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it pays off to know psychology

Human brain shape made with dollar bills

in the previous article we covered one of the 4 main fields in UX: Design. If you are interested in understanding a bit more about Design or how to get skilled in this field, be sure to read it.

Now onto this article’s subject - Psychology. Since it's a huge field and has multiple applications in UX, in this article I chose to cover only Cognitive Psychology. I believe this sub-field of psychology sets the scientific ground for our work as UX designers.

Backing it up with science

Cognitive Psychology is considered an empirical science that shows how the human mind works when processing information. Why is this important? Well if you work as a UX designer you should account for the mental processes that take place from the moment users perceive something, until they react to it.

Let me give you an example. Imagine you enter a donut store. You come in early and you find a plethora of donuts, some with chocolate, others with cinnamon, some with fruits, others with cream, and the list goes on. Chances are you like several of those flavours and you take some time to decide which one to choose. It goes something like “oh, that one looks delicious, oh wait, I bet this other one tasted even better, and… Damn, how can I choose just one?!”. That decision is definitely going to take longer than if you had come later that day when there were only 2 or 3 flavours left.

This example illustrates some of the main areas of study in Cognitive psychology that apply to UX: perception, attention and decision making.

As you noticed, the more choices the longer the decision takes. First of all, your senses (vision and smell) capture information from the store (perception). Then your brain attends to all the variate options carefully and ignores all other information surrounding (attention). Finally it attempts to match each donut with your goal (decision making), so that ultimately you act by getting one. You probably leave with the feeling that you are missing out, which is a core drive for engagement. But that’s a topic for another article.

Applying this in UX

Knowing how our brain works has been very useful to me, personally. When you are starting it’s normal to be challenged, to have your decisions questioned and your recommendations often dismissed. It was definitely the case with me. If you are just following your intuition, even if it’s right, it will be much harder to make an argument other people can’t refute. If you have the science backing you up on the other hand, your argument will be stronger and the others will tend to agree. It’s hard to go against a scientific fact. Except maybe for the people who don’t believe in science. [Awkward silence]

Let’s apply this to a practical UX situation. Designing a registration or submission flow, for instance. If the flow is lengthy it’s worth breaking it down in multiple steps. I often find some resistance because “Katia, you are adding extra steps”. In fact, if the user makes shorter decisions in each step, it may actually be faster overall, and be perceived as not as much effort as if you had given it all at once. Again, knowing the science pays off enormously when making your case and influencing product decisions.

Knowing how the brain works

Do you generally know how a computer works? If so, you are close to understanding how your brain works too. I’ll explain.

The model of human information processing is based on the computer. Or maybe we made the computer in our own image (that would make more sense). In any case, the idea is that both brain and computer go through several processes when they receive information, and these are organised within 3 main stages: input, storage and output.

In fact, sensations, perception and attention are all processes within the “input” stage. A computer also detects keyboard or mouse click inputs. As soon as the information is “attended to”, it becomes available and can be used by other parts of the brain (or the computer).

In the “storage” stage, we encode the information and save it into our memory (if deemed useful). For that our brain has both short term and long term memory (RAM and hard drive for the computer). As it’s likely that a computer slows down when it has too many applications opened, our brain also struggles when juggling with too many things at once.

Finally the “output” stage is when our brain processes reasoning and higher level thinking. Well… Sometimes. There are many instances in which our outputs are immediate, that is, we respond without thinking (while driving for instance). In any case, after perceiving and encoding the information, we respond. The computer does the same. Imagine you search for a file. The computer matches your search with a set of results and retrieves those for you.

The way we respond is pretty similar to the way a computer does.

Optimize for the least brain effort

In an ancient book called “Don’t make me think!” (2006), Steve Crug shows why this is important to UX: we have to design experiences that require as little mental effort as possible from our users, otherwise we will lose them. If we have to work for the immediate outputs, we can’t make users stop to make sense of the navigation, interface, or a specific functionality. Whatever it may be, don’t make users think (bare in mind, the book has outdated examples but its fundamentals still apply).

Tricks to improve perception

If you want to use “shortcuts” for the brain in your work, take a look at Gestalt principles:

  • Proximity: group elements in close proximity and your brain will understand they are related
  • Similarity: apply the same style to elements that are alike and your brain will recognise and associate them mentally
  • Closure: give enough information on the parts and your brain will try to form a complete picture or concept
  • Good continuation: cluster elements to form a path or string and your brain will easily follow
  • Uniform connectedness: use common features like shape or color and your brain will make the link
  • Symmetry: make use of patterns so that your brain can just repeat the process without thinking, after the first one.

Tricks to improve attention

Designing for attention is also important. People can miss something right before their eyes if their attention is elsewhere. Here are some tricks that may help:
Use hierarchy: guide users to see what’s most important first - larger to smaller, top to bottom, left to right (valid for the western market)
Reduce clutter: minimise non-essential info to help the brain focus without distractions

  • Use intention: create and organize information based on the user’s intention since the brain will tend to filter out everything else
  • Break it down: split a large element or task into smaller ones that the brain can attend to and process faster
  • Raise awareness: when you need to raise users’ awareness, use a sudden change so that it’s noticeable (by color, movement or sound)
  • Disrupt / differentiate: when needed, break a pattern or flow so that the brain can stop and dedicate more attention to it

There are more tricks, of course, but let’s start with these.

Tricks for memory are not that important for UX, we try to design for the automatic responses as much as possible. After all, it’s supposed to feel intuitive. We also avoid designs where users have to memorize. We use elements users can recognise, rather than recall. Recalling is tricky because a lot of what we perceive doesn’t get stored in the first place. If it did, we would be like Poppy Montgomery in the Series Unforgettable, where she plays the role of a former detective with the ability to remember literally everything. A blessing and a curse, right?

Be a nerd, when you have to

You don’t have to know by heart the brain information processes, or be excited with cognitive psychology. You just have to understand how it’s all linked together, and in what degree it will affect your design. To know a bit about it is a huge advantage. We are creating experiences for fellow humans, after all. Moreover, it will help you be more persuasive towards your stakeholders and have an impact on the product you’re working on.

People are influenced by a number of factors such as culture, economy, geography, personal experience etc, and we have to factor all these differences in. However, in terms of brains, adults are pretty much the same. Isn’t that nice?

From nerd to nerd, with love.

Related articles to this topic:
Katia Serralheiro
January 4, 2021

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