Easy intro into cognitive psychology and how it relates to UX

Cognitive psychology focuses on how people acquire, process, and store information within its complex computing system - the brain. It is the study of internal processes that include perception, attention, language, memory, thinking and consciousness and it focuses on how we think, perceive, remember, forget, solve problems, focus, and learn.

As designers, we need to understand how to create experiences that match with the way the brain evaluates them.

We live in a busy world where too many things are competing for our attention (advertisements, websites, apps, articles, music etc.). It is now harder than ever to launch a product and get noticed. It is important to remember that there is a huge difference between the amount of information thrown at us and the amount of information our brains have the capacity to process.

The things we encounter with our senses are processed by our brain and stored in either our short term memory (STM) or long term memory (LTM). The capacity of our STM is very limited (7,±2 chunks of information and 15 to 30 seconds), making our attention selective, as our brain is not able to process everything we are faced with. The more we encounter the same information, the more likely it is that it will be stored in LTM. The information we choose to focus our attention on depends on the task we are conducting and the goal we are trying to achieve. For example, if my goal is to write this article, this will take up most of my attention, and make me less likely to notice what is happening around me.

Knowledge of cognitive abilities and cognitive barriers is extremely helpful for designers when wanting to empathise with users to create user-friendly products.

When designing, consider the mental effort a user needs to analyse and understand information and any obstacles they might encounter while doing so. How can you as a designer create intuitive and effective products while reducing the cognitive load (the effort being used in memory) needed to engage with the product. And how can you create products that keep the user curious and interested?

The processing power of the human mind drastically reduces when there is information overload. Users may feel confused or overwhelmed which can result in a negative user experience and abandonment of tasks. Learning about something that interests the individual requires far less cognitive load than having to research something they have no interest about. Linkedin does a good job of keeping the user curious by having the option to upgrade to see user’s profiles. This keeps the user engaged and helps generate revenue. Learn what excites your users and how to keep them curious.

As mentioned, what we pay attention to is primarily based on what we are trying to accomplish. We are very task focused. Our attention is directed towards the task we are conducting and the goal we are trying to achieve, anything else trying to catch our attention outside of what we are concentrating on will most probably be missed - this is known as inattentional blindness and is something that needs to be kept in mind when designing.

Consider a website. Based on past experiences we know that advertisements are usually located on the right side, so we usually ignore that part of the website. We only scan that part subconsciously in our peripheral vision and once our brain marks it as an ad, we ignore it. Even though it is in our visual range, it is not the focus of our attention because our attention is focused on the task we need to complete.

This is why a lot of websites use pop up ads, which we can all agree are extremely annoying but they catch our attention because they go against our mental model of where ads are usually located on a website.

Motion and change can be helpful when trying to catch the user's attention. Consider when you are using facebook and there is a pop up indicating a new notification The motion of the pop up most likely breaks your concentration and diverts your attention to the notification.

In the next article we discuss more ways of designing to reduce cognitive load.


Illustration by Onkel Wanskicks