Heuristic principles and design psychology cross paths and mingle as if at a dinner party.
Something happens when I’m at the gym. I’m not sure how to explain it but whenever I start exercising and reading my UX articles (yes, I really do that), it’s as if things start connecting that I had not thought of before.
Most recently, I was on the elliptical trainer and all of the sudden, it occurred to me that heuristic principles and design psychology cross paths and mingle as if at a dinner party.
So I wondered if I could present them together and see if they truly do make a match. If they do then this is truly a thing of beauty because you can use this for so many design decisions and quite frankly I’m not sure if these have ever been tied so closely (or maybe I’m totally out of the loop and this has been done before).
UX Heuristics Meets Psychology
Psychology Principle: People Don’t Want to Work or Think More Than They Have To. Design Heuristics: Recognition Rather Than Recall; Visibility of System Status.
Here we have a clear link. Minimizing the user’s memory load ties right back to the fact that we mostly use System 1 thinking (easy, not complex) and avoid System 2 thinking (more complex, hard). Basically, we take the path of least resistance and don’t want to have to work or think more than we have do. The design heuristic is based on this. We want to minimize the user’s use of System 2 thinking by invoking recognition and making sure things are visible or easily retrievable.
Psychology Principle: People Have Limitations. Design Heuristic: Aesthetic and Minimalist Design.
People have limitations. A lot of them. They can only look at so much information on a screen without losing interest. They like things that are easy to scan, and despite what we are told, people cannot actually multi-task. Design heuristics based on aesthetic and minimalist design satisfy this psychological reality. Keep things well organized. Use headers. Use short blocks of text. Use a single font. Use whitespace but also remember to use it with a purpose.
Psychology Principle: People Make Mistakes. Design Heuristic: Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors.
Even though we hate to make mistakes, we do it all of the time. This is especially true in software or systems. Most of the time, we don’t really mean to make a mistake but it does happen. In design, it’s always best to try and anticipate every mistake but that’s hardly a reality. Mistakes make users feel out of control and frustrated if they are not addressed properly. One of the heuristics in design addresses this by having designers make error messages be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicating the problem, and suggesting solutions that can resolve the issue.
Psychology Principle: Human Memory Is Complicated. Design Heuristics: Recognition rather than recall; Consistency and Standards.
Human memory is a complex process and system. Even in 2018, there are mysteries around the complexity of memory and reconstruction/recall. We do know that memory is fragile and we also know that people can only remember about 3–4 items at a time. Don’t make people remember things from one task to another or one page to another. There are two design heuristics that apply here. The first one we have covered but it applies here as well. Recognition rather than recall helps the fragile memory do a much better job and in turn provides a pleasurable experience for the user. Consistency and standards are important because it reduces the friction for the user having to remember from page to page or screen to screen.
Psychology Principle: People are Social. Design Heuristics: Match between system and the real world.
People are social and thus we look to others for help, validation, and recognition. Some people use the social web, some use their own close friends and family, while others rely on a combination of both. As such, it’s critical to remember that they will need to rely on others when they are confused, lost or feeling like something needs to be validated. One of the UX Heuristics that applies here is the match between the system and the real world. When we strive as much as possible to not only bring in the social validation of a product or service but also speak the users’ language and follow real-world conventions then we help eliminate any anxieties or cause for concern on the part of the user.
Psychology Principle: Attention. Design Heuristic: Recognition rather than recall.
Attention is key to designing an engaging UI and people will pay attention to something different or novel such as bright colors, large fonts, etc. However, people are also easily distracted so it’s never a good idea to do things that distract them if you want them to pay attention to something in particular. I feel that a good complimentary heuristic here is recognition rather than recall because we want our users to be able to work effortlessly through our design. When we bother them with needless distractions that cause their attention to be taken away then they have to recall what they were doing or trying to do. This is never a good scenario. Instead, knowing that recognition is more pleasant, we want to make sure their attention is always kept when we want it to be.
Psychology Principle: People Crave Information. Design Heuristics: Visibility of System Status; Help and Documentation; User Control and Freedom.
Learning is dopaminergic. We literally can’t help but want more information, and in many cases people often want more information than they can actually process. Humans need to know what is going on and feel in control. Enter three really important design heuristics which tie so closely to this psychology principle. First, visibility of system status helps the user feel in control and delivers them much needed information as they experience your design. Second, help and documentation gives them control but also allows them to learn more when they feel that need. Lastly, user control and freedom allows users to stay in control but do so because your design provides them with clearly marked “exits”. Craving information comes in many forms and it does not just mean “reading more” about something. I can be as subtle as providing people with good feedback and a lot of visual clues in the design.
Psychology Principle: Unconscious Processing. Design Heuristics: Recognition rather than recall; Consistency and standards.
Most all of our mental processing occurs unconsciously. This means that we do a lot of “work” without even thinking about it. If we can get people to commit to a small action then they can commit to an even larger one without having to really think about it much. Because a lot of our processing is unconscious, stories and pictures play a huge role in UX design. For these reasons, I feel that two specific design heuristics are important: Recognition rather than recall and consistency & standards. Recognition rather than recall is pretty self-explanatory here. Also, because of our mental processing being dominated by unconscious thought, it’s really critical for consistency and standards. This is far more pleasurable and easy on users; It provides a much better design experience that plays to our biology.
Psychology Principle: People Crave Mental Models. Design Heuristics: Match Between System and the Real World; Consistency and Standards; Recognition Rather Than Recall.
People always have a mental model in place about a certain object or task. We bring with us our own way of seeing something based on past experiences and there’s really nothing that can change that. Mental models make it easy (or hard) for people to use an interface and we want to strive as much as possible to match their conceptual model or teach them how to use a new one. It’s also for this reason that user research is so important. Tying this to design heuristics we have three that come into play and each of them makes complete sense. Matching systems with the real world, consistency, and recognition play right into the psychology of our own mental models. When used correctly, these heuristics will assure that those mental models are honored and it will create a much better design.
So there it is. Some of the most common psychology principles tied right in with design heuristics. This is important because heuristics are more like rules to follow but rules for the sake of rules isn’t really that compelling. UX Design is about people and as such we are driven by psychology in many ways. Thus, the heuristics really make much more sense when paired with human behavior. The resultant design outcomes will be engaging, pleasurable and memorable.
I made an infographic for you to download and enjoy. In this infographic, I also added in some additional “Laws of UX” where I felt they could apply. Enjoy.