I have been waiting to write this post since May when I attended the Big Design Conference in Dallas (Be sure to check out my post Big Design 10 you stole my heart! for more thoughts on this outstanding conference). The opening keynote at the conference was given by Dr. Susan Weinschenk (The Brain Lady). In her talk, Dr. Weinschenk touched on several ideas regarding psychology and how having knowledge of it helps us to create better experiences. She talked about human memory, human mistakes, peripheral vision, and more. Her examples were crystal clear to me. If we knew more about how the human brain works, how it physically works, then we’ll know how to better design for online experiences. I.E. a user can’t physically remember that many characters, so why design something where they’ll have to OR users are social but are also influenced by constraints… a successful medium might be one where user communication is constrained in some way but is also rewarded (uh 140 characters anyone?).
Her talk hit me hard, and the topic is one that we see popping up all over the UX Community (think Stephen Anderson and his Mental Notes). I couldn’t help but think about a world in which I had a psychologist on my design team. Note, I don’t mean a therapist or a psychiatrist, as much as someone who studies the physical capabilities of the human brain, and can thus inform our designs with that knowledge. Because, put simply, I do not have the mental capacity to be an expert in both psychology and UX, (I’m sure that’s a fact somewhere in the psychology books… someone prove it haha!) and I’m not sure it is my responsibility to learn both. Don’t get me wrong, I think having the background knowledge is key, but having the expertise needed to inform others might be a stretch for my brain. Just as I have a Tech Lead… I think that I should have a Psychology lead… roll with me on this one.
Psychology is the scientific study of human (and animal) mental functions and behaviors. User Experience attempts to influence human behavior. Obviously in order to influence behavior we need to study it. User research helps us a great deal in doing this, but I’m sure that psychology could take us much further. Think about it… what if we had a psychologist on our design team? How much more effective do you think we’d be? Not only designs, but more importantly product strategies could be much better informed. Do you think something like “viral marketing” would exist if we didn’t know that people are social? How can we take this behavioral knowledge and use it to design better experiences?
I think that psychology needs to be at our base, and that we are really far behind in this aspect. For instance, as UXers we tend to look more to the technological progress of the world around us in order to stay up to date in our profession (i.e. “ooooo the iPad is really cool and fun. We should design a new app for it” vs. “Here is the crux of human communication and entertainment. How/what can we design to fill the gap?”). Technology is either based off past behaviors or guesses at future behaviors (really well informed guesses but guesses nonetheless). Psychology knows the physical limits of mental function and brain behavior. It can inform technology and decrease the guessing game needed. Thereby, eliminating a great deal of failed designs from our midst and letting us focus on the experience of using the technology vs building something new that may never work with users.
Obviously this is not a new thought, and it is one that is being echoed throughout the UX mountains, but it is, nonetheless, an important thought. What do you think are the crossing points of UX and psychology? Why do you think we dismiss psychology much more easily that we should as UX designers? Do you think that there is a way that psychology can progress our profession?