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Why psychology needs to be taught at design school


Illustration for Psychologia Dziś magazine by Marcin Mokierów-Czołowski

Working as designers, we create products and services that are strategically curated to help humans and their needs. But I identified a gap between what we design and how the user ultimately behaves when using the product.

We design products according to how we think people might respond, only to have them engage with it in a totally unexpected manner.
This gap partially comes from the fact that our design schools completely overlook the human psychology aspect of it, and that these conflicts could easily be mitigated by having a coherent knowledge of the field.

Designing skills + A comprehensible understanding of human psychology= A good, serviceable design

While we invest years cultivating our design skills by sketching, learning new softwares,practicing visualisation etc, we somehow end up completely ignoring the other important element of the equation that makes a good design–human psychology.

Most designers I know see psychology as this complicated approach to improving the design and for that reason neglect this part of research and analysis. However, you don’t need to be a Ph.D. in psychology to use it at your work effectively.

No one is asking you to get into details of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories or understand Skinner’s radical behaviorism approaches, but you can at least extract from these, what you, as a designer should know and eventually apply in your design thinking process.

This realization made me read intensively about basic psychological theories (Coursera’s Introduction to Psychology by Yale University is a good place to start), making me recognize the value of it.

Based on my learnings and research, I have come up with 5 important aspects of psychology that should be taught to design students to help them refine their craft:

1)Human behavior and emotions

This one is a no brainer. No one can argue over the fact that we need to know this. We are designing for humans, so we must understand their psychology, what motivates them, what are their pain points, their habits, triggers, etc. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model is a good place to start as it tells us what promotes happiness within each of us, and what motivates us as a human. Learning more and more about human behavior will make you extremely sensitive and aware of people’s problems, helping you design products that truly address them.

2)Understanding memory

In a world, with unlimited options, we sometimes forget how cumbersome and overwhelming it could be for the users. This, known as Hick’s Law, states that the more options users are exposed to, the longer it takes them to make a decision.

This law is an extension of what Cognitive Psychologist George A Miller’s “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” says, that at any point the capacity of short term memory is 7 +/- 2, that is 5–9 items.

We have to keep these things in mind when we design, so we do not cause a cognitive overload on our users. Making them spend more time and energy on a decision-making point, can lead to an unpleasant experience, ultimately making your design less effective.

3)How language affects us

From a theoretical standpoint, language is where the action is. It is so significant that there is an entire field is devoted to its study, the field of linguistics.

Languages have extraordinary expressive power, and if understood and used correctly, can be used to create a lasting, positive effect on a user’s mind. If you think that this job is more for the marketing team, then let me ask you, isn't this your product? So who better than you can dictate what mood or tone your product should set.

Psychology says the effective strategy for encoding information into long-term memory is to structure the information using mnemonics or using words relating new information to information already in memory. A designer can use this knowledge to come up with effective taglines or visuals that can help leave a lasting impression on a user’s mind.

4)Visceral Influences on Brain and Behavior

Often we come across a design that we just fall in love with but can’t always explain why. Chances are we had a visceral reaction and our Limbic System reacted to the visuals/flows/messages positively. Visceral reactions are rooted in our DNA, so they can be easily predicted and the responses are fairly consistent across all cultures, genders, and demographics.

Designers can effectively use this knowledge by identifying their target audience, their likes, dislikes, preferences, etc. and aim at creating a positive aesthetic impression with the design.

5)Value of empathy

By now you must have used and seen all designers use this word, again and again, almost making it a cliché. But like most cases, something becomes a cliché because it is true.

Empathy is the core value that makes a designer put aside their learning, culture, knowledge, opinions, and worldview purposefully in order to understand other peoples’ experiences and to be able to see the world through another person’s eyes.

Empathy is an innate quality in all people but sometimes, it is not as simple as it seems, because we are trained — whether consciously or subconsciously — to form judgments and opinions about others rather than absorbing and understanding the raw data.

While designing products and services, there is always a gap between the human and the system we design. So in order to reduce the gap, it is imperative to understand this core value.

How are you going to design for a human if you don't understand them? Many can argue saying “But hello, we are human.”

No two people in the family are the same, how could you design for such vast demography when your mother might use a product differently than you?

Without incorporating psychology in your design practices, you will get sucked into a loop of confirmation bias, seeking answers to only those questions that support your hypothesis instead of challenging it.

I truly believe that designers, equipped with substantial knowledge of anthropology can create a wave of positive impact on the world, and by stressing on the importance of human psychology, starting at design schools itself, can help us solve one problem at a time.


Why psychology needs to be taught at design school was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.