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June 9, 2022
How to adapt psychology principles to design better, more user-friendly software.
[01:08] What is design psychology?
[05:44] Similarities and differences between design psychology and UX research
[08:32] Practical examples: Superiority effect, perpetual intermediates, mental loads
[13:59] What psychologists need to learn to thrive in business research
[18:26] Risks of applying design psychology in UX
[26:03] Why Thomas likes bringing his expertise to UX research
[26:59] The power of mental models
Thomas Watkins is UX architect and Principal and Founder of 3Leaf. He is a life-long learner who has a passion for bringing greater clarity to the world. Thomas has made it his career’s focus to combine technology with design psychology in order to drive business success. He specializes in helping his business partners bring their own brilliant ideas to life, by translating complexity into simplicity. The scope of his work has included interface design for mobile, SaaS system architecture, usability research, and data visualization.
[00:00:00] Thomas: What excites me is that I think that there's just so much to learn and I love constantly learning about like, okay, so here's what we think we know about psychology. How do we adapt it to these new scenarios and these new situations?
[00:00:14] Erin: Hello everybody and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today we're here with Thomas Watkins, UX architect, principal and founder at Three Leaf. We're going to be talking today about design psychology. Welcome Thomas. Thanks for joining us.
[00:00:48] Thomas: thank you for having me.
[00:00:49] Erin: Got JH here too.
[00:00:51] JH: Yeah, I feel like we always get a little heady and meta with our topics, but psychology should really, we should really be able to lean into that, this episode should be, it should be fun.
[00:01:00] Erin: Awesome. So, Thomas, what is design psychology and how is it that this is something that you've become an expert on?
[00:01:08] Thomas: Yeah. So I always describe design psychology. Like if I'm explaining, what I do to like relatives who don't understand this space necessarily is like, I make things easy to use, but then like digging a layer deep into that. It's kind of similar to ergonomics, but for how we think and how we behave right?
So most people have some understanding of ergonomics where they've seen ergonomic scissors before, where they have the grips or the fingers or ergonomic chairs that it's designed for your back. And, you know, I always tell people like, imagine you're designing software, but you're designing it for how people are mentally.
Right. So how do people perceive things? How do people remember and attend to things? And when you design with that in mind you're able to get better goals in terms of making things easy to use.
[00:01:59] JH: Okay. So it's like an input to design in a way. Right? So we're trying to make this thing easier to use. And if we understand these things about people or these truisms that helps us do that, or I'm
[00:02:10] Thomas: I think so. I think that's a good way of looking at it. Like, let's say another analogy might be the way a mechanical engineer has knowledge of physical phenomena. We as design psychologists have knowledge of human psychology. And so when we're designing things, we're kind of able to help engineer some of, you know, things to take advantage of things that we know about humans.
[00:02:38] Erin: So, what are some of the dimensions of, you know, psychology? I remember I took the same intro to psychology class in college. Many of us probably took and, you know, everyone wants to go straight for the weird stuff like abnormal psychology, but of course, psychology, there's a wide range of dimensions and characteristics.
And so, is the goal of design psychology, in a UX research context? Like, are you just trying to make users happy? Are you trying to understand, like, what are you trying to know and understand about a user's psychology and then what do you want to do with it?
[00:03:14] Thomas: I think that's okay. So there's a lot of good stuff in there. Right? I think that, so do the second one first is like the goals. I think back in the day, the goal was usability where it was a lower bar where software was so unusable that you were just trying to get it to be usable. But then now you have a user experience that incorporates more of the effective stuff, right?
Where you're trying to reach these. So it's got to be usable at least. And then like, enjoyable, hopefully, so that you get better metrics of usage for your products. in terms of the types of psychology. I think that cognitive psychology is kind of the core one, right? So cognitive psychology that's right in the field where you're studying sensory perception and cognition.
Right. So how do you know when things come into your eyeballs and your ears, how is that information getting in? So the relevance, there might be things like. color blindness, right. Don't mix blue and green for things that need to be discerned. So that there'll be something there. And then how things are processed, like on its way to the brain.
And then, you know, after that, how do people think about things? I think the core of cognitive psychology, that field, I think that behaviorism finds its way in most of 'em gamification. Experimental psychology, the techniques, there are a lot of the lab research methods that we do. A lot of it is coming from various applications of experimental psychology and then also anthropology.
