Table of Contents
- Psychology of design and thinking
- No.1: We are can remember information better smaller chunks
- No.2: Our mind wanders thirty percent of time
- No.3: We are constantly creating mental models
- No.4: We work with conceptual models
- No.5: We work best with stories
- No.6: We have a tendency to create categories
- No.7: We perceive time as relative
- No.8: Flow state is the pinnacle of user experience
- No.9: Culture shapes our thinking
- Closing thought on psychology of design and thinking
Design and thinking are deeply connected. The way we think can change how we perceive and understand the world around us in fascinating ways. The same design can induce different feelings and reaction in different people. In short, our thinking can completely change our experience. Today, in this part of Psychology of design series, we will discuss nine facts every designer has to know about the way our brain works and how we think. Use this knowledge to design irresistible products and provide users pinnacle of user experience.
Psychology of design and thinking
Have you ever though how that thing inside your head called brain can be influenced by design? There are many ways in which design can change our thinking and our ability to process incoming information. Thinking is a result of around twenty three billion neurons connected into large network inside our brain. Learning about and understanding how we think is necessary for every designer to create impressive and meaningful designs.
No.1: We are can remember information better smaller chunks
In the previous part, we discussed that our ability to pay attention is quite limited. We can consciously process very limited number of inputs or information. One of the mistakes many designers do, is trying to give users indigestible amount of information in a short period of time. The only result is that users quickly become overwhelmed and unable to decide what to do next. Fortunately, we can avoid this bad experience by giving users information in small chunks.
Great strategy is to gradually uncover more and more information as user goes through certain set of steps. This is basically how tutorials work. You begin with a small amount of information necessary to get you going. Then, as you move forward, more and more information is revealed. This strategy also helps user to go from the basic concepts to more complex without ending in stressed or getting paralyzed. Another popular way we can use this strategy of gradually uncover information is in contact forms. One example of service using it typeform.
Another reason to hide some information in the beginning is that not all information has the same importance and priority. Also, not all users want or need to know all information that are available. What’s more, abundance of information can even be harmful to users. Too much of information can significantly impact users’ ability to make decisions. Let’s say you want to learn new framework for web and app development. Would it be easier for you to choose one if I gave you two or three options, such as React.js, Meteor.js and Angular.js?
Or, would it be easier for you to choose from wider array of options such as React.js, Angular.js, Socket, Polymer.js, Meteor.js, Ember.js, Backbone.js, Knockout.js, Vue.js, Aurelia.js and Mercury.js? At least for me, the first and smaller array of options looks much more comfortable choosing from. The second one was able to scare a bit and I was only writing it down. The same thing applies to resources for learning. The more resources you have available, the less likely you will learn anything. It is probable that you will be afraid of missing something by not using this or that resource. As a result, you may simply decide to not to decide.
Have you ever though about how any clicks should stand between starting and desired destination? Or, how many times users have to click to get where they want (or we want them) to get? Commonly used number is three. Some sort of mysterious common sense says that if something is more than three clicks away, it is a problem. This is not true. We can quickly test this hypothesis by doing an experiment with, say, Pinterest. How many times will you click and how many boards will you browse until you will get annoyed?
You can also think about your favorite blog. How many pages will you browse through until you will get angry? There are millions of people who are constantly complaining about how much time they spend on various sites instead of working on what they should get done, I will bet that you will exceed three clicks fairly quickly. Conclusion? The number of clicks is relative. People will be willing to click multiple times if they will get sufficient amount of interesting information in exchange. Yes, it is a trade. Focus on gradual uncovering of information instead of number of clicks.
First, use gradual uncovering of information. Show people only what they need to know at the current moment. The rest can wait. Second, don’t use number of clicks to measure usability of your design. Third, make sure you understand what are people looking for, what they want and when they want it before you use gradual uncovering of information.
No.2: Our mind wanders thirty percent of time
How many times have you caught yourself reading the same sentence for third or fourth time and you still don’t remember single word? This can happen very fast. We read some book or listen to some podcast and out of nowhere we find out that our mind was wandering last fifteen minutes. When our mind wanders, it often looks like daydreaming. Mind wandering and daydreaming may look similar, but they are not the same. What is the difference?
