(Update: There is a new “The Brain Behind UX” infographic to go along with this post, if you don’t have it yet you should click here to download it.)

Hello. My name is Erik and I am a UX designer with a degree in psychology.

Earlier this week, I saw a blog post that casually presented the idea that companies will soon be seeking out UX people with psychology and anthropology degrees. As someone who has been working in the design and UX field for a long time, and also has a degree in psychology, I figured I could talk about how that education influences how, and why, I work.

The psychological aspects of UX design are familiar to pretty much every serious UX professional I’ve encountered. There is no one who will deny that good design of any kind takes a great deal of human psychology into account.

Today, I want to approach it from the other side. Instead of standing in the context of UX and talking about how we incorporate psychology into what we do, I want to stand in the context of psychology and how I see it flowing down to UX and look at what a UX Psychologist would actually bring.

Breaking It Down

The concept of psychology as a formal behavior science is a vast topic. There is no way I could capture everything in a single blog post. So I’ve taken what I feel are key areas of study and put them in 3 general groups:

1. Behavior Science 2. Research, Testing and Statistics 3. Applied Psychology

Behavior Science

This group forms the areas that examine just how the brain, behavior and thinking work on both a physical and cognitive level. Let’s begin where everything starts and ends: the physical brain.

Neuropsychology

Neuropsychology deals with the neural anatomy of the brain and the physiology of all human thought and behavior. It’s how everything “happens.” I have always held neuropsychology as my favorite area of study. The limitless complexity of how thought, memory, learning and emotion interact on a physical level is the fundamental base that all the rest of psychology rests on.

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In UX design I am not consciously thinking, “This is going to be a big hit with the cingulate gyrus,” but I have a subconscious understanding of what is going to occur with the senses and in the brain. In its truest sense, UX is trying to break through all the abstractions of computers, screens, devices, eyes, ears, and get right to the source — the brain.

The way I see it is if I can’t hit the areas of the brain that are going to facilitate the right experience, the design not going to work. It doesn’t matter if I’m designing a digital product, a service, or an environment. Specific brain-buttons have to be pushed in order to give us the result we want. I find it very valuable to know what those buttons actually are and the functional neural anatomy of what makes a person, well, a person.

(Oh, about the cingulate gyrus — put simply, it helps link emotion to sensory input. When an event happens, you have a emotional response. It helps associate that event with the emotion to create a learning experience.)

Experimental Analysis of Behavior

Stacking right on top of neuropsychology is behaviorism. Broken down into a single sentence, behaviorism is about conditioning and shaping behavior through reinforcing specific actions. BF Skinner conditioned pigeons to know how to push the correct buttons to get food, Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate when a bell was rung. UX designers condition people to take actions that facilitate the experiences we are trying to create. It is all the exact same thing. BF Skinner and Ivan Pavlov? They were just pioneering interaction and interface designers.

Behaviorism is the paradigm used when trying to make something “sticky.” When I’m building something, I don’t go over every detail and interaction thinking, “how will this action reinforce the behavior I want and condition the user to act in a specific way?” Being aware that UX relies on associations and reinforcements helps me design with behavior shaping in mind. When a design really needs a specific reinforcement loop, it’s easy to know how to add one to the process.

The important notion I remember when studying behavior is that every living organism learns through the exact same chain: stimulus -> response -> reinforcement. From the worm to the human. It’s called “associative learning” and it’s what interaction and interface design is doing when they create the feedback loop between the product and user. Taken to the extreme, behaviorism can have very powerful effects. If you want to see how patterns of reinforcement work to condition users to behave in a certain way, just take a look at any Zynga game or other successful gamified product that relies on achievements, instant in-game purchase, and social integration. It is the epitome of operant conditioning and literally modern Skinner Boxes.

Cognitive Psychology

We started with the brain, now let’s talk about the mind. Cognitive psychology is all about how we think. Thinking encompasses memory, learning, encoding, recall, perception, language, problem solving, abstraction… all of the things we think of when we think of thinking. Thinking about thinking. Personality, intelligence, emotion, it’s all based in the higher order cognition that makes every person so unique and unpredictable.

Did I just say that emotion was a cognitive response? Sort of. There are sensations we experience as humans, originating from the limbic system (the lizard brain). Think “fight or flight.” These are the primitive feeling that most animals share. But emotion has one possible definition that is a little different. Emotion is when you link a sensation with a cognitive thought. In UX design, we seek to tap into that limbic brain and elicit a response, which we hope to pair with a thought that works in our favor. That is what is meant by a “delightful experience”, when you successfully link that sensation with the experience.