Right. So a lot of the field research comes from the anthropology tradition. That's probably most of it, I think.
[00:04:48] JH: Yeah. I went to my college experience as well. I was an econ major. My first thought was like, oh, some of this sounds like behavioral economics, where you learn about all these phenomena like endowment effect or sunk cost fallacy. And like all the ways that people are irrational. It sounds like the way you just described that as like, this is a little bit of like an umbrella that pulls from those things.
So you understand people in a more holistic way, and then you can apply those lessons to whatever you're designing.
[00:05:10] Thomas: That's correct. Now, if someone is a psych major and they're listening to this and they're like, oh great. I'll be perfectly prepared for UX. Unfortunately, not quite. There's still a lot of gaps there that you'd have to, but I think it does give a good foundation for being able to kind of, oh, and social psychology.
I think there's a little bit of that in there. a lot of these interesting effects of how people interact and behave and how they perceive others. Especially since in some ways we perceive software as being almost like a person. So like, you know, that whole kind of dance between the user and the technology becomes relevant too.
[00:05:47] Erin: Yeah, you mentioned. So there are some, you've got your psychology degree or, you know, have studied psychology whatever it might be, and you're ready to enter the field of UX research. There are some gaps. You said you've got a good, maybe a good footing, a good foundation to build on, but what are some things you're going to start to do?
Uh, what are some of those differences between design psychology and UX research? How do they relate to each other?
[00:06:11] Thomas: Yeah. That's so that's a super good question. Right? So I think that one of the first things that I noticed in my career is that the level of rigor that I was trained for early on didn't necessarily apply to the business world. Like you didn't, you should still get people's permission to do research, but people often don't. So we've got that continuum in the world of research. You've got theoretical research on one side, applied on the other side. And the extent to which your research is answering a question now, you know, it means it's more applied versus if your research questions are trying to build theory then that's theoretical or basic research. So it's virtually all applied like everything,
even if, even
if it's yeah. Even if it's kind of, yeah. Right. I mean, even if it's in kind of a lab setting and not a field setting, it's still applied research because you're like, okay, sit down and take a look at this website we built and try to shop at and buy something.
And then you're seeing if this website is going to be able to work. I think that the overlap, I think, is in the methodology. And when folks are, if they're able to get some training on research, then they know how to think in terms of like, okay, how am I going to set up a study to answer a specific question?
If I start off with like, okay, here's a question we think we have based upon observations, how do I set things up so that we can actually answer that question? I think there's a lot of overlap there, but ultimately when folks come into the profession, they just have to realize you're mixing with the business world and the philosophy of the business world is pragmatism.
And so, and in many cases, radical pragmatism where it's the only thing that matters is. You know, increase the bottom line tomorrow? You know, not even like the Noma line. so adapting to that, I think sometimes is a little bit of a gap for researchers, right? Timelines, and then, you know, what levels of rigor are considered acceptable.
But ultimately I think a lot of those folks are trained with the kind of thinking that ends up be
[00:08:17] JH: nefitting.
It feels like maybe to help snap this into place. Like, just like some sort of example around how design psychology can be useful for folks would be cool. So like, I don't know if you have one from your background or if there's like a canonical example that people go to is like a classic one, but maybe it'll help snap it into focus.
That'd be a cool way to uh,
[00:08:32] Thomas: Yeah. Let's take it, you have a button and the question is, should we use an icon? Should we use a label or should we use both? Well, there's some factors that play into that.
So with an icon, a good icon, you're leveraging something called the picture superiority effect. The picture superiority effect is that you more quickly and more accurately recognize pictures, but then they have to be the right pictures and there's, you know, write a hit, and it has a map. It has a close, semantic relationship with what you're trying to depict.
[00:09:06] Erin: Yes. Like the link versus the attachment icons on some apps. They look exactly the same as the bad icon.
[00:09:14] Thomas: Whereas like physical link
[00:09:15] JH: The paper
[00:09:15] Erin: yeah. Right. What do you want
[00:09:17] Thomas: correct. That. And there's reading able to, so reading something it's more clear, but then it's also a little bit labor intensive. You don't get it instantly. Like you do a picture but it's more clear. Right? So then in those kinds of discussions, you typically want to caution teams from developing an idea.
