1 September 2015

5 psychology books which UX designers should read

Megan Fox vs reptile brain

What was the first thing you looked at when you saw this web page? I doubt it was the title of the blog, I bet it wasn’t even the picture of that handsome chap on the right side showing an audience how big the fish he caught was. Admit it, you looked at the sexy picture of Megan Fox before anything else, even though you might normally (assuming you are from a left to right reading culture) start scanning the page on the top left your vision probably anchored to Ms Fox and you scanned down from there. You might have only followed the link to this blog in the first place because the picture made you curious, or probably its the only reason you noticed the link in the first place.

You are not alone, you can’t help it as you are under the influence of the reptilian part of your brain that is quite intent on making little versions of yourself and also wants to check out the face for signs of threat. Its a cheap trick which has been used to attract your attention and get you to buy things for an awful long time now.

About 5 years ago I had the pleasure of partnering with Peter Hong on Google Search for the mobile web. Peter is a great design thinker, has a talent for persuading teams to adopt his ideas, and he taught me a valuable lesson. His background was in biology and he has a love of cognitive psychology which he used to explain to the engineers not just what he was recommending but also why based on scientific principles.

Good guy Peter

I mentioned this briefly in a previous post:

  • Rather than spend your valuable spare time learning the latest prototyping tool, consider investing time in learning cognitive psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. There will always be a new prototyping tool, but humans won't change that much.

It is exciting to start exploring psychology as a UX designer, these behaviors we have been observing our users doing while using our products start to get an explanation. Additionally your persuasion powers get a boost as you can point to scientific papers in additional to the rest of the tools in your design ninja tool belt.

How to get started

Many other approaches are possible, but this is how I got a start: 

To watch

Watch Yale’s Introduction to Psychology course on Open Yale Courses. Also available on iTunes university and the whole course can be downloaded from the link.

Professor Paul Bloom being amusing and informative

To read

If you read nothing else

Start with Susan Weinschenk’s 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People. It is as much of a bible for design ninjas as Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think which I have given out to stakeholders, PM and eng partners over the years as a UX primer. A couple of years ago it was updated and worth another look if it has been a while for you.

On a side note, I had the great fortune to have a 30 mins 1:1 session with Steve Krug when he visited Google a few years back. It was just after we had launched a tablet-optimized version of Search and I had lead the UX team for this project. Steve didn’t like one of the design decisions we had made; preventing the default browser pinch-to-zoom behavior (behaving like a native app) in order to have a different landscape-optimized layout. As soon as he found out I was responsible for the decision he took up our time expressing his frustration about it and I didn’t get the opportunity to ask my prepared questions I was excited to ask. So that sucked.

Not cool, Steve Krug

No martial arts metaphors?

I spent the whole blog post without using a single martial arts metaphor. Well humans are complex and unpredictable, and just as getting drawn to Ms Fox is likely, there are two other layers in the brain wrapping that oldest part which could also influence your reaction. 

As in combat we need to enter without expectation in order for our movements to be fast and fluid. The unpredictability of combat means that if we at any point have the intention of using a specific technique then we get in our own way and are caught out when the unexpected happens.

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