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Last updated on 4/29/20

Examine Psychological Approaches

Don Norman's essential book for understanding UX design,The Design of Everyday Things, was originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things. Many of the actions we take are subconscious, but there is a reason we do what we do. Psychology can help explain our actions and choices. Throughout this course, we'll explore different aspects of psychology in order to think more critically about our work as designers.

Fields within psychology

Psychology is a wide reaching discipline with different approaches. As a designer, you may want to consider cognitive and social psychology.

Cognitive psychology is the scientific approach to mental processes, considering how people acquire, process, and store information. In other words, it's how people think. It is process-based and uses experiments to help predict what individuals will do and how they will behave in particular circumstances and conditions. You can consider cause and effect with cognitive psychology, which means you can know how someone will respond to a situation with a certain degree of probability.

Social psychology is the study of how people behave in a social context. This approach sees thought, feeling, experiences, and behavior as factors that are influenced by the people around us. It is less predictable and more descriptive than cognitive psychology. Descriptive studies can give a general vision or direction with an understanding of relationships, but often fail to explain the causation, or why something happens.

Illustration of a balance to reflect different sides of psychology.

There are lots of great books available for those looking to delve deeper into the field of psychology (we'll share a lot of lessons in the chapters to come too!). For a basic introduction to psychology from a design perspective, check out Joe Leech's e-book Psychology for Designers and check out his blog psychologyfordesigners.com.

Susan Weinschenk is a prominent voice in applying psychology to the design of technology. Her popular book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People has become a standard for UX designers (note: there's an updated version as well). She also co-hosts a podcast called HumanTech, which explores the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. 

Universal Design Principles by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler is another popular book that covers 125 psychological theories and how they relate to design. (You can see a few examples on their website.)

You'll often find "popular psychology" books and bestsellers for sale at newsstands and bookstores that are focused around a specific theme. Some include:

  • Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner on behavioral economics.

  • Think Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman on how people make decisions.

  • Drive by Daniel Pink on what motivates people.

  • Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and on incremental behavior change.

  • Hooked by Nir Eyal on how to build habit forming products. 

This course doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive examination of psychology, but it provides a jumping-off place for deeper exploration. One day you may encounter a project that needs an extra human touch through the lens of psychology. Now you'll know where to start.

Let's recap!

  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman is an essential read for everyone studying UX. It has a strong focus on psychology and behavior.

  • Cognitive psychology examines how people think and their mental processes.

  • Social psychology examines how people behave in a social context.

  • Depending on the issue, there are lots of psychology books you can consult to better understand users.

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