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Psychology in UX Design

Catalina Butnaru - Friday, April 08, 2011 |

What distinguishes good design from great design is experience. UX designers are always on a quest to create interfaces that users can relate to, through graphics, content and patterns of interaction. What's interesting though is that exceptional ideas in design may come from different backgrounds, such as psychology and social science. This article focuses on recent UX design trends inspired by or based on various findings in the field of psychology.

Conjoined in 3D: Dimensional group art exhibition curated by Chet Zar
Photo by: Lapolab

Interaction Design and Cognitive Psychology

Perhaps the most important advance in UX Design that is heavily based on previous psychology studies is the rise of augmented reality, touch-based interfaces and 3D environments simulated by mobile, home entertainment and game devices. The rules of interaction in 3D environments and touch-responsive interfaces dig deep into cognitive psychology, information processing in humans given visual inputs, perception and hand-eye coordination.

Photo by: Plantronics Germany

The psychology of UX design involves a deep understanding of our mind's ability to perceive and interact with smart surfaces. The technologies used today to create more responsive and intuitive interfaces use a good amount of data about people's limits in processing simple visual information and ability to modulate their own reaction and behavior accordingly. The Gestalt laws of perception are actively used to define the maximum level of abstraction that an interaction designer can reach in creating icons and graphic elements to communicate basic instructions or options to users. Also, the same rules are applied in interface design, where you would make use of white space to create visual boundaries between sections or group them together. More recently, with the use of simple design elements in web apps, designers show a more elaborate understanding of perception as a top-down process, where meaning is already ascribed to the sign or icon before the user attempts to break it down to lines and simple geometric shapes.

Interestingly, the Weber-Fechner law is used in ineraction and UX design mainly to describe user-interface patterns of interaction for game devices and tablets where you need to tilt, pinch, press and move a motion controller/tablet to interact with the interface. Engineers and designers need to find the right balance between the controller's interpretation of movement and the human operator's gesture intensity and amplitude. The goal is to build interfaces that simulate the effect of our action in a way that we would expect them to.

Persona Scenarios in User-Centered Design

The use of persona scenarios in UX design is growing. At a certain level of micro-targeting, UX designers can help brands better interact with a particular character. Most of the scenarios are built on case studies, field observation and statistical data, but psychological findings about personality traits, needs and personal goals pushed UX design towards a more refined process that involves more research and user testing, right from the prototyping stage.

Photo by: Crystal Campbell

In user-oriented design, the possibilities of interaction are framed by persona scenarios and user goals. Additionally, designers will use this data to define the range of actions and customization options possible, depending on the user's expectations and computer skills. Interaction patterns need to be adjusted to people's actual needs and expectations. This is where user psychology helps to create a design brief that UI/UX designers can understand better than a general description of the website's functionality.

User Experience and Flow

The concept of "flow" in psychology was first used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a brilliant psychology professor and co-founder of Quality of Life Research Center (QLRC), who famously described what makes "optimal experiences" genuinely immersive. The term was adopted and evangelized in different fields, and especially in the psychology of work and innovation.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow – 02
Photo by: Eva-Lotta Lamm

The same concept can be freely used in UX design, to describe the way users effortlessly interact with web apps and websites and become increasingly attached to cleverly designed interfaces that help them discover, experience and share information in a new way. According to M. Csikszentmihalyi, the state of flow is an altered state of mind where time is distorted and one looses themselves in the things they do. With UX design, the idea is no different: you need to clearly identify and understand your users' goals and design interfaces that help them complete tasks in a short amount of time and keep them engaged.

The psychology of flow can help designers rely less on visual attractiveness and create optimal experiences by organizing the content and structuring the interaction map around the best possible scenario that can be tested before and after a site launch, with real people and in real time.

Endnote: A common misconception in design is that the only topics from psychology that are useful to a designer are persuasion techniques and color theories. The applications of psychology in design go way beyond that. Psychology is not only about understanding people to influence their behavior. This is something that UX designers need to know, so they can discover answers to their questions and create appropriate solutions. If you found interesting answers to your questions as a UX designer, then please share this article with your friends!

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