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Talking the Psychology

Let’s recap for a second.

The root of design is psychology. Anything else is art or decoration or something else. A design is a plan, and a plan requires an intended outcome. For design to succeed, human psychology has to be at the center of it. No user can ever have the kind of feeling you hope they’ll have about your product unless you consider how they’ll approach it, get through it, and talk about it later. Some elements will be used to convince them of the value of the product. Others will encourage users to take specific actions. Others will surprise them, placate them, make them laugh, tick them off. Whatever the intent, the approach should be applied to all design decisions you make.

This much you know.

But even if you knew all that before reading this chapter and those before it, it’s easy to forget that other people don’t think about this like you do. They don’t know that the root of design is psychology.

So tell them.

Please, please, please tell them.

You have so many reasons to tell them. Communicating the psychology behind your design decisions has several very important effects on your ability to lead as a designer.

First, it helps other stakeholders unfold the justifications for design decisions, which helps them trust you. It shows them the complexity of human behavior and how design needs to work with it rather than against it by designing from opinion rather than insight. It also communicates to them that you’ve taken a considered, insightful approach to solving the problems they brought to you.

Second, it lets them question decisions with at least partly the same arsenal of knowledge you used to make them. This is vital. No designer can make great decisions all the time, every time. Designers need feedback. They need to be asked questions just as much as they need to answer their own. The questions other people ask can help you identify potential issues on your thinking. Consider angles you haven’t considered. Develop new ideas. Improve the ones you’ve already had. When others know the psychology of design as well, they can ask you the questions you haven’t yet answered.

Talking about the psychology involved in design also helps you think through your decisions yourself. It’s easy to convince yourself of something in the silence of your own mind. When you say it out loud, explanations form that couldn’t have before. Out loud, out in the sunlight, your justifications change into something else. They change into rhetoric. And rhetoric has the benefit of being bidirectional. Arguments need to be made out loud where they can be considered and shifted and changed into something better.

When you bring your recommendations to the rest of the team, take the time to explain how those decisions were made. Never, and I mean never, hand over a set of wireframes or a prototype without explanation. Don’t explain how to use the pseudo-interface you’ve designed—that would be cheating. Rather, explain the psychology that this version addresses. Explain why it can be beneficial to increase the number of steps in a task flow (hint: when you need for users to carefully enter uncommon information, slowing them down can help ensure they do so). Explain why a simple registration form that only asks for a few common pieces of information shouldn’t be split into four screens (hint: because quicker forms in these cases tend to convert at a higher rate). Explain why a page about an in-home service your client’s company provides should end with a call-to-action button, like “Schedule A Service” (hint: because without it, the page is a dead end, and dead ends are bad).

I once worked on a project that called for interviewing a saleswoman for an insurance company a few times. We talked a lot about how she vets potential customers—how she determines their needs and their budgets and balances those things out to guide the person toward a solution that works and that the person is more likely to buy. Toward the end of one of those calls, I was explaining a few of my recommendations for the insurance application form we were working to revise, and why each step should be handled that way. After a few minutes, she took a loud breath as though she’d been listening intently, and said, “There’s so much psychology involved!” To which I replied, “You’re in Sales. Design is just like that.”

And it is. You’re figuring out what makes customers tick just like salespeople do. If you can’t do this well, go find a salesperson to learn from. Go find a psychologist. Go find books about decision making and persuasion and the nature of desire and buyer’s remorse and intrinsic motivation and anything else you can dig up about how people think, all of which will help you understand why they do the things they do. Find blogs. Find conferences. (I’m not going to prescribe a bunch to you here, because frankly, the hunt for these things makes the lessons stick better, and any source I could reference is just as likely to be gone by the time you read this. Start Googling. It’ll change your life.)

UX is a lot more than checkboxes and radio buttons. UX is psychology applied to design. For so many reasons, it’s high time everyone else finds that out too.

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