Don Norman, a celebrated cognitive psychologist coined the term User Experience Design in the 1990s. According to him, “I invented the term because I thought Human Interface and usability were too narrow: I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.” And, in order to understand the person’s experience, it was crucial to gain an empathetic understanding of the users and the problems being faced by them and hence, the field of UX Research found its underway.
UX Research or Design Research is an evolved concept. While many folks deliberate on the origin of the discipline, the roots of the study borrow concepts from a lot of interrelated fields. Psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science are few such fields which together help ascertain the nuances of human behaviour, which help digital designers refine user experiences of products that offer great solutions.
This blog aims to demystify these underlying fields of study and understand how these three disciplines assist UX research in the field of experience design or digital design.
The Three Disciplines
Neuroscience is one of the oldest of sciences which studies the brain and the nervous system. It is a branch of biology which studies the brain structure, the various types of brain cells, the chemicals which facilitate the rapid flow of information in the brain and how these interactions result in observable behaviour.
For example, when a child starts smiling and giggling after seeing a toy, the neuroscience studies the interplay of various neurochemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain that results in the observable behaviour of being happy.
According to the American Psychological Association, Psychology is the study of the mind and behaviour, including conscious and unconscious phenomena, as well as feeling and thought. Basically, it helps to understand how people think or behave in the way that they do.
In our example of the child being happy - psychology observes the manifested happiness in the form of a smile and giggle and the actionable behaviour of the desire to get the toy.
Now, Cognitive science studies the overlap between this observable behaviour and brain activities. It comes to study the mind and its mental processes such as attention, memory, decision making, perception, reasoning, emotion etc. It is an interdisciplinary field which subsumes psychology and neuroscience along with four other disciplines of computer science, anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy. It holistically studies the tasks and functions of cognition borrowing concepts from other disciplines.
For our example of the child, cognitive science approaches the event by looking into the processes such as visual perception of looking at the toy, comprehension of the object present as toy using recognition and recall from its memory stores et cetera.
In similar ways, experience design research is the sum of parts of many impulses and reactions that a person undergoes when coming across a digital product for the first time. Research is universal, at large. We can pick and choose the parts we want to use. For designing a digital experience, we borrow heavily from all three research disciplines in varying degrees to build an exciting digital interface.
UX Research and Design
Design is a state of a mind. It’s an approach to a problem or a method of problem-solving. And who do we solve problems for? The answer is obviously people! People are the sum of their feelings, emotions, experiences, and choices. And since we are solving problems for people, no single solution can be fit for all.
The field of UX Research helps to unearth the conscious and subconscious behavior of people that make them like/ dislike a product. Hence, in order to understand the myriad experiences, emotions, thoughts, behavior, motivations, reactions, actions, and attitudes that are displayed by the target audience when using a digital service/ product, we need researchers in the team. These people are expert in decoding the human behavior and help lay a foundation to digital design or human-centered design.
For a better understanding of the target audience and enabling designers towards designing an engaging interface, researchers, often study how brain processes information, how attention and memory work, how human emotions are elicited. It includes the practical, experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of human–digital interface interaction.
Let’s investigate how the guidelines and theories from cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience can help ensure a seamless user experience. For better understanding, let’s take an example and imagine that you’re creating a homepage for a 'recipes and cooking ideas' platform.
To solve this problem, the following questions need to be answered by the research team:
Who are the users and what are the motivations and expectations of the users from such a platform?
The team can imbibe a psychology perspective to empathize with the users and understand their motivations and expectations from such a platform.
What kind of behaviour will a user exhibit on such a platform- will it be predominantly searching or will it be browsing most of the time or both equally?
An understanding of how humans form rules, concepts, and schemas in the mind can help provide a more comprehensive answer and make the design consistent with the user’s mental models with correct affordances. Therefore, the knowledge of the three disciplines together can help answer the question in a better manner.
How will a user make decisions on such a platform? Is it social proof, opinions of existing users or expert opinions that matter?
Neuroscience has an elaborate theory on how human decision making works. Also information on what is social proof and how it affects decision making for a person. Borrowing these concepts and putting them along with the constraints/framework of the current problem statement can help figure out the answer in a better manner.
What should be the colors and typography that the user instantly connects to at an emotional level?
Using the Gestalt principles from psychology, we can understand how should the visual elements should be placed so as to enhance intuitiveness. Understanding the various emotional theories and how each of the disciplines of cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience treat these theories can help suggest the color scheme, typography and other UI elements on the platform. Understanding human attention and perception works and what impacts the process can help look for factors such as cognitive load, biases, attention span to ensure a delightful user experience from the first glance itself.
The subtle differences between the fields of neuroscience, psychology and cognitive science can provide in-depth insight into UX research and implementation. There is a plethora of scientific research from these fields which is finding application in design and helping refine the design guidelines.
Empowering people by approaching technology in a human-focused way with more consideration of psychology and behavior is ensuring providing a delightful user experience. Knowing where the user’s attention is most captured, what excites them and where their attention tapers, what enhances utility and how the buttons should be placed on the page so that they are within reach are just some of the insights that have helped solve design problems effectively.
As we move into a world where we move away from point-and-click and into Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), and Voice controlled interfaces, a whole new world of design opportunity is opening up, one which requires an in-depth understanding of different people, their needs and motivations in order to bring about a shift in user habits.
In the next research series, we will dive deeper into different research approaches and their implications.