A Closer Look at Automaticity in User Experience

Automaticity /ˌɔːtəməˈtɪsɪti/ (adjective) Is the ability to do activities without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice.

How many times have you driven between work and home? Twice a day for five days a week, for 50 weeks of the year, over three years in your current position? So roughly 1,500 times.

Now try to recall a single trip - How much detail do you have about that one specific trip? You can most likely remember the route, know all of the shops, houses, maybe even some of the car license plates parked on specific roads. But are you remembering a single trip or an amalgamation of all 1,500 trips?

Most likely, you are remembering a culmination of all of these trips and this is a great example of automaticity and cognitive load on the mind. User experience is mostly intertwined with the particular branch of cognitive load called extraneous cognitive load or the presentation of tasks and information to a person - as opposed to germane or intrinsic cognitive load.

Imagine you are driving to work again on a rainy Monday, you are trying to remember the actions from that 4:30pm meeting on Friday whilst attempting to wipe the lipstick off your teeth in the mirror. How much are you paying attention to the act of driving? Less than normal, but you don’t crash or forget how to drive.

This is because your mind is filtering out the low-level details of driving for the conscious aspect of your mind. The unnecessary information, which has become unnecessary because of the number of repetitions of driving to work you have already done, allows it to become an automatic response pattern. Essentially, muscle memory to some extent.

If you were a new driver, you would need to focus on driving more but after 1,500 times driving the same route you have a learned subconscious pattern and you don’t need to focus on it.

This process of filtering low level information is called – you guessed it - automaticity.

Defining Automaticity

After over ten years of research, the late John Bargh defined automaticity generally as having four accompanying automatic components:


A person is not conscious that they are performing a process automatically. Often it is inferred. The act of focusing back to the process brings it to the forefront of the mind.

To increase conversions, you do not want the latter to happen. To make someone aware of the expensive dress they are buying in the checkout by forcing them to get up and find their debit card can force them to re-evaluate the cost of purchase to the forefront of their minds. Rather than the ideal excitement of the dress itself.


A person may not be involved with the initiation of a mental process, this refers mainly to outside processes such as stereotype activation.

Activating stereotypes happens subconsciously according to Bargh., in the realm of ecommerce, imagine you land on a site which looks as though it came from the early 90s. It could be the best site functionally in the world but the immediate activated thought is that it is a poor-quality site, that may be a scam and this will affect a user’s trust significantly.


Automatic mental processes tend to have a low cognitive load, requiring relatively low mental resources as we have discussed previously.


A person may not have the ability to stop or alter a process after initiation.

Have you ever made a purchase online and as soon as the confirmation email hits your inbox thought to yourself – why did I just buy that? This is what we are talking about here.

Automaticity or Friction?

The process of automaticity is highly leveraged in UX, one of the most important tasks of UX is to reduce cognitive load – to make the processes a user has to follow so ‘low level’ that they are not focused on the act of using the site but the ‘why’ and the ‘gains’ from using it. This in theory leads to more onsite conversions as the user has little barriers between them and their goal.

Removing cognitive load has become easier over the years as conventions have evolved online. Something as minor as keeping the cart in the top right where the majority of sites place the button (As opposed to the left) can cause less friction with users and ultimately an uplift in conversions.

There is a distinction to be made here between ‘friction’ – the number or difficultly of the steps a user has to perform and the ‘cognitive load’ you are putting on a user.

For example, on a hypothetical site to buy home insurance, I have a form. It is laid out in a conventional way with labels above the form fields and a simple design. One of the inputs is to list every postcode you have ever lived in since the age of seven. The design of the site means that this question is easy to process and is not causing any cognitive load. However, the question’s content means it is a difficult task and one that is causing unnecessary friction for the context of what the form is for.

If the form had unlabelled buttons underneath every input field, form fields that were constantly floating around the page while also presenting you with several fly-out pop overs this would be considered cognitive load to the process of completing the form. This is because the form is so widely different to previously experienced forms by the user that they are having to put the form to the forefront of their consciousness to ‘solve’ it.

Following Global UX patterns to increase automaticity

So, how can you design your site functionally to improve automaticity? UX relies on conventions to easily allow a user to familiarise themselves with a product, interface or website.

When a user comes to a site with the intention of purchasing an item, they will follow their conventions of shopping. Maybe a user subconsciously goes to their cart via the view cart button in the top right after adding products and moving back to an index page. Maybe they go to their cart after adding their final product to the cart.

Whichever way it’s done, customers have an expected automatic approach to their online shopping behaviour.

The user doesn’t consciously expect this behaviour, it is subconscious. Now these learned behaviours are because of the way the majority of previously visited sites may function to them.

When designing a site, it is always tempting to try and produce something radically new and ground breaking but this is rarely the right approach to take as you are ignoring years of psychological studies and journals.

Following trusted conventions will give your ecommerce platform a strong basis to allow a user to easily convert on your site.

Leveraging Automaticity

Automaticity applies to almost every aspect to our lives and behaviours. You are often triggered into responses by conventions you have already held. In a famous experiment by social psychologists Langer, Chanowitz, and Blank which illustrates how compliant people will be with a request if they hear words that sound like they are being given a reason, even if no actual reason is provided, this is because we automatically respond to ‘sound reasoning’. The experimenters approached people standing in line to use a photocopier with one of three requests:

•Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush?

•Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?

•Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?

When given the request plus a reason, 94% of people asked, complied with the request. When given the request without a reason, only 60% complied. But when given the request with what sounds like a reason but isn't, compliance jumped back to 93%. Langer, Chanowitz, and Blank are convinced that most human behaviour falls into automatic response patterns derived from social constructs.

With this in mind we can use ‘reasoning’ to leverage automatic responses to convert users online. Providing reasons for their conversion. This can take the form of a price offer, a reason to convert that is low risk or price anchoring. Our minds are trained to see these reasons and turn them into viable reasons to convert.

Keep in the flow

Automaticity can be disrupted by explicit attention when the devotion of conscious attention to the pattern alters the content or timing of that pattern itself.

This phenomenon is especially pronounced in situations that feature high upside and/or downside risk and impose the associated psychological stress on one's conscious mind.

Take again the purchase of an expensive dress, if I was to continually disrupt the flow of you purchasing the dress by leading you from the checkout or basket to a page showing you high heels or hats your flow is disrupted, the task action interrupted and your chances of converting lower.

Rounding it all off

Automaticity is at heart is simple to implement, follow globally agreed UX design patterns and make your site as easy and simple for a user to navigate and complete their goals. We pride ourselves on implementing strong, simple UX for our clients and if you want to talk more about automaticity give us a call and we will be happy to help.