Cognitive psychology concepts we can use to improve UX design

Visualization   |   
Published February 1, 2021   |   

Experienced UX designers will likely be familiar with its fundamental principles, which revolve around meeting the users’ needs, focusing on usability and keeping the design consistent. Any renowned digital agency will operate based upon these principles.

The Hippocratic Oath for UX designers, drafted by Whitney Hess, lists a few critical rules that every UX designer should follow. These include:

  • Respect the privacy of your users
  • Remember that good UX design can’t exist without understanding, sympathy and warmth
  • Do everything in your power to make your design benefit the user

These rules also make it clear that the UX designer must always prioritize the user’s needs, namely usability, accessibility, readability and easy navigation.

To do all this well, a good UX designer must have at least a tentative grasp of psychology and the human nature. They need to understand what drives consumers to choose one product over another in order to ensure a successful and compelling design.

In this article, we’ll dive into cognitive psychology and explain how it can help create high-quality UX design.

What Is Cognitive Psychology and How Can It Help UX Designers?

Cognitive psychology is a field of study that deals with human behavior and the way it is affected by the following mental processes:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Thinking
  • Perception
  • Creativity
  • Use of language
  • Problem-solving

Because it is occupied with studying cognitive processes and their effect on human behavior, cognitive psychology can be a handy tool. It can help UX designers work around psychological barriers and create easy-to-navigate, readable and accessible designs.

Let’s talk about some specific examples of cognitive psychology principles that can be utilized to elevate UX design.

The Verbatim Effect

Consumers are more likely to focus on the overall experience with a website or app than any specific detail. Therefore, every UX designer knows that the entire design process should be focused on creating a positive experience.

If you’ve ever wondered why this is the case, it has to do with a cognitive psychology principle known as the verbatim effect.

In short, the verbatim effect causes people to disregard the details of any interaction and remember the general experience they had with it.

How Does the Verbatim Effect Impact UX Design?

The verbatim effect can be involved in the UX design process in various ways, but it is most often used when dealing with navigation and structure.

The effect should also have a massive impact on how we present our content.

The National Library of Medicine conducted research that found people tend to remember a sentence’s meaning rather than its form. This meaning-over-form cognitive bias must be considered, as the content is a critical factor in the user experience.

The Schema Theory

This cognitive psychology theory states that the human brain organizes all of its knowledge into units. Experiences, memories and thoughts are all stored within these schemata (units). We develop these knowledge units from an early age and add more information to them as we age.

Why is this important for UX designers?

Basically, this means we prefer to have information divided into easy-to-digest chunks. Categorization is a crucial step in the UX design process, and a good designer should look to break the information down whenever possible.

As usability is one of the most important UX design principles, we want our users to process the information quickly and with ease.

Visual Perception Theories

Having established that consumers like to think in terms of categories, we should note that they also base a large chunk of their decisions on visual information. Cognitive psychology states that visual perception has a massive impact on our thinking and decision-making.

Below, we’ll discuss a couple of fundamental cognitive psychology laws, related to visual perception, that should be considered in UX design.

The Law of Similarity

This visual perception law states that the human brain groups similar-looking objects together and perceives them as unified or complete.

You’ve probably seen this in action on a site like YouTube, which uses the law of similarity to present the videos on its home page.

This cognitive psychology principle allows UX designers to create more usable, cleaner-looking websites.

The Law of Symmetry

Similar to the previous law, the law of symmetry states that humans tend to perceive symmetrical objects as belonging to the same group. This can help designers improve customer experience by keeping the website structured and organized.

Three types of symmetry are used in design:

  • Translational — Moving an object to another position, while keeping its orientation, shape and overall visual properties
  • Rotational (radial) — Rotating the object around a fixed point, like a flower’s petals
  • Bilateral (reflection) — Also known as the mirror effect

Symmetry can play an essential role in UX design. This visual perception law can be used to organize content and aid navigation.

The Law of Proximity

Next on our list of cognitive psychology approaches, the Law of Proximity states that elements grouped close together are usually seen as a single unit. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it’s worth mentioning in this context.

When several elements are near each other, they tend to be perceived as belonging to the same unit regardless of their content. In UX design, this can be used to great effect when it comes to making navigation more user-friendly and intuitive.

The Chameleon Effect

The last concept we’ll discuss in this article indicates that people tend to mimic each other’s behavior. This is another evolutionary bias that happens unconsciously due to our innate instinct to try and fit in.

Of all the cognitive biases we’ve discussed today, this one is perhaps the most useful when encouraging your users to perform an action.

There are several ways in which a UX designer can use the chameleon effect.

For example, learning-focused apps may use a leaderboard system to show how you’re doing compared to your friends. This awakens your drive to compete and encourages you to keep learning to remain connected to your friends through this activity.