Psychology defines daydreaming as anything that includes indulging oneself in stray thoughts, fantasies, and various imaginary stories. On the other hand, mind wandering is something more concrete. Mind wandering happens while we work on one task and, in certain moment, instead of thinking about the task at hand our thoughts wander in direction not related to the task. For example, you may be thinking about computational or design problem. Suddenly, you realize that your thoughts are far away from the problem.
According to, our mind wanders about thirty or forty percent of the time we are awake. This also means that our mind wanders during every type of activity, including reading, walking, driving, working and having sex. It is interesting that in case of activity such as driving, mind wandering can constitute up to 70%(!). Fortunately, it applies to driving on an empty highway. One question, I think, we should discuss is whether mind wandering is good or bad. The answer is as always it depends.
If we are constantly mind-wandering instead of getting our work done, it will have some unpleasant consequences. However, if we use mind wandering as a tool to improve our work, instead of a way to run away from it, it can be beneficial. Mind wandering allows one part of our thinking mind, or brain, to focus one area while other parts of our brain can focus on other maybe higher goal or purpose. For example, you may be reading some article about design. At the same time, your mind may be thinking about meeting you have tomorrow and that you should write to your calendar.
In some sense, mind wandering can be likened to some kind of a multitasking. It allows us to narrow our thinking, attention and focus on different thing or thought and then quickly return to what we were previously doing. One possible danger of mind wandering, I almost forgot to mention, is that it can cause you to miss some important information. We have to remember that when our mind wanders, we are not paying attention to the present moment. So, we should avoid mind wandering on meetings and things like that.
One more thing. It is proven by research that mind wandering can make us more productive and help us stick to our goals. When our mind wanders, we are capable of connecting with our longer-term goals. Then, we can discover new ways of thinking about our goals and how to achieve them. There is also correlation between mind wandering and creativity. Couple studies showed that people with inclination to mind wandering are more creative and better problem solvers.
First, people are able to focus on thing only for a limited time. It is somewhere between fifty and sixty minutes. Even at this time, their minds will still have a tendency to wander. Second, in case of web design, make use of hypertext links to allow people quickly switch between subjects. Give people the option to explore and discover interesting things and topics. Third, always include some kind of a feedback or orientation point. Help people quickly find out where they currently are and how to get back or continue somewhere else. You know, use pagination, breadcrumbs, etc.
No.3: We are constantly creating mental models
Mental models are basically sets of representations allowing us to understand how certain things work and how to use them. Our mental models consist of our knowledge, complete and incomplete facts, previous experience, our assumptions and also our intuition. Mental models help us think about and form new behavior and actions and also influence what should we and other people pay attention to in specific situations. These mental models also help us define how we should approach and solve problems in different areas.
In terms of design, we can think about mental models as some kind of a representation of specific thing we create in our minds. This specific thing can be an app, software, website, physical product or just anything else. We need to remember that people create these mental models of products very fast. People create these mental representations even before they use certain product. For example, if I describe you my PocketBook e-book reader, you will almost automatically create mental model for it, even though you didn’t see this product yet.
In order to create new mental model we need just some previous experience with something that’s similar to that product, app, software, etc. We can also create mental models on the basis of information provided by other people. In other words, mental models can be based on our own experience as well as experience of other people. Yes, our mental models can be also based on purely fictional experience “provided” by advertisement.
Mental models are not immutable. They are in general prone to changes. Your current mental models can change when you find some new information or gain new experience that is related to this or that model. Anyway, what is the reason for creating mental models? Our brain uses these models to work faster. These models help us predict how might certain system, app or product work or what we should do with it. In a short, mental models make it easier or us to interact with the world and objects around us.
First, everyone has mental models. Second, mental models are often based on our personal experience. Third, different people can have different mental models related to the same product because the experience or information some people have are different. Fourth, one of the best ways to design usable products is by understanding mental models of potential users. This can be achieved by conducting user research in the beginning of your design process. Fifth, double-check validity of mental model and usability of the product by doing user testing at the end.
