I studied psychology in college, but I chose to become a UX designer in my career. Psychology informs UX in many ways, but only recently did I begin to appreciate the less obvious connections. Studying psychology helped me develop an intuitive understanding of core human needs, learn how to experiment creatively, and to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
Understanding core human needs
Psychologists study human behavior in order to understand what motivates us and how we make sense of the world. Unlike the fixed laws of nature, psychological theories (like many social science theories) serve as heuristics for understanding human behavior in different contexts. Having a broad understanding of these heuristics has helped me become a more critical designer.
Take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs– a well-known framework for understanding human motivation. Once we satisfy our most basic needs (e.g., shelter, safety), we shift our motivation to fulfill higher-level needs (e.g., belonging, self-actualization).
Since I work for an automotive company, I often find myself in casual conversation about autonomous vehicles (AVs). Whether people are optimistic or pessimistic about an autonomous future, the need for safety is often at the core of these conversations. There’s either a distrust in the safety of AVs, or a trust that they will be safer than human drivers. Designers can benefit from frameworks, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to guide their work. For instance, how might designers ensure that passengers feel safe before helping them focus on the personal growth that increasingly convenient transportation can bring?
Because of my early exposure to psychology, I instinctively look for how products align with core human motivations. When the connection between product and need isn’t clear, it’s a sign that re-thinking or re-alignment needs to occur. Designers can develop this instinct by frequently asking why. Why are we designing this? What human need does this product serve? Are we making this simply because the technology is available?
“We often think the Internet enables you to do new things. But people just want to do the same things they’ve always done.” — Ev Williams
Designers as creative scientists
Psychologists — much like other social scientists — study things that can’t be directly observe. Psychologists, however, have been known throughout history for conducting rather creative and controversial experiments.
The Milgram experiments were designed to test whether people would obey demands from an authority figure, even if it went against their moral conscience. Despite clear discomfort with administering (fictional) electric shocks to another person, the majority of people obeyed, with similar results repeated around the world.
Today’s ethical guidelines prevent more controversial experiments from being carried out, but creativity with the scientific process continues. Psychologists typically start with a question and preliminary answers — or hypotheses — based on what they assume to be true. Psychologists then conduct experiments to collect data that either supports the assumptions or proves them to be false. The process is repeated until they are confident that their hyptheses are backed by solid evidence.
The prevailing paradigm in UX today is to treat each design as an assumption to be tested. My training in psychology taught me how to ask the right questions, to choose my methodologies carefully, and to analyze data with methods that reduce bias. In both educational settings and in practice, designers are increasingly adopting a data-driven approach to craft experiences for their users.
Thriving on uncertainty
Psychology taught me that when it comes to human behavior, we can never be 100% confident that one thing leads to the other. The results of one experiment may change completely when carried out in a different context or culture.
Psychologists take what information they have, and draw conclusions based on how confident they are that something is true. Probability and degree of confidence are the key factors that help psychologists make progress towards understanding the human mind.
I often find myself coming back to this when I feel a sense of uncertainty about the future. Rather than striving for 100% certainty about my decisions, I take what information I have to make progress toward the future.
Uncertainty can become less daunting when we accept that there’s always an unknown, but we go forth with the confidence that we’re making the best decisions based on the knowledge we have. Being comfortable with this process can lead to great things in the long run.