Building a normal world

How Neurotypical biases build products and places

Alastair Somerville
6 min readNov 21, 2018

This is a post about the oddness of Normal and how it goes undiscussed because, well, it’s normal.

This is about the Neurotypical (NT) – people who perceive and act in the world in very similar ways. How they see the world is normal. How others may see it is divergent – the Neurodivergent (ND). This post is not about ND people because:

  • I’m not ND and have no desire to speak for experiences I don’t have
  • There are too many judgemental and pathological posts about ND people

This post is centred about NT people and the odd Normal world they built for themselves. It is however, a post to make explicit why this world is odd (which has consequences and why this world is uncomfortable and painful for ND people). The design biases around Normal, that accommodate the needs of the NT, clash with the needs of the ND.

This post will cover:

  • Ideas in UX design of how NT people act
  • Ideas from Neuroscience of how NT people act
  • 3 NT biases that come thru the interaction of the UX and Neuroscience ideas

This is not a complete discussion of the issues but just a start point.

Some UX design

One of the key aspects of NT design is that content (objects, places, information, etc.) is designed around a relatively simple interaction of Attention and Action. People perceive things so they can then act upon them. This is the Sense/Act model of UX.

This means the world is designed to grab attention to provide choices that a person (a user) can make decisions about in order to act. And this keeps going, on and on, subjunctive user journeys of more attention, more choices, more decisions and more actions.

This is normal.

Some Neuroscience

Embedded into this UX design world is some neuroscience. However, that science flexes around new discoveries. The book How Emotions Are Made is helpful on some of the newer ideas. The old UX model becomes tricky to justify in this new world.

Cognitive Cascade

One of the reasons to talk about perception rather than sensing is that that how human senses and cognition work together is not as straightforward as people hope.

The cognitive cascade theory shows that the individual structures of the brain (and the whole embodied structure of cognition across the human body) has biases and randomnesses built in. Just because a person senses something does not mean they get to act upon it. There are multiple layers of neuronic cells that may or may not pass sensory information along.

Seeing is not believing.

Perceptual loop

That cognitive cascade sits within a larger perceptual loop that involves memory and imagination.

One of the most important points within How Emotions Are Made is that humans are the architects of their own experiences.

The perceptual loop means that people are not necessarily acting upon decisions that are based on sensed information.

The Sense/Act concept is not true.

The perceptual loop has memory and imagination within it. This is because humans are endlessly predicting and simulating what is about to happen and acting upon those predictions in highly structured simulations. Sensory information exists to nudge or completely destroy these simulations.

Predict/Simulate/Act is a different model as it draws up more than sensing – it is filled with memories and imagination.

Believing is acting.

However, this model is generally good but can be used to justify quite NT ideas.

I’ll talk about 3 NT design biases now using these ideas as the foundation. This is messy as it’s a mix of old and new.

1: increase environmental intensity to increase NT attention

The perceptual loop recognises that sensory information is needed to adjust the predicted, simulated world that the individual is moving thru.

Grabbing attention thru increased intensity is needed to really get someone to change what they’re doing.

Think of all those bleepers, flashing lights and large warning signs.

The NT world is made of old-style Sense/Act design working in individual worlds of Predict/Simulate/Act.

The normal world is loud and bright and getting louder and brighter as the Attention Economy is obsessed with Sense/Act.

This is why it can all be simultaneously overwhelming yet ineffective. The presumption is that intensity and attention are directly linked. It’s not totally true and the second bias makes that even more apparent.

2: NT people are skimming reality

The Predict/Simulate/Act model in a perceptual loop also means that people can (and often do) act without using sensory input. There are a lot of actions that NT people take without paying any attention at all.

This is because of Cognitive Budgeting. The fully embodied cognition of an NT person is trying to save energy. Sensing and cognition use energy so any way of avoiding those activities is helpful.

NT people skim reality. They don’t pay attention, they avoid sensing and they use historic patterns of behaviour to enable action.

Predict/Simulate/Act means that skimming is normal. The world is designed around that NT idea of dipping in and out of reality. The attention switching of Sense/Act is also the attention switch off of Predict/Simulate/Act.

And this leads to the final NT bias (for this post).

3: Guessing is as good as Knowing

The Predict/Simulate/Act model means that imagination is a perfectly valid way of acting. This is why adaption is so important to human evolution. Imagination enables action that is not natural and not based on historic experiences.

There is a NT bias here towards guessing, making stuff up as you go along and filling in gaps in knowledge with blind (perhaps unsensed is a better word) hope.

Design tries to create structures around these guesses and to help form a more ‘rational’ user journey. This normalises the experience.

Yet there remain gaps – particularly in social interactions – where guessing and hoping are normal but that all the NT participants are guessing and hoping is not explicit. Networking events and parties can be uncomfortable for many as the cognitive strain on imagining, predicting and acting is not made overt. All the NT people feel it (and try to categorise it as introvert or extrovert) but they don’t make it explicit in the moment. The discomfort is normal.

Normal is odd

That’s it. This post is not completely coherent because I’m trying to put into words a mixture of ideas that don’t quite match up yet.

There are two key points for me.

  1. Design is often using an old model of human perception that clashes with actual perception.
  2. NT people do not realise how lightly they hold onto reality and how often they shift to perception using memory and imagination rather then senses.

The second point means that the world is designed around a normality of disconnection. This is why NT people obsess about Mindfulness – because they are not mindful. This is why NT people demand Authenticity – because their experiences are not necessarily ‘real’. This is why attention grabbing is normal – because skimming is normal. This is why guessing is valid – because adaption lies in imagination.

All these biases build an odd normality. NT people assume that it’s how everything should be because it is founded in their perceptions.

Yet it’s a real world build around how lightly the NT exist in the world.

That has consequences for people who are not NT and only by being explicit about how weird the NT world is can we start to have conversations about building a world that works for a diversity of perceptions.

Not everyone can control their sensory inputs so completely, not everyone can shut off reality so completely, not everyone can imagine and guess so completely. These are the NT biases that can create incomprehensible places and products.

Neurotypical people need to understand and make explicit the biases that underlie the design of the products and environments they build. I hope this article helps NT people understand some of the edges of the world that that perceive as normal. There are worlds beyond it.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX