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How Niko Tinbergen Reverse Engineered the Seagull (dustincurtis.com)
75 points by kf on Dec 27, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 17 comments

First, I'm really intrigued by the design choices made on the page - the red line and the fact that the page is a good 1280 px wide (I have a 1280x800 pixel monitor and had a horizontal scrollbar). There's something absolutely brilliant about how the red line on the left reinforces the key insight of the research. (And it exactly matches up with the part of the text that would maximize that reinforcement.) The page width, I don't get - but Dustin's a design stud and I'm not a stud of any sort.

Second, I suppose we could end up at optimal designs for what we wanted through iterative A/B testing. Given enough time, enough variations, and enough traffic, you could conceivably come to the ideal webpage for conversion (of whatever metric you wanted). Of course, as people change, the page would have to change as well. The Gladwell article posted earlier today is a good companion read to this piece, I thought.

For me, the extra width worked rather well. When I first hit the site, the sidebar was hidden and I focused entirely on the article. At the end, I noticed the little white arrow cue and scrolled over to get extra information about Dustin and his website.

I'm not certain if this was a premeditated design choice, but it actually played out very nicely.

At least it shows the advantage of CSS - within 30s I managed to do View/Page Style/Basic Style and made the text with ridiculous leading readable. The quicker that this particular trend dies out the better - a font-size of 14px with a line-height of 30px doesn't make for easy-reading,

Robert Cialdini covers a similar experiment with turkeys in his excellent book, "Influence - The Psychology of persuasion"

For example, mother turkeys, who are known to be caring parents (as far as birds go), tend to respond only to the "cheep-cheep" sound of their chicks.

"Hearing the cheep-cheep, the mother turkey coddles and cares for the young turkey chick. It is a short-cut response that nature has given turkeys to know how to behave. It tends to work well in nature. But, tricky scientists recorded the cheep-cheep sound and placed the recording into a stuffed Polecat, the natural enemy of the turkey, and found that the mother turkeys adopted the stuffed polecat. Coddled it and cared for it."

Human babies have similar innate behaviors (a quickly growing shape, say a circle, will cause a fear reaction in a newborn baby).*

* Chomsky - Language and Responsibility - p52

Wait, why? (the part in parentheses)

Quickly growing shape in front of your eyes is a good heuristics to indicate that something is going to hit you in the head.

Incidentally, that's why I never liked ball games.

Good stuff. Brings to mind classic Hubel & Wiesel work on receptive field structure of single neurons in the visual system:




[edit: Wiesel, not Weisel]

Physical ident is more efficient and flexible than construct ident, eh? That's always made intuitive sense to me (eg the ident mechanism of the mousetrap), but I've never seen it explained so clearly.

(cue pun about "duck typing")

I think you are right that this has implications for a lot of things, not least graphic design. If you have a good grasp of how people respond to different elements you could guide their actions even more than now.

cite your sources? :)


I first learned about the research from a brief footnote in the book Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran (highly recommended). Then I spent quite a long time looking for the article sourced, by Tinbergen, which is:

Tinbergen N., and Perdeck, A.C. (1950). On the stimulus situation releasing the begging response in the newly hatched Herring Gull chick (Larus Argentatus argentalus Pont). Behavior 3:1-39

Took me forever to track this article down, so if you want a copy, ping me.

Awesome! Sadly, I don't have academic access anymore, which is why it was hard for me to find.

Also, it's copyrighted so I figured linking to it might be morally dubious.

cough scribd cough

Well, ping me if you ever need another. :)

Phantoms in the Brain - my Mommy...I mean Santa gave this to me for Christmas. I'm very much looking forward to reading it especially after your post.

It's written in the style of a magazine piece that doesn't do citations, but still, some follow-up suggested reading would be nice.

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