No.4: We work with conceptual models
Every user interface we design and can interact with is a conceptual model. This is when some problems may start to arise. What will happen if mental model users that of product have are not congruent with conceptual model of the product? Two things. First, it will be much harder for people to learn how to use the product in the right way. Second, usability of the product will suffer and there will be no chance that you will be able to design great user experience.
There are couple ways how this discrepancy between mental and conceptual model can happen. The first scenario is that designer working on the product or interface may believe that he knows which users will use the product. This designer may also believe that he knows how many experience with similar products or interfaces these users have. Based on these completely wrong hypotheses and assumptions our designer will create design without doing any user testing.
The second scenario where conceptual is not congruent with users’ mental models is when we have to design product or, say, website for diverse group of users. We may perfectly understand the desires, needs and motivations of one group, maybe even two. Next, we will successfully conceptual model congruent with mental models of this group, or two. Unfortunately, there are still other users with different mental models. For these users the conceptual model we designed will either not work very well or not at all.
The third and last scenario occurs when there is no designer at all. As a consequence, no conceptual model was designed. Everything we have is some twisted reflexion of the product, app, software, database or hardware. Therefore, the only people able to work with it are the people who programmed it. Nobody else. This may not be a problem, if your target group of user are programmers. If not, we can call it a failure. What if the product, your are working on, is something completely new and there are no prior mental models users can use?
In that situation, you can help learn new mental models for the product by using some simple tutorial, instructional video or some infographic. This is also useful way to modify the mental models your users currently have. Modifying existing mental models may be necessary for example in case of product upgrades or adding new features that can change how the product is used.
First, conceptual model has to be designed with specific purpose. It has to be designed for certain group of users. Second, this implies that you need to understand your target group of users. You must have clear idea about their desires, needs and motivations. This will require doing user research in the beginning of the design process. Third, make sure that conceptual model is congruent with users’ mental models by doing user testing. Fourth, in case of new product, help people learn how to use the product and form new mental models.
No.5: We work best with stories
Stories are without a doubt one of the most powerful tools we can use in design to communicate some specific message. When we use stories, we are able to capture attention for a long period of time. Stories also help people process information and learn from them. It was Aristotle who defined the basic structure of the story. This structure is composed of three simple parts: beginning, middle and end (also known as protasis, epitasis and catastrophe).
Aristotle’s framework for story then continues something like this (greatly simplified version). In the beginning, every story has to begin with introducing the scene where the plot takes place. Next, you will introduce main characters and situation or conflict the story is about. The middle part of the story contains various challenges the main character of the story has to deal with. In the end, the main conflict of the story culminates and the plot is finally resolved.
Interesting thing about stories is that they can suggest cause on places where there is no cause at all. It may take us a while to process and understand story that is surrounded by mystery, but our we still be able to “find” some cause to explain what happened. This is how our mind works. We are constantly looking for patterns and explanations. Our brain assumes that we have all information and that these information are somehow connected. This tendency to look for patterns and explanations is even stronger when we use stories.
There will be people and clients trying to convince you that stories are not applicable for their project. Don’t believe them. Stories can be used in every situation, place and time. Let’s say you are designing a website for dentist. How can you use storytelling in this example? First, dedicate section of the page to tell visitors about one of the dentist’s patients. This is the main character of our story. Second, talk about dental issue he or she had to deal with. This is the conflict. Describe how uncomfortable or painful it was to live with that issue. Even better, show it by using images.
Third, describe how the dentist fixed the issue and helped this patient. Talk about how whole patient’s life improved. This is the culmination of our story and the happy ending everyone wants to hear about. Again, include quality images to support your claims. You can use this basic story template for any situation. Web design for a bank? Main character can be small business owner. Plot? Business on the edge of bankruptcy. Happy ending? Getting loan from the bank and saving client’s business. Web deign for a hairdresser? I think you know what to do.
First, utilize the power of stories in general and look for ways to implement them everywhere. Stories help people process information in natural way. Second, use stories if you want to help people derive any causal connection. Third, remember that stories are not just a way to entertain yourself or others. Stories are powerful tools to present information in simple, understandable and easy to remember form. Fifth, read the Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling adapted for UX article.
