The Link Between Psychology and UX Design

UX Design (aka User Experience Design) involves all the elements connected to positively impacting a human’s experience with a company; more precisely, that company’s interactive system, such as their website, application, and so on. 

In order to be effective, the interaction and experience must be exemplary and meet the needs and goals of the user. To achieve this, you must design well-structured web pages with high usability and engaging visual design.   UX Design pulls from many different disciplines, and one discipline in particular is becoming increasingly relevant: Psychology. 

Photo by  Gerome Viavant  on  Unsplash

Psychology and UX Design

At its core, UX Design is a human-to-human interaction science. It attempts to understand users’ emotional states; to get to the core of why they're visiting a website and what exactly they need. Psychology is the study of human behavior. Specifically, the motivations behind  behavior. Gaining a better understanding of human behaviors, motivations,  and thought processes enables you to utilize UX Design to its fullest potential.

Everything has a personality: everything sends an emotional signal. Even where this was not the intention of the designer, the people who view the website infer personalities and experience emotions. Bad websites have horrible personalities and instill horrid emotional states in their users, usually unwittingly. We need to design things–products, websites, services–to convey whatever personality and emotions are desired.
— Don Norman, UX Architect
Photo by  William Bout  on  Unsplash

Photo by William Bout on Unsplash

There are plenty of skills that a person with a background in psychology has which are directly transferable to the world of UX Design. Below are some of the big players.

The Mental Model: The Mental Model is based on the outlook of the user, providing an explanation of his or her thought processes, and functions as a prerequisite to empathy (see below). Psychology often looks at how mental models are constructed and how they shape behavior. When involved in UX Design, it is very important that you separate yourself from your own personal mental model and stay focused on the user—what are they used to, what do they expect? 

Empathy: Empathy is the capacity to recognize and understand the emotions that are experienced by another person. Within the study of psychology, there is a huge focus on learning and practicing empathy. This skill naturally translates to UX Design because the best way to build better products and services and meet the needs of your users is to understand them, where they come from, and what they want. The ability to show you care about how the user interacts with your products will help to improve how they, and others, interact with your products in the future. 

Empathizing is not the same as blindly responding to the user’s needs, it just means that you get a clear picture of how they think, feel, and experience things so you can make better decisions when you start designing things for them to use.
— Eric Flowers, UX Designer

Listening and Observation: Both these practices are strongly emphasized in psychology, and are invaluable tools for UX Design. One should listen and assess what the users are saying (or not saying) in order to better assess their behaviors and motivations. Observing how a user interacts with your system and figures out how things work also provides important clues into the users motivations and subsequent actions. 

Research:  A great deal of psychology is about empirical research, testing, statistics, and reducing bias; this painstaking and occasionally tedious approach is how researchers stay at the forefront of modern human behavior. UX Design and user testing is not too different--in  order to understand the behaviors of your users and their interaction with your products, you must conduct research. When conducting research, the UX designer has to be aware of the same issues that arise in psychological research, such as not leading the participant, reducing bias, and interpreting statistics.

Cognitive Psychology: Ever heard of Gestalt psychology? In the 1920’s a group of psychologists in Germany developed several theories of visual perception, describing how when viewers see a group of objects, they perceive their entirety before they see the individual parts. Simply put, people tend to organize visual elements into groups or "unified wholes". The organization revolves around certain principles, including; similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, figure, and symmetry. The concept of unified wholes and its related principles provide valuable information for the world of visual design. The fundamentals of this viewpoint give a cognitive perspective to designers on how to create and organize effective visual communication. 

Photo by  Samuel Zeller  on  Unsplash

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

The Usability of Soft Science

These are just a few of the basic techniques of psychology that directly relate to UX design. Overall, it is psychology’s holistic approach to understanding behavior and its exploration of possibilities from various viewpoints that link it so closely with UX design.  As companies search for UX designers with widening scopes and all-encompassing skill sets, there may be a call for more UX designers with experience in psychology and similar disciplines.