One of the other cornerstones of UX is the mental model. It’s the mindset and point of view of the user, and a prerequisite to empathy. Cognitive psychology looks at how mental models are formed and how they work. It’s so important when doing UX to divorce yourself from your own mental model and stay centered on the user. It’s the “Inmates are Running the Asylum” principle and the reason personas are so crucial. The persona acts as an avatar for the mental model you are trying to accommodate. The purpose of the persona isn’t to be a perfect representation of the users; the purpose is to give you a visible signpost to guide you out of your own mental model biases.

UX is a human-human interaction science, and how humans relate to one another is through cognition. There is no objective truth, everything we accept as reality is really just the world being filtered through our personal mental model.

Research, Assessment and Statistics

One of the misleading portrayals about psychology is that it is all about the “talking” part. Movies, TV, books all show the counseling, therapy, “clinical” aspects of professional psychology. The boring reality is that most of psychology is about research, testing and statistics. Everything we know about modern human behavior is coming out of the work being done in countless labs and universities across the world.

Research Design

This is the planning that goes into building a hypothesis and designing the way you are going to gather data and run your own experiments. Scientific research design an area of study that is so detailed and rigorous, I don’t think it’s something that can be learned without some sort of formal education process.

The purpose of learning to design research is to ensure from the start that the data you hope to extract is valid. This means that your methods had scientific rigor, and also that you took care to remove as much confirmation bias of your own as you could. Most bad data is due to human bias and lack of preparation, it’s something that gets overlooked since we’re so eager to prove out our assumptions. In a university setting, your research design has to be approved by an institutional review board, and any part of it that doesn’t meet a certain scientific standard will get it rejected and send you back to the drawing board. When dealing with people, the ethics of how you handle your research applies both in how you gather it, and also the effects of how you present it. It teaches you to do it right and to understand the value in doing so.

I took part in a number of student-ran projects, and was named as an author in a study being prepared for peer reviewed publication. We were re-evaluating a battery that was meant to look for posterior brand damage, trying to increase its sensitivity to reduce false-negatives. I redesigned the testing instrument; a series of visual cards presented to a subject, and then conducted the face to face administration of the test. We worked right with people who were presumed to have subtle brain injuries and it was our job to detect those in juries that less sensitive instruments would miss. The point of this story is that the exposure to this type of activity is something I couldn’t have got anywhere else.

Assessment and Testing

Assessment is a subset of research. It’s all about constructing and administering batteries. Things like intelligence tests, personality tests, aptitude tests, and diagnostic tests for things like depression or anxiety. Part is just gathering qualitative data, and part is confirming or refuting assumptions with quantitative data.

I see the biggest impact of assessment knowledge in when I create persona interviews and other qualitative user research. It’s like putting on a cast-iron divers helmet and just jumping into the ocean. I am not looking to confirm anything specific, I just want to bring back information on whatever was beneath the surface. Once I’ve brought back data, I have a base on which to start testing.

Testing is a different tool. If I stick with the analogy, now I’m diving into the ocean to prove or disprove a specific hypothesis. I know there should be a sunken ship at this location, let’s see if I’m right. This is what is taking place when we run AB tests or UI test. Sometimes we want to gather holistic data about users, and sometimes we need to test a specific assumption. It is important to me to know when to choose one method or another and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Any data is better than no data. Gathering information before designing solutions is something I push hard to do. The more I do UX on a large scale, especially in the enterprise, the more I am convinced that research and assessment is going to be a major part of UX across the board.

Quantitative Psychology

Statistics is a science unto itself. It’s fascinating to see that big-data is taking over the world of technology and startups.

In UX design, I’ve found that it is very difficult to get the type of volume you need to draw significant statistics. There are situations like in e-commerce where you can get enough traffic to draw quantitative insights, but in the world of developing products and services, it can be difficult to have enough data to qualify as real statistics. Even so, knowing when data is applicable and when it isn’t gives you the chance to shore up areas that may be lacking any information.

I think most of the time in UX we use the statistical mindset to tread carefully when we know we don’t have enough data for a high confidence level. It is like an anti-pattern, we judge how flimsy our assumptions are based on which has the least amount of data available. But even with very small samples sizes, there are techniques that can be used to draw insight out of those limited numbers. Like everything else you carry in your UX toolbox, the most important part is just knowing that the tool exists and can be utilized when needed.

Statistical research isn’t unique to psychology, there are a lot of domains that approach stats in just the same way. It’s a staple of economics and big business. As a UX designer, it’s my job to push for the notion that proper UX design needs to be afforded the time and resources for adequate evidence based research.

Applied Psychology

Throughout all my education, applied psychology is where I spent the most time. This is taking all of the principles of psychology and applying them with how you interact with people. When you picture someone lying back on a couch while a white-bearded Austrian* says, “Tell me about your childhood,” that’s applied psychology.

(*No one really lays back on a little couch, and Freudian psychoanalysis is a fossilized technique that has almost no modern usage or application.)

