How to use psychology to improve your UX

Article 1 of 4: Behavioural Design Series

This first article in our Behavioural Design Series explores four ways Cognitive Psychology can feed into your User Experience.

By Alessia Romano

Behavioural Design is a scientific approach, which applies the methodology and principles of Cognitive Science to the design process. This works to create solutions that are capable of changing established behaviours and introducing new ones.

Behavioural Design shouldn’t be confused with “Behaviourism” – a classic psychological approach that explains behaviour in terms of conditioning. This theory has since been dethroned by the so-called Cognitive Revolution, which looks at the need to understand the mind in order to change behaviour.

Why is this important to UX designers?

User Experience Design is all about user needs, but it’s easy to forget that users are people – and people are complicated, emotional, irrational and easily influenced. Shoehorning your users into particular boxes (i.e. our users are retailers so they need x, y, z) doesn’t really work, or at least only gives you half the story. To truly understand your users, you need to go beyond what they consciously say, to the processes that underlie their behaviour. This means tapping in to some Cognitive Psychology. Focus on these 4 concepts of Cognitive Psychology:

1. Don’t go for the easy answer

Pop psychology loves to neatly bundle people into quick and easy brackets. Left-brained people are creative, right-brained people are logical, men communicate differently from women etc. Unfortunately, these are usually myths or oversimplifications. When it comes to the mind, nothing is simple. There are no such things as neural areas that work alone, decisions guided solely by emotions or reasoning, and phenomena explained uniquely by context or genetics. We don’t use only 10% of our brain and don’t perfectly remember events from 10 years ago.

How does this apply to your design?
Don’t jump to conclusions about your users’ needs and desires on the basis of their gender, age or job. All men aren’t sport-loving, beer-guzzlers, and all women aren’t make-up obsessed, shoe hoarders. Forget what you think about their behaviours and try to break down the barriers of stereotypes and mental schemes; you might discover unexpected things.

2. Be economical

Our brain is an amazing but limited machine living in a world of extraordinary complexity. There’s so much going on around us, that it’s impossible for our brains to process everything in detail.

To be efficient, we rely on categorisation and shortcuts to help us analyse the world in an acceptably fast and accurate way. This means our brains focus on relevant details and ignore everything else. For example, when you’re working on your laptop, you’re not focusing on the objects on your desk, as they’re irrelevant to what you’re doing. But the price we pay for selective focusing is that we commit errors, a lot of errors

How does this apply to your UX design process?
The more complex a situation, the more details we need to ignore. This has a huge impact on design. Too much information in one place can result in people either ignoring most of it or being unable to make a decision. The trick is to prioritise, organise hierarchically, use progressive disclosure and make use of your UI tools to convey the message in the right way. Limiting and staggering information makes it easier to learn and remember. Once people internalise a concept with experience, they can use it automatically. For example, a computer game will gradually increase the number of controls and difficulty of quests as the player progresses through the levels

3. Factor for errors

We are economical creatures and use existing mental structures, knowledge and experiences to make snap judgements about new situations. This leads to systematic errors and generalisations. We are predisposed to see events, attributes and categories as going together, even when they logically do not. For instance, the generalisation that all Italian food is good and all Italian people can cook. Biases and errors are also used to build and retain our self-image, and reduce the impact of negative feelings. For example, we tend to attribute failures to situational factors and success to personal factors.

How does this apply to your UX design process?
There are times when we all make mistakes, rely too much on impressions and irrational sensations, and are reluctant to admit when we’re wrong. Your users are no exception. By factoring this into your design, research and testing, you can improve the end experience. Observe the errors your users make and try to prevent them, as much as possible. Use visual elements like size, colour, font, icons and messages to avoid error-prone situations, and in case this is not enough, always offer a way back. For example, a brighter colour, bigger size and more reachable position to your primary CTA can improve click-through rates.

4. Be rational about irrationality

We like to think of ourselves as rational beasts that know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But, 95% of our cognitive processes are unconscious. Even when we try to judge a situation or make a conscious decision, those underlying processes are influencing our behaviour. It’s not only the logical factors that influence our decisions but also feelings, experiences, memories, situations and sociality. We are less predictable than we might think and often prone to overestimation.

How does this apply to your UX design process?
Don’t take it for granted that your users will be predictable and act the way you want them to. Keep testing over time in real life situations to learn more about your users’ behavioural patterns and what they really do.

Also, measuring unconscious body responses like sweat, facial expressions or eye movement can give more meaningful results than conscious ones. Because body responses are involuntary and can’t be filtered, they are a valid measure of our true experience.

We hope you’ve found this article useful and would love to find out how you’ve applied it to your User Experience. Let us know at

Watch out for the rest of the articles in this series:

Part 2 – Four ways memory can influence and improve Design
Part 3 – Three ways to influence customer decision-making
Part 4 – Get emotional about your design

Find out more:

Cognitive Psychology, Sternberg & Sternberg
Cracking our elusive System 1

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