Psychology is more than just a corner of UX

I was recently reading Dr Susan Weinschenk’s article on The Psychologist’s View of UX Design, (which, by the way, is a great introduction to some of the psychological principals of design) and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was selling short the role of psychology in UX with this introduction:

“A king brings six men into a dark building. They cannot see anything. The king says to them, “I have bought this animal from the wild lands to the East. It is called an elephant.” “What is an elephant?” the men ask. The king says, “Feel the elephant and describe it to me.” The man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar, the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope, the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch, the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan, the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall, and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. “You are all correct”, says the king, “You are each feeling just a part of the elephant.”

The story of the elephant reminds me of the different view of design that people of different backgrounds, education, and experience have. A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the elephant that others are experiencing.

I’m a psychologist by training and education. So the part of the elephant I experience applies what we know about people and how we apply that to UX design.

Now, I kind of think that applying what we know about people and psychology to the design process is the UX elephant – not just one small corner. Of course, the visual designer, the programmer, the project manager and everyone else involved in the development of a product will approach the project from a slightly different angle. Whilst each of them will (hopefully) have an interest in the user’s experience of the finished product, they all have other things as their primary concern – making it look attractive, making the thing actually work. The UX designer on the project is probably the only person who has the end user’s overall experience as their primary focus.

I’m by no means trying to put down the role of the programmer or the visual designer, by the way (that would be ridiculous – UX would be pretty pointless if we didn’t have anyone to make a design real.) I just mean that when your knee-deep in functions and variables, or vectors and gradients, then it’s a lot easier (and more efficient) to stay there, rather than wading back out to think about what psychological theory says users are likely to make of what you’re doing.

I think I would offer a slightly different take on the elephant analogy and suggest that maybe, like the blind men, lots of the other people involved in the creation of product have to get so close to their particular task that they may have to lose sight of the big picture. And perhaps that’s precisely why we need the role of a UXer on the project – to take that step back and look at the whole elephant, and to use what we know about the way people’s brains work to think about how the elephant will look to them.

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