UX Cambridge: Jan Srutek, Small Cognitive Psychology for Big Interaction Design

Jan Srutekis a UX Designer at Flow Interactive in London. He tweets as @JanSru.

  • Cognitive Psychology helps us understand human cognitive capabilities and limitations. Car designers can’t design car interiors without knowing the physical capabilities of users; as UX designers, we need to know the limits of users’ cognitive abilities. Knowing the basics lets us evaluate our designs, and design patterns, much more meaningfully.
  • Memory. Cognitive psychology tells us that information from the environment enters our brain via our senses, is encoded into short term memory, then some (that is not forgotten) is encoded in long term memory.
  • Short term memory (STM) is important to interaction design . A commonly held belief is that the human brain can hold 7 ± 2 pieces of information in STM; this is misleading and inaccurate. The limits of human short term memory is actually 4 ± 1 ‘chunks’ of information. For example, when remembering phone numbers, we split them into chunks.
  • STM is rather limited. These limits are relevant in two scenarios: When people have to remember stuff; and when people are problem solving. Limits (whether four or seven) are not so important when people can see UI elements on the screen, so in decisions like the number of navigation items to use it is not relevant.
  • STM is easily disrupted. How often have you walked to the fridge only to forget what it was you wanted? Don’t interrupt users unless it is absolutely necessary (popups, distracting visuals).
  • Design patterns that have standardised on the web to work with STM in a better way: Inline validation; rich popup/callout (such as the Amazon cart overlay) which allow the user to perform an action (check the contents of my cart) without leaving the screen/activity they are performing.
  • Provide on-demand information in context. This happens when users haven’t internalised the concepts that the website is using (e.g. jargon that needs definition, which then requires use of STM to remember definitions).
  • Long Term Memory (LTM) is actually two different types of memory. Declarative (explicit) and Procedural (implicit). Then Declarative can either be episodic (experiences) or semantic (what/knowledge). Procedural memory is how we know how to do things. LTM is much more permanent; it can last up to a whole lifetime.
  • The storage/retrieval of LTM involves level-of-processing: “Information that is analysed deeply is recalled better than information that is analysed superficially.”
  • We can use this principle in our applications/design if we want people to engage and/or remember more about our product. To engage people, make something: Relevant, emotional, humorous, surprising/shocking, or require elaboration/reflection.
  • Examples: Investec Bank use personal focused copy when talking about investment (“your investments represent the future of your family”). And the Converge SE 2012 conference used the text: “Peel off the layers” alongside a dinosaur losing layers of skin and flesh as you scroll down the page. Ben The Bodyguard (another scroll-down animation experience) used emotions and reflection to improve rememberability.
  • Learning. People prefer learning by exploration; they jump into products/sites without reading manuals/instructions; they form hypotheses, and learn by exploring. We can facilitate/enable this process by allowing users to build an accurate mental model about how things work. Place a layer of usable interaction design between system model and user’s mental model.
  • How to support building a good mental model: A starting point that orients people; and continuously encourage exploration.
  • Example: In a 1984 study, two groups were given a control panel and step-by-step procedures to follow; the first group learned them by rote, while the second group were also shown a diagram of the system, told what the acronyms on the buttons meant, and how it works. The group that saw the concept model performed much better; they learned procedures faster and more accurately, performed actions faster, and even identified inefficiencies.
  • A relevant design pattern on the web is the  “1-2-3 orientation” pattern (3-step process common on many startup sites to explain their service’s main proposition).
  • To encourage exploration: Prevent errors and facilitate recovery, make things consistent and predictable, and provide clear feedback for all actions.
  • Games have tutorials, because nobody wants to read the manual — and they only give you tips at the moment you need them, not before and not later. Games also increase challenge levels over time, to encourage you to keep exploring the game further.
  • Guideline: Recognition rather than Recall. People are better at recognising things, or the next step, that they have seen in the past than recalling them from their memory. Relevant design pattern: Search autocomplete changes recall into recognition.
  • Attention. Attention is a limited resource (inherently linked to STM); multi-modal (each sensory channel has limited channel of attention resource); and works in both a top-down manner (you can focus your attention) and bottom-up manner (something catches your attention). So — let people focus on their tasks, not on distracting design.
  • Use progressive disclosure to reveal functionality and content in a planned manner. e.g. people are good at detecting movement, so we can use animation or motion to guide their attention.
  • An example from Picnik’s signup form: Three fields (name, password, email), which revealed additional fields (re-enter password and re-enter email) at appropriate points, then re-hid them again once complete.
  • A lot of these principles were first written about by Jakob Neilsen in 1990 as Ten Usability Heuristics – and they still work. They are based on fundamental principles of how the human mind works, and that hasn’t changed much in 10,000 years.
  • Book recommendations: Universal Principles of Design, 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People; Seductive Interaction Design and Stephen Anderson’s Mental Notes card deck.

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