PoetPainter - Thoughts
Thursday August 22, 2013 / 2 Comments

Introducing the Mental Notes Behavior Cube!

When I created the Mental Notes card deck, I shied away from creating a framework for using the cards. Other than keywords suggesting how a principle might be used (for persuasion, memory, attention or understanding), there is no kind of classification system. As I explain in the instructions:

Early on, I had planned on having color-coded borders, icons and other information by which to group these principles. In the end, however, I found these to be unnecessary. While a solid framework would certainly be helpful (see “Chunking”), many of these ideas are simply too rich to classify into discrete categories. That, and there’s a certain magic in being able to organize (and reorganize) your cards as you see fit. As with music, it’s the song with fewer notes onto which you can add your own harmonies—my hope is that you’ll discover your own patterns and uses for these cards. Share your frameworks with other people. I’ll be doing the same at getmentalnotes.com and in upcoming workshops and presentations.

That was 2010.

So what’s happened since then?

A number of great frameworks have emerged, each offering a different perspective by which to discuss principles of human behavior. Some of my favorites:

From the numerous workshops, talks, and smart conversations that have followed since the publication of the deck, I’ve observed some recurring patterns of use. While I do encourage a very random “draw one idea and try to apply it” approach (the cards are a tool for brainstorming, after all!), there are some logical ways to group the cards. As an example, when it came to write the chapter in my book that comments on gamification, I started by focusing on 8 principles that I consider core motivators; this includes things like Curiosity, Competition, or Self-Expression.When you strip away all the other trappings that make something a game, these are what’s left at the center (or what should be at the center!).

Designing for emotion has attracted a lot of attention over the last several years. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the conversation often narrows in on very a specific set of examples, namely those things that excite the brain. This includes humor, surprise, tone & voice, visuals—things related to personality. While this is certainly important, it ignores much of what is (or should be) included in conversations around emotion. For example, without emotions, we are unable to make decisions. This has less to do with feeling elated or sad, and more to do with the emotional center of our brain telling the executive functions to “just pull the trigger—this is what we should do!” This applies to everything from choosing what to wear in the morning to making difficult financial decisions. The field of behavioral economics has essentially shown that we are not rational creatures. Our motivations are often irrational—why else would we care about mayorships or closing an information gap ?

It’s this narrow definition of emotional design that was the catalyst for what I’m about to share…

Catalyst for the “BeCube”

I was recently invited to do an internal keynote where the theme was designing for emotions. I was struggling to adapt my talk (essentially about human behaviors) to the emotional design theme; this is when the gap between what I normally discuss and the more popular emotional design conversations became evident. Opportunity: I could open by talking about humor, delight, visual imagery, and then segue into the broader view of what it means to really design for emotions, thinking about how we make decisions, how we perceive things, what motivates us and what reinforces those motivations. It’s this line of thinking that led me to create the Mental Notes Behavior Cube:

Mental Notes Behavior Cube (assembled)

Nope. This is not a 6 sided die you roll. Each side is a lens by which to organize principles of human behavior. One of the things that kept me from creating a framework before was that many of the principles don’t fit neatly into one category or classification. The brilliance of a cube metaphor is that you’re essentially looking at the same set of things, but from one of 6 different perspectives. As you change the focal point, a different cluster of things rises to face you. It’s okay if the same principle shows up on three different sides—it’s not sloppy thinking! It is this metaphor freed me up to suggest 5 different groupings or ways to discuss the principles of human behavior identified in the Mental Notes card deck.

Those 5 groupings, or lenses, are as follows:

  • What directly engages our emotions?
    More accurately, what excites or arouses the brain. This is the stuff that normally dominates conversations about emotional design. This includes things like humor, sensory appeal, visual imagery and so on.
  • What shapes memory and perception?
    Our memories of a past event and our experience of a current event are both a process of active construction— our brains working to find patterns in all the active neurons (or something like that!). All the principles in this lens deepen our understanding of how things like stories, beliefs and memories are formed.
  • What motivates us?
    These are core motivators. When you peel back all the layers, this is why we do most of the things we do. Go any deeper than this and you get into drives (sex, hunger, safety).
  • What encourages or discourages us?
    These are the things that keep us going or keep us on course. Often confused with core motivators, these the reinforcers, the things that say “good job!” or “meh, you need to work on that some more…”
  • What influences our decisions?
    These are those things that, in the moment, spur us on to make a decision or take action. You may know what to do, but these are things that trigger that action.

…and all of the principles organized into these 5 lenses answer the question “What motivates specific behaviors?”

To be clear, these lenses all compliment each other nicely, and the boundaries between the focal areas are fuzzy lines, not hard distinctions. But, I feel like this is a great structure for moving forward the practical design conversations focused on principles of human behavior.

If, for example, I’m speaking with a client about making something playful, I can start by talking about a few core motivations— why someone might care in the first place. Then we can talk about ways to encourage that behavior. We can then talk about ways to excite people, influence decisions, and so on. As with the Mental Notes, we’re talking about timeless principles of psychology, not the surface level mechanics that get so much attention (a “progress mechanic” only works because of the principles of Status, Appropriate Challenges, and Sequencing).

Mental Notes Behavior Cube (unassembled)
The Mental Notes Behavior Cube.pdf

All in all, I’m rather satisfied with the model, and excited to share it with others. It’s a fairly simple and straightforward organizational system, but the thinking to get to this point didn’t happen overnight. As with all ideas, I’ve given it a version number– I’m sure it will continue to evolve. But, it’s ready to be released into the wild. So… enjoy! I’m offering this as a free PDF, my way of giving back to others, and continuing the conversation. Let me know your thoughts and how this might work for you!

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  1. On Aug 27, 10:22 AM John said

    Very cool, thanks for sharing! I’m going to print it up, and try it out.

  2. On Sep 13, 08:35 PM Ben Judy said

    Awesome. Thanks for putting this out there so we can all benefit.

    In regard to what influences our decisions, I wonder about your thoughts on the theory that Core Meanings are the ultimate driver of decision-making? See:





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