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October 13, 2016 /UX/UI Design /

Psych 101 with YouTube’s Head of UX Research Sciences Rob Youmans

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, psychology plays a huge role in every aspect of design. User experience researchers and designers alike are constantly trying to figure out how users—how people—behave and think. They want to know how we’ll respond to something, the emotions an experience will evoke and the decisions it will prompt us to make.

“I think a lot of designers imagine how other people are going to react and interact with their design,” said Rob Youmans, head of UX Research Sciences at YouTube. “But I would challenge designers to think, how good are they at that? How good are they at predicting how people will behave? That’s very difficult to do, quite frankly. Humans are complicated and unpredictable.”

Youmans is a cognitive psychologist and an award-winning professor who was head of UX research (stream, photos and sharing) at Google before moving to the YouTube division to head up the new UX research sciences department.

We thought he’d be the perfect person to take us on a walk down memory lane to revisit some theories found in a basic psychology course.

Nature vs. Nurture

What better place to start than with the age-old debate of nature versus nurture: are we born predisposed to certain behaviors, or are we products of our environment?

“I actually think that is fundamentally important and interesting in regard to of UX design,” Youmans said. “Lets start with the nature side. Lets say the definition of the nature argument is that humans are born with innate qualities that slowly come out or develop, and so it doesn’t so much matter how we’re ‘nurtured.’ Those environmental factors don’t matter as much as it’s kind of baked in from the beginning how we’re going to react to things. That, when it comes to UX design, is quite interesting because there are theories like affordance theory.”

Affordance theory is often familiar to designers as the concept was adapted from its original meaning (an object’s perceived action) to include a design’s perceived purpose. It relates to the idea that there is something in our collective unconscious that affords objects/designs a certain use that we are aware of even if we have never used it before.

Youmans gives the famous example by Donald Norman of the push versus pull door handles.

“You see the pull door handle and you say, I should pull this because it comes out,” Youmans said. “When it comes to UX design and in particular icon design, I think you can draw parallels where you’re trying to come up with this icon that as soon as people see it they will know exactly what function it has, perhaps without direction even. If you force them to guess, they guess correctly.

“That’s often held up as a gold standard of design, UX design and, in particular, interaction design. This whole theory rests on the notion that that’s actually true that there are these affordances baked in. It’s unclear how could that be so other than we’re predisposed to see certain shapes or forms in certain ways through evolution.”

Then of course there’s the nurture side.

“That comes up even more often. [It refers to] the environment, the way you grow up and your experiences in life, what you learn explicitly and implicitly about the world, those are the things that shape you. When it comes to UX design you can imagine all the patterns you learn, the gestures you learn to control things, to type, all these things, they’re all—you could argue—learned behaviors and where this becomes relevant is when they change – that’s when you get what’s called proactive interference.

Think about the last time you updated your operating system only to be faced with something completely different upon install, something that bore no resemblance to the system you were using before. You stare at it completely uncertain as to what to do next. What you learned before is interfering with what you’re trying to learn now.

“This is nurture gone bad in regards to UX design because you haven’t considered what a user has already learned,” Youmans said.

Who Moved My Cheese?

Whether you’re on team nature or team nurture, there’s no denying that humans are creatures of habit.

This is why we’re prone to having a natural resistance to change, even minor ones. It’s a phenomena referred to as who moved my cheese, based on a book of the same name.

“It’s when you just literally make a change and it has a negative outcome even though the change was neutral or very clearly positive in another way. There’s an initial negative effect that usually goes away,” Youmans said.

Social Psychology

While Youmans is a cognitive psychologist, there is a social psychology theory he’s interested in related to user behavior: construal level theory.

“Things that are outside of your awareness can affect very deliberately conscious decisions. In other words, there’s this interplay between environment, conscious life and decision making,” Youmans said.

This is one theory to consider when it comes to how a user perceives an experience and what prompts them to make a decision. Youmans gave the example of a paper his colleague Abraham Rutchick published on how professors graded papers more harshly when using a red pen versus a blue pen.

“When it comes to ratings of usability, there’s a lot of research that shows if a device looks more beautiful, then people will say it’s more user friendly. Let’s say I take one old beat up smart phone and I take a new Apple smart phone and I test an app that’s unrelated to Apple and identical on both phones, people would rate the app as more user friendly on the nicer looking phone.

“What’s crazy about that is it does matter in UX research because ultimately we’re making products and we want people to believe that they’re easy to use and so if for whatever reason they don’t, even if it doesn’t make sense that they don’t, we still care. It’s kind of wild.”

Time to Bust Out Those Dusty Psych 101 Textbooks

For Youmans, things came full circle when he started working in Silicon Valley. All of these theories became increasingly apparent the more he worked in UX design (and with UX designers).

“I feel like for designers, knowing more about this gives you such an advantage over others who might not. You think about how people might react to a series of decisions, knowing something about decision-making and the psychology of decision-making is important,” he said.

“I actually think designers, and I have seen designers do this, go back through a basic psych course and they are amazed by how relevant it is to their jobs.”

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