UX Design Psychology: Understanding how humans think helps us design better experiences

Sandy Pawson


6 min read

There's a lot that sits behind a good digital experience. As well as the surface aesthetic appeal of a page or flow, good experiences are built on understanding how humans think and process information. When design is done well, most users progress through a task with minimal effort and without consideration of the careful design making it so easy. When design fails to account for how humans think, the resulting user experience will likely be overwhelming, frustrating, or distracting for users.

So, how can we design experiences that align with how humans think? That's in the realm of ux design psychology and here are a few things to keep in mind:

Consider the way humans think.

In his best-selling book, 'Thinking fast and slow', Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores the idea of the brain having two ways of thinking, or two systems. System one is fast, intuitive, and like the brain's autopilot. We tend to spend most of our day in this mode – and for good reason. System one thinking helps us navigate familiar and expected scenarios and execute learned skills like reading, maths or driving. This automated system of thinking also benefits us by being much less mentally taxing.

System two thinking is slower and involves deeper, more methodical thought. We generally switch to system two thinking when we require calculating, deliberate or conscious thought processes. As you might expect, this more detailed thinking requires more mental effort and attention.

When designing a user experience, it's important to consider how you need your user's brain to engage with it. For example, if users enter details on a simple form, support them in progressing quickly and easily with the minimum number of steps. We want users to maintain their system one way of thinking to complete the task in the least taxing way accurately.

But suppose users are on a banking app instigating an unusual payment to a suspicious account. In that case, a good design will use cues (like specific, contextual notifications and/or changes to the interface) to trigger them to move into deeper system two thinking. This will help users be aware of the action they're taking. Something unexpected is often needed to snap people out of their efficient system one autopilot.

There's clearly a place for both modes of thinking in digital user experiences. Knowing when and where to tap into them is the key.

Respect your user's attention span.

One of the most important rules of customer service is remembering your user comes to you with a goal or a job they need to do. And they're likely to need more time to do it. When designing, respecting your user's goal and attention span is important.

As we design user experiences, we need to be conscious of cognitive load – how much mental effort is required to complete the task presented. As designers, we attempt to optimise customer tasks in several ways, starting with the basic, 'Can we make what we ask customers easier by asking less?', through to the more subtle, 'Can we introduce information and steps progressively, so the task is perceived as easier?'.

Tips to help you do this:

  • Ask yourself whether each step is critical to the customer achieving their goal and if the true purpose could be achieved more efficiently for the user. For example, can already known information be pre-populated rather than asking users to enter it?
  • Consider whether the information you're asking for is truly critical to providing your service. Ask, 'Are we actively going to use this information for the service we provide, or could we get by without this?'.
  • Make tasks less daunting and help users progress easily by presenting information in small digestible chunks and stepping out any complicated processes.
  • Use simple language and keep your tone of voice consistent (i.e., formal or informal) so users don't have to exert more mental effort to keep up with you.

We've all experienced that tipping point when a task becomes too much effort or too complicated. As a result, we'll often walk away from it completely or find a simpler option. That tipping point will depend on the individual user and their motivation to complete the task. As designers, we want to make the perception and reality of achieving their goals as easy as possible.

Be aware of patterns.

We follow so many patterns in our world without knowing we're doing it. Digitally, one of the most common patterns is to expect a task to progress from the top left of a screen down to the bottom right. Another is to seek out navigation menus in the top header or on the left-hand side of a page. Both patterns have evolved, reflected in many of our digital experiences. The roots of these patterns lie in how English speakers read (progressing from top left to bottom right) and have become the expected pattern for most online interactions (even for those who don't speak or read in English).

Regarding reading digital pages, it's worth considering the concept of 'banner blindness' or 'ad blindness', a learned reaction to our digital experiences. Over time, we have learned the patterns and locations where ads typically appear and have developed a filter to ignore information that fits this pattern — even when it isn't an ad. While factors and individual preferences contribute to whether a user blocks out or engages with this content, the amount of advertising we see that follows predictable conventions means, more often than not, our brain filters 'ad looking' elements out as irrelevant to our current task. This is important to remember when you're designing triggers you want users to act on, or – on the flipside – something to be aware of if parts of your design are being incorrectly ignored as irrelevant ads.

Many interaction patterns relate to how users interact with various elements and their expectations around what their actions will do. A few examples include conventions around the use of buttons or controls, navigation menus, links, or common processes like paying with a credit card online. Designing in line with these established conventions, or patterns, can mean the difference between creating a website that users intuitively know how to use and one where they're scratching their heads for their next move.

If you remember one thing, remember this...

The key to UX design psychology and designing enjoyable and engaging user experiences is to keep your users' goals and preferences in mind. Usability testing helps us to understand goals and pain points; clever design helps us create seamless experiences to support those goals. Because the reality is we all want to complete our tasks without having to think overly hard about getting them done.

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