No.6: We have a tendency to create categories
There are two things about categories and human nature we know for certain. First, it is completely natural for people to create categories. Just like we learn language by imitation, we learn to organize objects around us into categories. Second, from the age of seven, kids start to show interest in organizing objects into categories. It is interesting that before this age, categories doesn’t make too much sense to kids.
Our tendency for creating categories is so strong that we are not given any categories, we will create our own. Remember, our brain loves to search for patterns and categories are one type of pattern. In other words, categories help us make sense of the world around us and bring at least some order into it. This tendency is even stronger when we feel overwhelmed by excessive amount of information. Lastly, when categorization is done right, it makes information easier to process and remember. The better the organization, the easier to remember information will be.
First, categorization of objects around us is natural. Second, when we get overwhelmed, categorization will be almost automatic reaction. Third, use user research to find relevant information users are looking for and also to understand what categories will they prefer. This will make working with your design more natural. Fourth, if you are working on design that will be used by kids younger than seven years, categorization is a waste of time. For such a young kids, categories don’t make sense.
No.7: We perceive time as relative
We perceive time as relative. Depending on complexity of the task at hand, we can perceive the time that passed as longer or shorter. For example, when you have to do certain activity that requires you to often stop and think about something, time will seem to move slower. On the other hand, if you work on something that is at the intersection of your abilities and challenge, also known as flow state, time can seem to move extremely fast.
Another example of relativity of the time is when you take a woman or man you love on a date. Then, hour will seem like a second. On the other hand, touch hot pan and second will seem like an hour. How can we use this in design? We can use this fact to influence how users perceive time. We can give users some indicators to make it look make their waiting seem shorter. For example, we can use spinners and progress bars to create the feeling that time is moving faster. This approach is often used to make slowly loading websites, interfaces apps visually faster.
First, always use some indicators to show users how much time will certain activity take. Second, you should also use these indicators to show users that there is some progress in the background, that things are moving. Third, keep time for task consistent to help users create expectations about time that’s necessary to finish the task. When you say that something will take two minutes and user will end up waiting eight, it is a sign of “slight” inconsistency. Fourth, make the whole process (registration form, etc.) look faster by splitting it into smaller parts and don’t make users think.
No.8: Flow state is the pinnacle of user experience
There are specific moments when we feel completely immersed in the activity. In these moments, time seems to pass by in incredible speed. It is common that in these moments we completely forget where we are, who we are and with whom. Our whole attention is focused on the activity we are doing and the activity is reward on its own. Scientists and psychologists call this flow state. In order to enter this state of flow, there are specific conditions that have to be fulfilled.
First, we have to be completely concentrated on the task or activity we are doing. We also have to have complete control over it. If you want to help users achieve this degree of concentration, you have to remove any sources of potential distraction. Second, we need to have concrete goal for the activity. It is important to be confident that we can achieve this goal. If you think that your goal is not achievable, you will not be able to reach state of full concentration. On the other hand, if the goal is too easy or meaningless for you, you will not be able to sustain full concentration for long.
In short, our goal has to be challenging enough to excite us (even scare us), but not too challenging. We have to believe that we can achieve it with conscious effort. Third, every action has to be followed by feedback. In order to stay in the state of full concentration, we need uninterrupted flow of information providing us with feedback about activity we are doing. Fourth, we need to have control over our steps and over the situation. No matter how difficult the activity is, we need to believe that we have sufficient control over it.
It is important to mention that different people can perceive flow state differently. For some, the time may seem to flow fast. For other, the opposite may be true. Another important condition for reaching the state of flow is that we don’t feel threatened. We have to feel relaxed and in control to reach flow state. It is quite common that people lose the sense of self when they reach state of flow. Also, different people will reach flow state through different activities. Some people will get into flow while doing extreme sports.
Other people will reach flow state while painting, coding, reading, writing or building something. What this means is that you have to experiment with different activities to find out what works for you. No matter what activity will help you get into the state of flow, you will recognize it. You will be deeply focused and you will feel happy. When you reach this state, your current skills and abilities to learn and execute will be at the peak. This is, I believe, the pinnacle of user experience design we should always aim for, to help users reach the state of flow.
