Designs for Elephants

2021.06.18 / Viewpoint

Designs for Elephants


Recently in Yunnan, a group of elephants traveled hundreds of miles away from home, influencing people from all over the world. Elephants travel freely in roads, farmland and even houses. And every move since the birth of a baby elephant becomes a focus for the Internet. The local government hopes to change the route for elephants north, guide them to avoid densely populated areas and return to their habitat by methods of roadblocks, luring food, containment and more. But so far it does not seem to have a very clear result yet.

In addition to paying attention to this group of elephants from Xishuangbanna, there is another elephant we see every day within the design profession. Jonathan Haidt, a world-famous psychologist, proposed in the Happiness Hypothesis (2006) that two systems operate in everyone's heart: Reason and emotion. And the relationship between these two systems are just like that between an elephant and its rider.

The elephant rider refers to the rational system, which can deliberate, analyze, think about the future and make rational choices of control; The elephant refers to the emotional system, which is natural instinct to perceive pain and obtain happiness. The reason of an elephant rider and the emotions of na elephant simultaneously determine people's behavior in certain situations. Though on surface it seems that the elephant rider controls the elephant, but whenever the rider and the elephant want to move in a certain direction, the elephant often makes the final decision. For example, though one is determined to lose weight and go on a diet, it is often extremely challenging to resist the temptation of food; You always say you want to quit smoking, but only a small percentage of people ever succeed.

Looking at real life, we will find that special or important matters aside, people's behavior mostly follows their instinctive feelings and habits. Most of the time, everyone are led by their inner elephant. Why? In his Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate, put forward in-depth explanations and cases for the two interdependent but balanced thinking systems in the human brain. To put it simply, system one is like a willful elephant, relying on subconscious instinctive action; and system 2 is like the elephant rider guided by reason and morals.

From the perspective of design psychology, designers need to understand the relationship between elephants and elephant riders, adhere to the people-oriented design philosophy, use multidisciplinary methods, design to solve problems, and make the design to drive people to change their behavior and achieve business goals. In order to achieve the desired change of user behavior, the basic principles of design are as follows:


■    Command the elephant rider

Direct the rational elephant rider towards the right direction. Find the key within a complex problem, analyze this key, and determine specific, quantifiable measures and goals for the elephant rider.


■   Inspire the elephants

Elephants should be continuously motivated, always full of enthusiasm, try shortening the distance towards the goal, ensure a sense of achievement for the elephants from time to time. This can help encourage more people to take the initiative to change and better themselves.

■    Create path / scenario

Create a good environment for action or change, and make behavior or change a habit. Let’s say within a group of people who never exercise, it's becomes challenging for just one of them to exercise regularly. A sports friendly environment helps motivate participation.


There is an emotional elephant and a rational elephant rider in everyone's heart. The key to people's behavioral change is to create a path of change, rationally communicating with the rider and emotionally motivating the elephant. When design can help elephants and riders achieve cooperation and move towards their goals, people feel fulfilled.

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