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Design digest: Design psychology and UX

Our regular wrap up of trending topics in UX, UI and digital product design.

Halacious, Unsplash

Welcome to the Design Digest – our regular wrap up of the issues, trends and themes affecting UX, UI and digital product design. This issue, we’re discussing what human psychology can teach us about UX design.

Design has progressively shifted from the notion of ‘aesthetics for a purpose’ towards a deeper appreciation of how we understand and affect real people through our design decisions. Never before have consumers and designers been more aware of the necessity for tailored, humanised experiences – especially considering the plethora of digital and interactive interfaces clamouring for our attention.

As designers grow their skills in designing things for real people, building an understanding of how humans think presents a real opportunity.

"Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating."

Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Thinking about thinking

While the field of psychology itself takes years of study, utilising it in design doesn’t require a PhD or indeed a comfortable couch (optional, but not necessary).

There are a number of very simple concepts and key principles that can easily be implemented into any design process to improve the overall experience. These basic elements benefit from what the field of neuroscience has taught us about how the human mind functions.

Here’s an overview of two of my go to UX laws to follow when designing digital interfaces.

Hick's Law and cognitive load

Hick’s Law refers to, “the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices available.”

This simple means that complex designs and interfaces take considerably longer to understand and decode for the user, with a much higher ‘cognitive load’ – that is, how much mental processing we have capacity for before things start to lag and become harder to discern.

It can be difficult to avoid complex things in our designs, be to apply Hick’s Law, we can break them down in to more digestible chunks. This requires walking the user through each stage to avoid getting bogged down by too many things at once.

Take the redesign of the Virgin America flight booking system by Work&Co as an example. Here, you focus on one part of the booking journey at a time, so when you’re booking your departure date you’re not getting distracted by the calendar to return, or where your seat is on the plane. This streamlines the whole process and makes it much faster, despite being spread across several more screens.

This technique also utilises what’s known as ‘chunking’ – breaking up something complex so that it’s easier to process or remember. Think about how phone numbers are usually displayed with small breaks in them, rather than as one, long number – that’s chunking at work.

Gestalt Principles

Gestalt Principles are based on human visual perception, directly related to both conscious and semi-conscious pattern recognition.

We form assumptions and react differently to elements based upon how they are positioned, how big they are and how we are conditioned to read a screen. This is how we invent relationships between similarly shaped or styled objects, inferring connections between items that are closer in proximity to one another and mentally grouping elements that share a boundary.

Applying Gestalt Principles gives designers the ability to create a clear hierarchy of information, even in instances where we must really stretch the notions of Hicks Law by having lots of content to take in, by ensuring that there is a rhythm and flow to content and screen elements. Design can cut through any confusion and help create clarity in how the screen is decoded and understood by the user.

For a good example of how Gestalt Principles are used in UX design, consider how large quantities of information are handled with digital retail experiences – especially when buying incredibly technical things like cars. The Autotrader site contains a lot of information, by the very nature of everything you need to know about a vehicle at first glance.

There’s a huge job here for the design to do in helping the user make sense of what they are looking at. By creating visual relationships between content, through the use of spacing, grids, colour, weight of text, and clear calls to action, it’s fairly easy to get to grips with how to navigate the vast catalogue of vehicles.

UX Psychology in action

As helping users navigate the complexities of what we’re challenged with designing gets harder, the key is to simplify things as much as possible, understanding how real people will think and behave when confronted with our work, and utilising little things that can make a big difference.

So, how do you get started using psychology in your design? Like with everything, keep it simple.

There are a number of principles that are easier to utilise – pick a few that resonate with you and try them out to see how they can influence your work.

Read next

Laws of UX, Jon Yablonski
A great resource for understanding the basics of a selection of psychological principles, with links out for further reading. I also totally recommend picking up Jon’s book, too.

The psychology of design explained, Anna Richardson Taylor
An article discussing the importance of understanding psychology in design, with some simple real world examples.

Cognitive bias cheat sheet, Buster Benson
A vast resource of links, well worth diving into. It’s indexed by core need and challenge, with a large number of links off to other material.

Psychology for Designers, Joe Leech
A short ebook, well worth a read. If you can ever catch Joe doing a talk at a conference I recommend going along, as he’s energetic and uses his background in neuroscience to bring the subject of design psychology to life.

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