First, give users complete control over the activity they have to do. Second, divide difficult task into smaller goals ranked by difficulty. Users have to feel that, although the goal is difficult, it is still achievable. Third, constantly provide users with feedback. Fourth, remove all distractions. Create an environment where user will be able to focus solely on the task at hand.
No.9: Culture shapes our thinking
Culture we were raised in has significant influence on our thinking and the way we perceive the world around us. For example, one study used photos to find out what spots will participants focus the most. Every photo contained one dominant object and some panoramic background. Participants in this study where divided into two groups. Participant in the first group were all from East Asia. Participants in the second group were all from western world. The result?
The study showed that people from different cultures indeed focused on different parts of the photos. People from the western group spent more time and focused on the dominant object. People from the eastern group spent more time observing the environment around the dominant object. The conclusion made by researchers was that people raised in western culture pay more attention to the main object in the foreground while people from the East pay more attention to the context and the background.
To test the results of this study, researchers tried the same experiment again. Now, they chose people born in the East, but raised in the West. The results were clear. People raised in western culture behaved similarly to people born and raised in the West. There is a theory in sociology which says that cultural norms in Asia focus on relationships and groups rather than individual. As a result, people whose thinking was influenced by eastern culture pay more attention to the context of the situation because context plays key role in group psychology and relationships.
Culture on the West is much more individualistic, put emphasis on individual person and self-development. As a result, person whose thinking was influenced by western cultural norms is more likely to focus on the dominant object. To test this hypothesis, another study was done. This time, researchers used eye tracking cameras to record and analyze eye movements of study participants. Results remained the same. People raised under eastern cultural norms watched the background of the images by their peripheral vision than people raised under western cultural norms.
More recent study called How Different Cultures Shape the Brain demonstrated that there is even bigger connection between culture and thinking. It was shown that the language we speak and values we adopt can shape our brain and change our thinking. For example, while Americans value more dominant behavior Japanese value submissive. This also means that different parts of the brain and different chemicals are released when people from different cultures are presented with the same images. Let’s take this a bit further.
One study mentioned in that article found that Chinese speakers use different brain regions to do Mathematical operations than native English speakers. Unlike native English speakers, native Chinese speakers use parts of the brain responsible for processing visual and spatial information. Reason? While English uses words for numbers, Chinese language uses symbols. As a result, what may seem universal, such as Mathematical thinking, may be culture-dependent. By the way, there is discipline, cultural neuroscience, that studies how culture shapes our brain and our thinking.
First, people from different cultures will react differently to photos and images presented in your designs. What may seem attractive to one may be discouraging for other. People will also react differently on web designs. Second, users from Asia will pay more attention to the background of website and its context. They are also more likely to remember it. Third, if you work on design that will be used across multiple cultures and regions, do market research in all these regions.
Fourth, before you do user research and testing, learn about the cultural background of the participants. It is possible that some people you chose will fit requirements necessary for participating in your research or test. However, cultural norms they were raised may be different from cultural norms of your target audience. This can make the validity of results questionable.
Closing thought on psychology of design and thinking
There are many ways in which we can use what we know about thinking to create much better designs and experience for our users. What you should remember from this part of Psychology of design about thinking are following best practices. First, present information in smaller chunks. This will make them easier for people to remember. Second, take into account that mind wandering is something natural. We can focus only for a limited time, don’t try to fight or ignore it.
Third, we are creating mental and conceptual models to make sense of the world and understand the objects around us and how to use them. It also allows us to make thinking faster and less energy consuming. Fourth, the best way to present information and make it stick is through stories. Fifth, our tendency to create categories and order something natural. We all develop this tendency around the age of seven. Sixth, the way we perceive time is relative. It depends on what are we doing at the moment and also complexity of the task.
Seventh, when we are in environment without distraction, where we are in control of the activity and have immediate feedback on our actions, we can reach state of flow. This is state of full concentration and immersion in the moment and activity. For some people, at this state, time seems to either flow in extreme speed or move slowly like a water. It is at this state when our abilities to learn and execute are at the peak. This is the pinnacle of user experience we should aim for. Lastly, remember that culture and its norms have significant influence on our thinking.
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