That one thing is always better than the other. It's more about being aware of the different psychological phenomena and then being able to make that nuanced decision based upon the needs of the use case you're trying to solve for.
[00:09:50] JH: Yeah.
[00:09:51] Erin: Right. So if you had 10 buttons, you know, together, which you might choose from, um, you might say that's going to take someone a long time to read. We got to go icons on this, but they have to be good icons I can see
[00:10:04] Thomas: no, That's, I think that's true in the good icons part. That's a big deal. There used to be this software. This is like the video production software called Sony Vegas. I don't know, calling out specific things, but it had a lot of problems. Riddled with problems. And a lot of software back then would have this same problem, where there'll be this row. Of all these unknown icons, you have no idea what they are, what they do. And it would be like 20 images in a row. And you're like, what the heck are these things?
You have to like the mouse over each one. And the school tip wasn't much better in terms of being helpful. but yeah, like, yeah there's, a whole thing with icons. Like how much does it semantically match? The thing is trying to depict how familiar is the image to begin with? Um, like a paperclip is familiar.
[00:10:54] Erin: Was we paper?
[00:10:58] Thomas: you write the disc for save and all that stuff.
[00:11:02] Erin: Right, right. Well, yeah, no, it's funny because what if it's not immediately recognizable, like right. Then it almost becomes a recall thing.
[00:11:10] Thomas: Right. We're trying to
[00:11:11] Erin: Like you're trying to make someone recognize something, but they, that they're actually having to go back through their deep trenches of the filing system in their brain
[00:11:18] JH: Yeah. And you probably, at some point you are getting into how users use this software too, right? Because if you are making pro software that people live in all day, every day, some of those shortcuts and like density of information and just having tons of icons, it's probably somewhat appreciated, right?
I'm here eight hours a day. I'm a video editor. That's different from when this person comes in here once a month. And they can't remember a single thing here. And So.
like that may be, is probably not the right approach. Right? So there's all these different factors that you kind of have to be aware of.
And I guess That's what you were saying, you just need to know the phenomenon so you can figure out how to apply them in the situation. You can't have like one rule to make every design decision. right.
[00:11:50] Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. An under specific point you just brought up Ellen Cooper has this awesome concept of you can be a beginner, an expert, but most people with most software are a perpetual intermediate. He calls it. And so it is. So they're not like a beginner where you want it. It's like a slope.
You can almost slope it, right where there's somewhere in the middle. So they're not going to get to this expert later where they know all of the features, like, you know, like an XL, knowing how to do the macros and everything like that. But then it's not like kiosk level or, you know, a wizard where you're loading something and you're only gonna use it once when you're designing it for that beginner, most software, it's like this middle area where you do expect them to learn it. know where you're able to forgive. If they don't get everything right away, you want it to be as instant as possible, but it's not the end of the world. If it takes like maybe a couple of minutes to learn some really powerful features, but then you got that kind of middle zone
[00:13:31] JH: One thing we were talking about, right, is people from a psychology background, what do they need to learn about business, to kind of adapt and get into that mentality and the differences there? I think you articulated well, There's probably the thing in the opposite direction. Right. If I'm just a designer.
I fell into it from the applied business side of getting in there and, you know, learning how to do some things and loved it and took to it. I'd like to learn more about this psychology side of things. Like what are some ways for people to like, you know, explore this area and learn more.
[00:13:59] Thomas: Yeah, I think there's some good psychology books out there. There's one that's called designing with the mind in mind. And I think it's a really good book. And just putting in fairly simple terms, a lot of the relevant psychological phenomena that are just really helpful to be aware of.
I mean, things like that, everybody knows about like, what's Krug's book everybody.
[00:14:26] JH: Oh, I don't make
[00:14:26] Thomas: Yeah, I don't make myself think. I think that's a, I think that's a fairly good opener. If someone has no idea about psychology and design, I think that's a two, but designing with the mind in mind, I think goes a little bit deep, but it's very, very accessible
[00:14:38] Erin: Awesome. Any other popular ones you talked about the recall and the recognize are there other, might you kind of in your work go to a lot when you think about,
[00:14:48] Thomas: the concepts. Is that what you're looking for? Yeah. I think one that's very often overlooked nowadays is this idea of like, of a workload and we're talking about usability and um, kind of gone out of fashion, but I think it should come back. And that's this idea that there's these different kinds of load there's visual load.
