Left Brain — Right Brain Theory was developed by the American psycho-biologist Roger W. Sperry in the late 1960s. He researched that our way of thinking differs between the left and the right part of our brain. With the left part, we first look at the pieces, processing them in an analytical and sequential way, before putting them together to get the whole picture. With the right part, it’s the other way around. We first take in the whole picture, and then we focus on the details.

The left brain


The left brain is objective and rational. (Source)

With the left part of our brain, we try to be objective and rational. We can focus on details and analytic facts, and we try to be both reasonable and practical. With the left part, we think things through, using our logic and make conscious decisions. We can relate experiences to both the past and the presence, and we like structures and patterns. We appreciate reality and like to recognize familiar things in the attempt to avoid change. The left part of our brain is responsible for processing numbers, and words, so that’s where we manage for example arithmetics, science, and languages.

The right brain


The right brain is subjective and intuitive. (Source)

The right part of our brain is rather subjective. Instead of making rational and conscious decisions, this part relies on intuition. Our thinking in the right brain is spontaneous and influenced by emotions, such as our mood, or external emotion triggers. With this part of the brain, we use our imagination, fantasy, and personal beliefs to make up our mind. We are willing to take risks and focus on goals rather than the process it takes to get there. We appreciate images and emotional elements, rather than factual information.

Left or right thinking in web design

According to the Left Brain — Right Brain Theory, there is a big difference between the kind of information we process with the different parts of our brain. Also the way we think and approach decisions is therefore quite different. But which effect does that have on your web design and on how people perceive it?

Here is a list of characteristics for both parts of our brain and some tips how you can better design your website to create a better overall experience for your visitors.

Left thinking

Objective & rational. The left part of our brain makes sure we stay objective, and carefully evaluate the information we find on a website. Make sure you meet these expectations and give your visitors the chance to thoroughly observe your site before requiring any decisions. Then offer straightforward solutions without unnecessary detours through your site.

Analytical. Objective thinking requires factual information. Anything analytical, like numbers and facts help the decision making process. Don’t try to talk your visitors into something without the necessary expertise and numbers to back you up.

Conscious. When we think with the left part of our brain, we focus on details and logic. You should offer enough details on your site and not rush people into anything. Allow them to take their time and to think things through before you ask them to take an action. For example, they might want to sleep something over, or discuss it with friends, before making a decision.

Conservative. The left part of our brain causes that we are not particularly fond of new things and irregularities. Try to meet your visitors’ expectations and for example offer them a navigation structure they are already familiar with. Allow them to relate their experiences to past events and memories to keep it easy and straightforward.

Structured. The left brain also responds to pattern and clean structures. With a clean design you can avoid irritations, or distractions. Make sure all relevant information is visible and easily accessible and there are no obstacles that keep your visitors from reaching their goal efficiently.

Basically, the left part of our brain decides whether a website is usable or not. It analyzes if the site is accessible and functional, if all relevant information is available and if we can easily reach our goals.

The right brain

Subjective. The right part of our brain is rather subjective and can be triggered with the look and feel of your design. This part of the brain responds for example to color, form, or other aesthetic elements. You can also trigger your visitors’ imagination and appeal to their personal beliefs in order to activate the right brain.

Intuitive. The right brain is intuitive. Make sure your visitors feel comfortable on your site, giving them the confidence to make spontaneous decisions. It is also important to remove any obstacles and allow your visitors to engage instantly. If people have to postpone something, you basically force them to reconsider your offer and possibly their decision.

Emotional. Our right brain can be activated by emotions, such as our mood or external triggers. Emotional design can help you that your visitors feel safe on your site, and that they trust you. Trust is very important to get people involved with your site. Add personality and character to your site and invite your visitors to connect with you as a brand or web master.

Experimental. If you can manage to activate the right part of the brain, you can ask a lot more from your visitors regarding flexibility and risk taking. The right brain doesn’t think much about consequences and is willing to try new things and engage in unfamiliar actions.

Goal focussed. Rather than thinking about processes, the right brain is concerned with the outcome. You can invite your visitors to explore and take chances on your site. As long as you offer engaging and fun results, the right brain doesn’t mind a complicated path to get there.

Bottom line, the right brain decides whether or not we perceive a website as pleasurable. It allows us to get engaged and involved with your website, and to have individual experiences while doing so. The right brain also gets your visitors excited and willing to tell others about your site, and it memorizes emotional impressions that help people to recognize your site the next time they visit.

There is no left OR right


You can only create a great user experience if you focus on both parts of the brain.(Source)

This sounds all very straightforward, right? Right, it’s not rocket science. However, it is also important to mention that you hardly can, and certainly should not try to separate the two brains. Although people sometimes say that, for example, more creative people use their right brain more than their left brain, you can never build a great user experience only focussing on one brain.

Here is why. The left brain checks the objective and basic aspects about your site. In order to convince the left brain, you have to make sure these basics are all set. If that’s the case people can find sufficient and detailed information on your site, and that in a structured and clear way. However, they would come, find what they are looking for, and leave. That’s it. No detours, no frustration. But also no engagement, nothing to get excited about, no experience.

In order to connect with your visitors and to offer them a positive experience that makes them tell others about your site, you need to also convince their right brain. You can do so by making your design personal, engaging, fun, special, breathtaking, etc. In one word: make your design emotional.

6 comments

  1. Nancy Lao

    I’ve been thinking about something similar, but the “male” brain vs. the “female” brain.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200803/male-brain-vs-female-brain-ii-what-is-extreme-male-brain-w

    The extreme “male” brain is highly efficient and expects people to behave like machines. The extreme “female” brain might expect machines to have empathy.

    And that helps designers think about usability because I’ve theorized that this corresponds often to engineers vs. designers.

  2. David Hamill

    You do know that the right brain and left brain thing is a total myth don’t you?

  3. Xandre Lima

    People, I know everything seems so cool in our field, but please, do a quick research using Google (I prefer that you use a scholar base if you can)…

    “…this new line in hemispheric research is still in its early days. But at least there seems no prospect of a return to the old left-right caricatures that inspired so many self-help books exhorting people to liberate their right brains and avoid too much sterile left-brain thinking.” http://rense.com/general2/rb.htm

  4. Sabina Idler

    David, Xandre,

    Thanks for the enlightening. I guess it stays a theory after all. Nevertheless, I see it as a very helpful perspective on the UX. Be it in different parts of our brain or not, our brain is capable of different ways of thinking and these should both be considered when designing a website.

  5. Craig Burtenshaw

    Interesting article and although I concur with a lot of the points and the main message, it would be worth taking a look at this video on the theory of the divided brain;

    http://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI

  6. Bryson Johnson

    User experience is everything when you are in the business of serving people. When there existed primarily the brick-and-mortar model, people in a given geographic area could realistically compete for the majority of the share of a given market. Feel, experience, and customer service mattered, but against a smaller scope of competitors. Today, we are forced to compete against just about everyone in the game…Web-based businesses alongside brick-and-mortar and everything in between. This drives the necessity for the things you mentioned to a whole new level that we have never seen before. Nice post. Thanks. B.Johnson from Right Brain Store

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