Designing with the user in mind: the psychology of user experience design

It’s impossible to talk about user experience without mentioning psychology. That’s because the foundation of all UX design is people. And how can you design better for people? Well, by knowing the basic keys to the psychology of behavior, happiness, pleasure, decisions and emotions.

Don Norman, the creator of the term “user experience,” stresses that we designers are not the users. It’s impossible to know how each user will react to your product, no matter how much user research you do. To try to find out, it’s best to employ two techniques in parallel

User research to find out their problems and provide a solution to them. Second is a basic understanding of human psychology in general. That way, your experience design covers both aspects and is more effective.

It’s impossible to learn absolutely everything about the connection between psychology and experience design in one article. That’s why we’ll give you a brief introduction covering the most important topics together with a few resources, so you can do your own research in your spare time.

Let’s get started!

Cognitive design

Cognitive design is a practice based on cognitive psychology, which deals with how people acquire, process and store information in their brains. When you design cognitively, you need to remember that the human brain works with two types of memory: short-term and long-term. 

In UX and UI design, you work primarily with short-term memory, which dictates what the user remembers while carrying out a function. If an action on a platform isn’t simple, is surrounded by confusing elements, or requires too much time to reach the goal, cognitive overload results in frustration.

Take, for example, the navigation of an eCommerce site like Amazon. The search engine, menus, filters and navigation crumbs work together to give the user a pleasant, straightforward shopping experience. 

When the filters don’t work and just get in the way, or if the huge menu has too many tabs that open when hovering over a word, the cognitive load starts to climb and reach levels of confusion. The user eventually gives up, doesn’t buy anything, and leaves searching for another page that makes them feel good instead of wasting their time. 

A cognitively designed navigation process requires a lot of user testing and behavioral research. During the research process, ask users to share how they feel about trying to find and buy an item using that specific navigation structure. Then find out what they found frustrating and what made them feel at ease. That’s how you’ll arrive at a cognitive design that will please the consumer.

psychology of user experience design

Mental models

Mental models are thought patterns made up of five components: thoughts, previous experiences, assumed ideas, and personal values and beliefs. These models help us interpret situations, make decisions, and make sense of our realities. Of course, it’s important to emphasize that everyone has their own mental models of life, but when it comes to user experience design, there are many shared mental models.

Since mental models are created through previous experiences, all people who use computers and online programs have mental models connected with them. When someone uses an application or browses a web page for the first time, they already have mental models of structures, operations and interfaces.

Let’s take shopping interfaces on the same platform we mentioned above as an example. Online shopping is so common today that we already have mental models of how the interfaces where a product appears should work. 

Users expect various product images, the price, the delivery date, and the add-to-cart button. What happens if the photo is blurred on the interface of a product for sale, the add to cart button has a one-click purchase button instead, or there is no description of the item? There is a good chance that the user will make a mistake when buying or not buying anything at all, no matter how much he or she intended to do so. 

psychology of user experience design

The 3 levels of emotional processing

Finally, it is important to know the three levels of emotional processing to design experiences and interfaces that achieve their purpose, considering what users feel and think. You could say that each level has a type of design that represents it.

Visceral design

Visceral emotions are those that live in our subconscious. They create first impressions and reactions “without thinking.” In an interface, this is mostly connected to visuals and appearances. When designing for visceral emotion it’s important to make users feel something positive before they start interacting. However, going too far in search of a visceral reaction to beauty can lead to low-quality, confusing performance.

Behavioral design

Behavioral emotions relate to practical interactions and how things work. Design and interface usability create user perceptions from the start. If, from the first interactions, the navigation or path to a goal is difficult or time-consuming, the user will get a bad feeling. Your goal is the opposite, to create behavioral reactions to good performance and usability.

Reflective design

Reflective design is the most abstract and psychological of the three. Reflective emotion is about how people feel about themselves. In user experience, reflective perception presents itself in how people feel about themselves when using specific products. The best example of this phenomenon is Apple product design. iPhones and other mobile devices may have identical functions, but people pay more for iPhones because they feel “better” about them.

psychology of user experience design

Resources on psychology and user experience

As promised, here are the best resources to help you learn more about psychology and user experience.

  1. Psychology for UX: Study Guide by NN Group.
  2. Book: Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things by Don Norman
  3. UX psychology course by General Assembly
  4. Course: Psychology in UX covering interface design by Interaction Design Foundation

Don’t overlook the power of psychology in your UX and UI career. Having this knowledge will not only make you a better experience and interface designer, but you’ll also be a better human being.