7 +/- 2 Things the Software Industry Should Know About Cognitive Psychology


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Understanding the research and the theories of cognitive psychology can help information architects to create better user experiences. Here are 7 +/-2 things that we should all know before attempting to design a system that interacts with human users.

POV By Bennett Lauber, Manager Information Architecture, Sapient Government Services

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7 +/- 2 Things the Software Industry Should Know About Cognitive Psychology

  1. 1. POINT OF view7 +/- 2 Things the Software IndustryShould Know About Cognitive PsychologyBy Bennett Lauber, Manager Information Architecture, Sapient Government ServicesThe capacity of the human brain to process information has remained the same—even as the types ofusers for software-based Internet connected devices has increased at an exponential rate. The fieldof psychology, especially cognitive psychology has, among other things, focused on understanding theprocesses by which we store information, make decisions, and communicate with others.Understanding the research and the theories of cognitive psychology can help information architects tocreate better user experiences.Here are 7 +/-2 things we should all know before designing a system that interacts with users.Understanding diversity:Everyone is different. Everyone thinks differently. By understanding the background and the needs ofreal users, and creating and sharing descriptions of roles and types of users, development teams cangain the perspective of users other than themselves.Visual processing and depth perception:Knowing how the human mind visually processes information can be an important tool to be used bygraphic designers when they are creating the “visual language” of a project.Differences between novice and expert problem solvers:Mostinterfacesfocusoneithernoviceorexpertusers. Interfacesneedtoprovideassistancetoauser thatis just learning the system. Eventually a transition to the “expert protocol” takes place. When thishappens these users should be allowed to turn off the extra assistance and instead be offered a seriesof shortcuts (keyboard shortcuts, macros, etc.) to help them get their job done.Recognition vs. recall memory:Forcing a user to remember something, and then enter it into a text field, is much harder than selectingan item from a radio button. Presenting choices provide the users with some prompts that may “jartheir memory” and help them to make a better choice.Fitt’s Law:This is one of the most widely cited/used theories in the user experience field. It basically proposes thatpeople can quickly find items on the screen based upon their size and their proximity to the currentfocus of attention.The fundamental attribution error:This is a term that is often associated with the field of social psychology and is the basis for theexpression, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” People tend to makejudgments based upon what they first perceive in a situation, and not based upon any situation factors. © Sapient Corporation 2012
  2. 2. POINT OF viewYour site might provide a great feature or function, but if people get a bad taste in their mouth, it willinfluence their perception of everything.Habituation and learned helplessness:People are creatures of habit and will tend to try to do things that they have learned in one application(or website) when they encounter another. Their “mental model” will eventually guide their defaultinteraction with your site. Some novice users have unfortunately adopted an “I dunno” mental model.They feel helpless and many have learned to lean on their friends or co-workers for help. These usersoften blindly follow a “cheat sheet” without ever branching off and exploring the interface.Affordances as perceived action possibilities:When your interface has a control that people may believe performs a particular action, they will try toperform that action using that control. If something looks like a button, people will try to click on it. If itlooks like a link, they will click on it. If the particular perceived action is not a performer, you will havean unhappy user.Vigilance, focused attention, and divided attention:People can only effectively deal with a limited number of items for a limited amount of time. Interfacesneed to be designed that understand and exploit these limits. A well-designed application can attemptto steer the user’s attention to those items of interest and hold that interest until the task is complete.Understanding and integrating each of these (plus, of course, the 7+/- 2 rule and others) can helpinform a strategic user experience plan that focuses on the cognitive skills of users to provide betterexperiences and impact businesses ROI. Bennett Lauber is an user experience professional with over 20 years of ex- perience working with developers and educated teams of all sorts of shapes and sizes in the value of usability and user-centered design. He began his career as a Human Factors Scientist at the IBM Santa Teresa Lab where his work on 3270 terminal screens seems light-years away from the interfaces of today. Bennett eventually began working on what was then called “mul- timedia computing” and led his career to focus on the “bleeding edge” of technology. Luckily, the human mind and the types of mental models that it can create have not changed much over the years, so applying his knowledge of the theories of cognitive psychology to the today’s interfaces seems much more natural. Lauber is an author of an upcoming book entitled, “Low Hanging Fruit” and a speaker at several local user experience events, including UPA-DC and UX Base-camp. While not working with government agencies on improving the user experience of their web-based applications, he is searching for some- one from the Wrigley Corporation so that his twin daughters could become the next Doublemint girls. © Sapient Corporation 2012