Intellectual load, memory, load, and motor load, but, you know, and it really, the idea is that you're trying to take away difficulty from the user to free them up, to work on this stuff that they want to work on. And I think that that's really, when you think of things in terms of the, you know, folks who I train, I have one of the first things I do is train a lot of their thinking to kind of be related to that kind of stuff, because it makes it easier to evaluate design decisions, right?
We've all been in that situation where there's competing design decisions and we're kind of, now, talking about which one we want and you want to make that as objective a POS process as possible. Right? You want to take opinion out of it as to the extent to which you can and to say like, okay, we're going to look at these two competing design decisions, options, and work on to look at their advantages and disadvantages in terms of the various different types of loads. So you might say this list has now, maybe more visual load it's showing stuff. This dropdown has slightly more motor load. because you have to click it, you know, and then so depending on the situation and the user and the use case, which one, which trade off do we want to make, and then it's surprisingly enlightening when you go through software and you kind of think of the things like this.
[00:16:30] Erin: Right. It's not a binary like, or not even a simple gradient of harder, easier. It's like, in what ways is it harder? And in what context is one trade-off
[00:16:39] Thomas: That's right. That's right. Especially like, way like a design system, an awesome thing. And everyone needs to, you know, try to get some kind of, but sometimes when we adapt our thinking a little bit too. Slanted to the kind of engineering, visual design side of the equation. We might have, like, too much importance on making, you know, making final decisions, which widget are we going to use for X situation and kind of take the nuance out of it.
We still need to have that kind of early thinking of like, okay, what's kind of the ideal flow for the user in this before we commit to using, you know, which perfect widget we're going to use in the end. Like, how are we going to actually think about this? And then from that perspective, you're more likely to do design systems kind of the right way where you're updating the design system.
It serves the design needs rather than kind of using
that to nominate what's available.
[00:17:34] Erin: right. Starting with the component to start with the use cases.
[00:17:38] JH: this conversation just reminded me of a cool web resource. It's coglode.com. So C O G L O D e.com. And it just is like a list of all these different phenomena, like scarcity, social proof, you know, loss, aversion, anchoring, and they just have like little. It's probably not going to teach you a ton about all those things, but they have a little sentence or two about what it is like.
And then it's probably a good way to like, learn more about some of these things. I hadn't thought about this site in a
[00:18:01] Thomas: oh, that's awesome. Carlos. Yeah. Cog load. L O D E. Oh
This is great. I don't think I've seen this. Yeah, this isn't
[00:18:07] JH: It just is like a table of contents of all these different things. And I think they kind of opened up the world of like, you can go learn more about these concepts, you know, from there.
[00:18:14] Thomas: Is it the one applied behavioral insights with.
[00:18:18] JH: I think so. Yeah.
Yeah, I'm just looking at like the nuggets. and stuff. I haven't been on the site in forever, but I remember having fun with this a year or two ago.
[00:18:24] Thomas: Yeah. Nice. Really nice.
[00:18:26] Erin: Cool. So design psychology, risks and you know, in the wrong hands in the untrained hands, I don't know. Is there uh, risk in applying, um, some of these principles or like what should someone know when they think about bringing design psychology into a, I guess a UX
[00:18:46] Thomas: I, the only risk that I kind of see is not understanding things. You know, it's, that kind of old thing of a little bit of knowledge makes you a dangerous kind of thing. I think that folks should dedicate themselves to trying to learn a little bit. About psychology and kind of view themselves as a design psychologists, I think in any field you manage or operate in, you should learn a little bit about the tradition.
When I figured out that I was going to be directing and managing visual designers, I actually years ago, I took the time to take art classes online. I'm like, well, you know what, I'm going to commit to. Learning more about the basis of the craft, not just, oh, I'm going to hop into Figma or sketch, and then I'll learn how to use this tool.
