Putting the Power of Faces to Work

Our brains are hard-wired to recognize faces. Newborns have been shown to mimic facial expressions as early as their second day alive, which means we're picking up on facial patterns FAR before other communication modes kick in.

Faces connect emotions

Seeing a face immediately commands our attention & influences our feelings. It's so powerful and so pervasive, we see faces even when they're not really there!

Bottle Openers That Appear to Have Faces

These two photos are from one of my favorite Twitter accounts, @FacesPics. Take a moment to reflect on how drawn in you naturally become, and how each makes you feel emotionally connected in a totally different way.

These are bottle openers, and they're making you feel something simply because you're recognizing a facial pattern in them. How crazy is that?!

They're like lightning rods for attention

It should come as no surprise, then, to see an even greater effect when we look at photos of, you know, actual human faces. An activity like web browsing has us constantly in "scan" mode, and human faces are like freaking magnets for that, pulling our primal attention away from safe and boring things like text at their will.

It is not a power to use lightly, though. While the tactics of designing with faces is very well documented, there's a mishap relating specifically to onboarding that I see time and time again.

As a general rule, I tend not to question the choices made by 37Signals, but their "our customers" page is a pretty great illustration of it:

Tiled Faces of Customers from 37Signals

With all the faces clustered together, your attention is constantly pulled in an overwhelming variety of directions. It's really hard to pick a customer to focus on, let alone to pause and read the text. The attention-stealing faces are, like the fabled crabs in a bucket, all defeating each other.

I call it the "aliens from Toy Story" problem.

Creepy Sea of Eyes from Toy Story's Aliens

When designing an onboarding experience, attention is the scarcest commodity in the game. Our cognitive resources are finite and zero-sum, and wasting them on a "wall of eyes" fights against everyone's interests.

Best when spread out, in small doses

Contrast the above with Unbounce's beautifully restrained use of faces on their home page: watch how they spread their face photos out, commanding your attention one moment only to let you soak up the surrounding content the next, before pulling you even further down the screen (purple notation mine).

Faces Work for Unbounce's Home Page Because They're Spread Out

Consider how much more effective the four testimonials are spread out across the page rather than all crammed together, stealing attention from each other while surrounded by huge blocks of non-facey content.

This is how to put their power to work. Faces are like gravy on a holiday feast - unbeatable as an amplifier, but not for having all at once on their own.


This is a teaser from a newly-published book on User Onboarding.

If you liked it, you will really like the whole book.