Empathy

I want to single out empathy apart from everything else. When a person wants to become a psychologist who works with people, there is a huge focus on learning and practicing empathy. All of us have varying levels of natural empathy, some people are very empathetic, and some aren’t at all. But to be a practicing psychologist, counselor, or therapist, empathy is something you are trained in and constantly practice and improve upon.

It’s a funny idea. Learning how to empathize sounds like you’re trying to learn something that you should be innate. But there are real techniques and practices to effectively empathize with people. This is where I see UX going, and I’m not alone. The idea that user empathy is a legitimate focus in UX is slowly gaining acceptance and not being dismissed as new-age pseudoscience.

I think it’s a mistake to assume that only special, innately equipped people can “feel” empathy, or that the biology of gender is a determining factor. Empathy is not about waiting around for a transcendental emotional transference from the user to ourself. Empathizing is a verb, it’s something that you do. There are skills you can learn and practice to better empathize with people, you don’t have to be a psychic who can magically feel another’s emotions. Even considering empathy as a valuable tool gets you halfway there, as you are acknowledging the legitimacy that in UX, the users perception is more important than our own.

(I do realize that the concept of empathy has a whole other debate on the level of nature or nurture that influences it, if there’s a biological gender component, and the hypothesis that the ability to empathize might be totally absent in those with autism or certain personality disorders.)

Listening

One of the most important aspects of applied psychology that can be used in UX is reflective listening. It’s a simple but nuanced practice where you genuinely focus on what someone is saying, and then reflect it back to them to confirm that you understood correctly. What happens is the listener begins to empathize more and more as they are focused just on understanding and clarifying what is being said, and the speaker begins to feel a sense of safety and validation from being heard without judgment or interruption. As the interaction continues, the listener is able to elicit deeper and more meaningful responses that they would have otherwise.

The practice originates from a specific psychologist, Carl Rogers, who started a school of thought called client-centered therapy… sounds a lot like user-centered design. It’s something that has to be seen to be believed. I did a lot of reflective listening as an intern with a clinical psychologist, and was a co-teacher for a parenting class where we would teach parents how to employ this practice with their children. The results were remarkable, seeing angry teenagers open up to their parents and both of them sobbing within minutes, communicating effectively for the first time in recent memory. There are not many communication tools more powerful than reflective listening, since the act of truly listening to someone happens so rarely. Imagine what happens when this idea is applied to UX user research.

The most beautiful part? This skill is easily learnable. When doing research with users and listening to what they say, you get the same high value communication that a clinical psychologist would. It’s imperative to realize that it’s not called “ reflective waiting-for-your-turn-to-speak” for a reason. In fact, Carl Rogers was criticized for his therapy sessions consisting only of the client talking while he would empathetically say “mmm hmmm” and “how did you feel when that happened?” But it does work, and he is one of the most influential and relevant psychologists of the 20th century.

I have learned and internalized that there is a method to understanding that a person could feel a certain way, reflecting that feeling back to them, validating their existence, but not getting wrapped up in whether I agree with the reasoning or not. Empathizing doesn’t mean that you blindly respond to the user’s needs, it just means that you get a clear picture of how they think, feel, and experience things so you can make better decisions when you start designing things for them to use. And for the record, this absolutely doesn’t mean that you ask them what features they want and then go build it because “the user asked for it.”

This is what I see an education in psychology bringing to UX. There is countless more writing that could be done on the psychology of design in regards to the presentation of interaction, UI, visuals, sight, sound, touch… but I wanted to focus on the specific areas I studied that are directly transferrable.

Are we approaching an era where companies will be hiring professional psychologists to work on their product design and UX teams? I think we are getting closer. We know that professional psychologists are already working in other human-focused industries, the logical progression is for UX to drag behavior science to the table as an asset recognized by the industry. The stakes are getting too high to leave out the focus on human-human interaction.

All that being said, should you run out today and get a psychology degree? Only if you’re okay with it being supplemental to your career but not required. It’s important to remember the context of where UX takes place right now, in the internet and product design, and slowly gaining ground in service design. It all depends on which aspects of UX a company wants to invest in. Sometimes it’s more on the psychology side of UX, sometimes it’s more on the design side. Either way, we as UX practitioners are responsible for including behavior science in what we do, formally or not.

The merging of behavior science and UX is here to stay. Companies are looking for UX designers that are widening the scope of what they do towards incorporating more formal psychology into their toolsets. I think over the next 5–10 years, we’ll be seeing companies and startups looking to hire people with a psychology education who have a knack for UX, and not only designers with a knack for psychology.

Which of you will be the first with “UX Psychologist” as your official title?

(Update: There is a new “The Brain Behind UX” infographic to go along with this post, if you don’t have it yet you should click here to download it.)

Originally published at www.helloerik.com on April 7, 2013.

Fiction author, Sr. Principal Design Strategist at Mural. Everything has a narrative arc, my job is to make it a good one.

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