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The Six Minds of UX Design

We talk to UX psychologist John Whalen about the notion that UX doesn’t happen on the screen, it happens in the mind—deep in our subconscious. Here’s why designers need to factor this into their approach.

When we think about user experience design, we’re often thinking about the way an experience feels to a user and the decisions it prompts a user to make. But, argues UX psychologist John Whalen, these represent only two of the driving forces behind a user’s experience. There are four other “minds” that contribute to whether or not a design is effective.

“Language, wayfinding, emotion, and memory are all things that are sort of in the middle of cognition, but aren’t as obvious as the decision that people will be making or what exactly is going to be on the screen,” Whalen said. “That middle section is currently underserved in books and in the way we describe experience design.”

Whalen, who holds a PhD in cognitive science from Johns Hopkins University, was living in California in the heart of the dotcom boom when he realized the potential for applying the inner workings of the mind to the design community. Fast-forward to now, and Whalen is the founder of Brilliant Experience, a DC-based UX strategy company that takes a “psychology-based approach” to the design process.

He says UX design is a multi-dimensional and multi-sensory experience that taps into these “six minds.” Understanding these six minds is the future of experience design.

1. Vision/Attention

Of all the minds, Whalen says this is the one designers nail best as it appeals to the UI aspect of UX. Still, he cautions that what designers think may appeal to a user isn’t always the case. This is why it’s so important to dive into the other minds in order to establish deeper insights into how the overall experience is influenced by visual cues.

Some questions to ask:

2. Wayfinding

Wayfinding refers to how a user gets from point A to point B. It taps into information architecture, innate navigational cues, content and more. Wayfinding becomes increasingly complex in the virtual world, and will continue to do so as augmented and virtual reality, as well as interactive design, continue to rise in popularity.

“In the new world of cell phones where you shake them, twist them or swipe them, we’re using very different tools to do that wayfinding of where am I now? How can I get to the next place? And how do I know if I’ve gotten there?” Whalen said. “We actually have a huge part of our brain devoted to that, so the question is how can we harness that in ways that are so different now in virtual space?”

Some questions to point you in the right direction:

3. Memory/Semantics

Memory plays a huge role in wayfinding, but also in establishing user expectations. Whalen uses the analogy of a colleague suggesting some post-work happy hour drinks. She may be thinking of a sleek, high-tech establishment while you’re envisioning your neighborhood dive bar complete with graffiti on the walls.

“Both would be happy hour, but with very different expectations of how you would be served, what you would have, and how the interactions might play out,” Whalen said.

This too must be considered in UX design. Users come in with expectations based on previous models of experience. They expect things to work in specific ways (for example, like Amazon, Google or Facebook) and they want these experiences to feel natural and easy.

Designers can ask:

4. Language

Language is where things can get tricky. It varies based on demographics, user familiarity with the product and terminology, and ease of understanding. All too often, companies make the mistake of over-sharing. They expect the user to be as passionate about the product as they are and end up giving too much information, getting in the way of the user’s experience.

“In many cases we want to simplify and just trust the brand we’re working with,” Whalen said. “Sometimes we get so obsessed with telling people all the minutia we’re interested in and not really thinking about how it’s represented by that end audience.”

Before getting too far ahead in the design experience, teams can have a conversation about:

5. Emotion

Like it or not, users bring emotional baggage to every experience. They are real people with feelings, fears and frustrations. They are afraid to make mistakes. They have hesitations. They wonder how certain purchases will affect their careers, goals or reputations. All of these elements influence the decisions they make.

“We often talk about quick emotions, like in this game am I excited or bored or happy, but we also try to think about what are these deep emotions that also are a major driver,” Whalen said. “If you go back to how would they like to be represented as a human and what to them is the most valuable, suddenly we get really interesting responses.”

In one example, Whalen studied people of high net worth to determine what banking needs of theirs were being underserved. He asked questions ranging from what credit cards they had in their wallets to what their goals were—and whether or not they thought they were likely to achieve them.

“Of 24 interviews, three people cried and six people hugged me and said, what a great therapy session,” Whalen said. “We don’t usually think to ask what it is that means the most to [a user] in this world and how to get it out of them in a way that’s authentic. How do you get people to a level at which they expose themselves in a way that might be perceived as threatening in a way we don’t usually do?”

Whalen likes to take the appeal, enhance and awaken approach.

In his research and user interviews, he likes to explore what responses a user experience triggers. He looks at a user’s fears and asks, how can we allay those fears and produce positive experiences? Understanding a user’s underlying emotions is very important and can provide deep insight into why users make the decisions they make.

6. Decision Making

One of the number one questions asked about decision making is why do people not act? It is part of the responsibility of a UX designer to factor in all of the above elements in order to make the decision process easier for the user.

“There are a lot of people who talk about persuasive design,” Whalen said. “How do you get people to make a decision, be willing to respond to an ad, or to finally commit to buy?”

A designer’s power tool is anticipating what a user will need before they need it and then incorporating this into the overall experience strategy. Some of the questions Whalen recommends exploring are:

Emergent User Experience Design

Together, these six minds comprise what Whalen calls emergent user experience, a field that sits at the intersection of psychology and user experience innovation. By better understanding how a user thinks and the cognitive aspects that drive their decisions, UX designers can create more optimal and meaningful human experiences for users and organizations alike.

tinue to do so as augmented and virtual reality, as well as interactive design, continue to rise in popularity.

“In the new world of cell phones where you shake them, twist them or swipe them, we’re using very different tools to do that wayfinding of where am I now? How can I get to the next place? And how do I know if I’ve gotten there?”