And then I'm a visual designer, right. Cause I know what, let me put myself in their world and figure out what. And then, I learned a lot of enlightening things about the thought process that you come to that kind of training. And I think that it's good to read just a book or two and at least try to learn about how humans operate. That's humans in general. And then you want to learn about your users specifically, right? So, um, don't let it fall too, out of fashion to do usability testing.
[00:19:57] JH: For sure. Erin was this maybe what you're trying to get at a little bit of some of these things that you can use to make great design and really. The users on their journey or some of the same things that if you have a really strong knowledge of them, you can use some more dark patterns or other suspect behaviors to maybe move a metric, but not in the right way.
Have you seen that be like,
[00:20:18] Thomas: yeah. In the marketing world. That's definitely used all the time. So for example, the fact that it's impossible to ignore moving things in your peripheral vision. Uh, you can't ignore them. So historically you had to see the tiger coming out of the bushes. So it doesn't go. So, right. So, so, so, you know, when something has blinking stuff that gets your attention and it's like, God, that's so annoying.
You can't not pay attention to it. Or the fact that in order to place ads inside of the content that you're trying to consume it annoyingly has to get closer and closer to it because we adapt and we learned that it's an ad, right? So you have the phenomenon called banner blindness where, you know, back when ads were mostly banners, you didn't even look at them.
Right? The eye tracking data shows that people's eyes skipped past it entirely. So then they got smarter. They started putting links in the news article that you're reading or, you know, or making things look like news articles. It's actually just ads. So, yeah, dark patterns we have to, you know, you always have to watch out for that, but just knowledge.
It's going to be used for good and bad.
[00:21:31] Erin: Yeah, watch out for those product people too, though. I tell you what dark patterns are everywhere, but it does feel like I don't know. I don't know how everything's going to shake out, but people are very aware that there was, um, what's his name from the social media? Um, the Netflix movie. Yeah, Tristan. Yeah. Where, right. There's the, we'll push the algorithm to add you to our app all this sort of stuff that's happening. And we're still addicted of course, but we, at least it's, we're aware of it
[00:21:59] Thomas: and video games are able to be more addictive than they were back in the. Yeah, more sophisticated. They hire a psychologist for most production
[00:22:07] Erin: Right, right. W we, you got me thinking about what the workload is, right.
Where it's like, don't make me think, don't make me work. Like, make it easy for me in all these different ways. when we had, um, a games user researcher on, it was interesting. Cause he was talking about you wanting to make it actually the right amount of hard, right. In that context where it's like make me think just enough, but not too
[00:22:28] Thomas: It's slightly different goals and that's super important. So like, for example, if you're training people or educating people, you want to make things a certain amount of difficult so that they can exercise it and so they could get there. So that is true. So if you're making something like productivity software, Then it's nice.
If you assume that they already are going to have difficulty with the thing that they care about, let's reduce it.
[00:22:53] Erin: Right, right. Save them time. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I guess there are some, because I always talked about, you know, the tension between these different things. It's like, well, you can focus on this truth or that truth. You can't always do them in equal measure all the time. You gotta make some choices.
So like, what are some good, I don't know, frameworks or ways of thinking about. How to make those choices. So we were just talking about, you know, you probably know your business and you have a good sense of what your business goals are, maybe what your user's schools are, but how do I go about identifying a psychological truth?
That is a good fit for my
[00:23:28] Thomas: Yeah, I think that the whole does, it has to be baked into the design process to think of things in terms of the user in the, in what the user is doing. So we all know about people. And, you know, scenarios and stuff, but I think making that more so the center of the design process and not just jumping to screens and now, going to dribble, like be inspired by these beautiful screens and then I'm going to make some.
It's like the same thing. know, but instead saying like, okay, who's the user? Well, we don't really know yet because we haven't done reuse. Okay. Well, what do we know? What do we think we know about the user? Let's gather assumptions and create hoc personas or they call it a prodo personas have some working idea of who we think we're making it for, and then we'll fill it in with more recent.
And then once we got, we've got our cast of personas, then we have our set of scenarios for each persona of what folks are doing with this. And then the business can prioritize, which things are more important, what can not be compromised on. And then once you have that, I think as part of the design process of walking through the.
