Design has been referred to as ‘The Social Psychology of Creativity’, both disciplines are inherently about uncovering the truth and changing behaviour. But design psychology has a darker side, one that underpins the foundation of our modern consumer society, and the choices we need to make for our future.
Seek comfort, avoid pain: The ultimate minimal UX consideration ?
Perhaps this story should start in the primordial soup, at the beginning of evolution. Somewhere near deep underwater volcanic vents, a combination of unknown factors collided resulting in a single celled organism. Fast forward a few million years and this creature’s descendants grow fins and teeth, eventually drag themselves onto land, and begin growing arms and legs and bigger brains. After a while they form groups for safety, and make use of caves to shelter from the elements. Then, after hanging round in caves fighting each other for a while they discover tools (perhaps after a large black obelisk mysteriously arrives), gradually lose the extra hair, improve their general hygiene and learn to communicate.
Our core psychological motivation as human beings living today comes from our time spent living in caves huddled around the fire, fighting over scraps of food. To survive we needed to avoid pain and seek comfort. This primitive drive survives today, but in forms far removed from any concept of real survival (at least for those of us lucky enough to be living in the first world). For example in the world of digital user experience, when confronted with a giant form, users will look for a reward for filling in the form that outweighs the ‘pain’ of filling the form in. If it doesn’t, then they won’t. Form fatigue as it is known, is one of the reasons that social sign-on has become so popular, a couple of clicks and we’re signed up. We can try out interesting new services without the pain of form filling. The pleasure-pain analogy is a simple truth that is at the heart of user-centred design: make life as pain free as you possibly can for users, and where possible pleasure them.
The pleasure/pain paradigm can cause a big block when we want to create space for change either personally or in an organisation. This is because real change always requires going through some pain or loss, mainly because we have to move out of a state of stasis. Whether adapting a new manufacturing process, re-branding a company, or getting out and meeting people rather than sitting at home watching TV feeling lonely, the comfort of the familiar can be a surprisingly powerful force. The unknown is always scary, and our primal hardwired defence mechanism doesn’t easily let us drop our defenses, even if ultimately self-defeating.
To encourage change therefore we need to generate a sense of excitement and wonder, sell a vision of how much greater the subsequent ‘post pain’ pleasure will be. In other words we need to paint a compelling & colourful picture of the potential benefits, one that clearly outshines the stepping stone of the short-lived pain involved with transition. So a holistic service/product design process needs to start with an enthusiastic sales job, one that gets everyone on board. Ultimate success however requires a couple of additional attributes from participants; motivation and self-awareness.
A client going to see a psychoanalyst or designer is generally motivated to solve a problem which is either directly or indirectly causing pain (or by implication lack of comfort) this could be lack of sales, conversion, signup etc. The implicit deal with the analyst or designer is exactly this ‘I am coming to you for help to solve an identified problem’. If the client has been made to go and see the analyst, or has someone else paying the fees, the relationship is starting on shaky ground. It might seem odd that some clients will on occasion employ the services of experts then try their best to disrupt and distract progress. In psychoanalysis it is common for the analyst to play cat and mouse with clients. In design this is somewhat less common, but it does happen.
The next factor is self-awareness. Many of us unwittingly create personas, which usually happens when our main concept of ourselves (our ego) is in denial about another unwanted aspect of our psyche. There are strong parallels here with corporate cultures which can be comprised of multiple often conflicting self-images. The projected public image of a company is in reality a carefully crafted persona, but the reality distortion field it produces can cause a denial of any aspect of the organisation that seems contrary to the public image. I remember some consultancy work a few years ago with a brash senior executive who was suspiciously aggressive in telling me how innovative his company was. As he came to trust me, he finally admitted in hushed tones that the company hadn’t innovated for years and that there was a general but unspoken sense of fear about the companies future. His initial aggression was a form of self-defence – he was waving an invisible flag.
For an effective design process, one that delivers the best products and services, organisations needs to be honest about themselves and open about their strengths and weaknesses. This can be hard, but if no one points out the elephant in the room, then it won’t be taken into account when designing the doors. In design, like psychology, the truth is the firm level ground from which to build from.