Now, this is Sally, the salesperson, and she's using this software to walk through this process and she's doing hacks making everything forced. I think in the rope, revolver on somebody is doing something with the software and going through it like that. And then bare minimum, walking through your Figma screens, thinking through what can go wrong at the various different steps.
It's not going to be the happy path most of the time. Right. And minimum doing that. then hopefully getting far ahead of your development team. So you can have time for usability research.
[00:25:11] JH: Nice. Is there a world where, as you become familiar with all these different phenomena in ways that maybe people are irrational or have biases or blind spots and stuff that you can like, turn those on to your own design practices? We probably have a tendency towards this or we're overlooking this. It's great.
Like, we're talking a lot from the user context, but presumably the person designing the experience has those same sort of gaps or you know, and they're thinking.
[00:25:37] Thomas: Yeah, I totally think so. Like, like getting meta about it, where the design team is like, like, yeah, I think so. I think so, like being, I mean, I try to do that as just a productivity habit with everything, you know, Like if I make a daily list and the list is huge, then I won't get anything done.
But if I can focus on two things and maybe I'll get one thing done yeah. Gaming ourselves.
[00:26:03] Erin: Awesome. Uh, I people just, what do you like about your job, the most about UX research, most design psychology. What keeps you excited about it? It's, you know, technology is changing so much so, um, it's cool to see some of these fields how they manifest
[00:26:21] Thomas: I like the most is coming up with crazy design ideas and scaring the hell out of the development team. No. Yeah, I think um, I liked it the most is that it's. Technology's always changing, but I think that we haven't gotten obsolete yet. And I mean, the work changes and we might have like skill sets that get obsolete and we have to update to the new tools.
But I mean, what excites me is that I think that there's just so much to learn and I love constantly learning about things like, okay, so here's what we think we know about psychology. How do we adapt it to these new scenarios and these new situations?
[00:26:59] JH: Do you have any favorite design psychology principles that you find fascinating or you are always telling to people is, you know, you should learn about this?
[00:27:07] Thomas: Oh man. There's so many. I, I, the top of my head, I would probably say the mental model, the idea of the mental model. That's a basic one. We all know something about it, but I think that that's probably the most powerful concept or one of the most powerful concepts we have is that. There's what it is, but then there's how we think about it.
[00:27:28] Erin: Right, right, right, right. Yeah. And is that what basically a mental model is? Because I feel like that's something you hear all the time now. And I wonder if some people say it's just become like a phrase. but yeah, when we talk about mental models at the basic level, what are we talking about?
[00:27:45] Thomas: That is a good question. Because for a while, mental models to people had a meaning like a diagram of a house. People think about something, but it really was just supposed to mean. What do people think is going on? So like one example would be. when you push the brakes on your car it's doing some complex process that we don't know what it is doing unless we're a mechanic,
[00:28:07] Erin: I prefer not to think about
[00:28:09] Thomas: right. But the way we kind of think about it, right? It's like, well, it's sort of like you're pushing down on this pad and the pad is pushing on the axle and it's like, slowing it down because it's putting pressure on the axle and it kind of feels like that's happening. And so when you design a support, like the way people think of things, then you end up getting some advantages because you're leveraging assumptions that they already have.
So there's less mental power that has to be put into understanding it. Right. So it might be wrong, like an engineer. I remember working on one project where it was, you moved a box from one place to another and it represented something got loaded or something got put there and loaded.
And I asked the developers to say, can we have it do where it's just this quick loading. This quick little loading bar and it just takes like a second. And the developer thought that was crazy. I said, well, they said, well, it happens instantly. Like you don't, it doesn't load at all. I was like, yeah, but if you put a loading bar on it, it kind of feels like something's happening.
Right. And if we, they ended up building. And it demoed really well and users felt like something was happening. Cause it was just a quick loading bar and it just felt because if it was too instant it's, you're not sure as like, okay, did something happen or did this move a box from one side to the other, but the mental model of like, I'm doing something.
So I'm going to support that idea by just having this quick little loading effect. then it kind of supports and plays into the way the user thinks about it.
[00:29:42] Erin: Right. Like the auto-save note. It's like, please tell me, keep telling me. I need to know.
Not taking that for granted. Yeah.
Thomas has been so nice to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
[00:29:58] Thomas: Absolutely. Likewise.
VP, Growth & Marketing
Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.