The ego is perhaps misunderstood. It’s our idea of ourselves, but it isn’t really us. The ego has a purpose, it would be near impossible to function in society without one, but it likes to build its part at every opportunity, and left unchecked can become ‘inflated’ which can lead to bad decision making and potentially sour team dynamics. The idea of the agency ‘hero’ designer is one we need to leave behind. The inflated ego also doesn’t like to be associated with failure, but making mistakes are a vital aspect of the process – we learn so much more from failed experiments than we do from success. Every ‘no’ takes us one closer to a ‘yes’, mistakes are the groundwork of progress, so don’t take them as a personal reflection of your abilities. Like the ability to say sorry, accepting failure is actually an indication of strength.
So we must avoid becoming possessive of our designs – they are not our personal self-expression (if they are, you may be in the wrong job) Sometimes a particular layout we have created just glows, and we feel all warm, like a small baby rabbit is smiling up at us. Stop. It isn’t. Like the psychologist, the designer mustn’t get personally involved. We can’t give up our objectivity, it’s our core currency.
Great products don’t get made without real collaboration and co-working. Effective team working is a big subject, but the two key psychological factors related to it’s success are perhaps the idea of self in the context of other – identity in the team, and, if the team itself can see the wood for the trees or if they are bringing with them unchallenged self-limiting or collective beliefs.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.
Groupthink has some benefits: it can give groups common purpose, and when everyone is facing in the same direction, tasks are easier to achieve. Where groupthink falls however, is when the group needs to become creative, as members of the group will unconsciously bring these self-limiting beliefs with them, like a virtual glass ceiling on their imagination, and one they are usually completely unaware of. If we are all facing in the wrong direction, it can be difficult for us to think outside the perceived group wisdom. Even if we have a dissenting point of view and a strong personality, the driving force of the collective often still overwhelms real progress.
Modern design practice is awash with cognitive psychology. Many theories of cognitive perception are already an underlying part of our design language, and so commonplace that they are not really noticed. Dual-coding theory for example talks about the effectiveness of words and images used together to increase understanding. The theory has it that visual and verbal information is processed by different parts of the brain and therefore when combined creates synaptic links which increase the chances of remembering that information. Popular in instructional design and developed further in well constructed informational videos (which can also use emotive music to reinforce or suggest an emotional response) dual-coding is a great example of design psychology that is hiding in plain sight.
Too much choice creates anxiety for consumers. It’s the paradox of choice, as when confronted with too much, our minds freeze – whatever I buy, it might be the wrong choice, there is bound to be a better one! This science of the mind needs to be considered when designing both a physical and a virtual store, but also when considering top level information architecture – people, even really clever people, like simplicity.
Design using Gestalt theory exploits the mind’s desire to order and categorise, where two graphic elements are used in such a way as to suggest another, or where negative space is used to create a play on images that appeals to us, presumably because on a subconscious level, some form of game like interaction is taking place as the mind subconsciously decodes the image to derive its meaning.
Colour theory is another cognitive tool for designers when considering emotional intent. Some colour theory is obvious, some more subtle, some obscure, and much I would take with a pinch of salt. The science of perception is a fascinating field, and well worth closer inspection. However, we now have to face the big question: What do we choose to do with these powerful tools of influence ?
We have talked about core human motivations, the search for reality, and reviewed a few theories of perception in visual design. But what about where design psychology uses a combination of techniques purely to influence, where it is used to trigger unconscious hopes and fears. Perhaps this is where design and psychology split as comparative disciplines for the psychologist has a moral and ethical contract that the designer does not.
For it is in advertising and marketing that the real power of design psychology is unleashed for good and for ill. It’s true that sex sells. Adding a poster image of a buxom beauty to your YouTube video will increase clicks. In Italy boobs sell papers on slow news days. Sex taps into a primal psychology – the selfish gene – and it works…but at what cost ? Body image issues for girls, self-harm, an increasingly sexualised society, the perpetuation of the idea of women as objects ? Selling to Women to this day uses guilt, or the fear of inadequacy as a tool for manipulation, yet wraps it in a soft-voiced feminine aesthetic. Some advertising is more overt in its use of fear as motivator, particularly when looking to generate political influence.
Psychology and the science of behaviour provides designers with powerful tools, both for effective internal product and service development, and for building direct user engagement. In discovery we want to shake the tree hard, ask difficult questions and seek out the smallest, simplest solutions. In UX we want to make life as easy as possible for users, we want to make the processes and technology behind interaction invisible. In advertising and marketing we use the psychologies of influence to design the creative that is most effective at changing the thoughts and behaviours of our target audiences. Whether we wish to change people’s thinking in a positive or negative way – be part of the problem or part of the solution, is of course up to us.