The Role of Psychology in User Research
by Emma Peters, UX Consultant

The Role of Psychology in User Research

Psychological principles can be applied in UX to help designers and product developers understand user behaviour. This can either be to improve the usability of digital experiences or to encourage desirable interactions when navigating online.

Here at Experience UX, usability testing and user research are at the heart of what we do. To uncover the truth and understand the ‘whys’ behind user behaviour, we employ observational methodology. This form of research removes opinion and offers objective, reliable evidence of what happens when users engage with digital interfaces.

Whilst we can see the behaviour in the research sessions, the cognitive processes behind this are sometimes more covert. This is why we look to theory and evidence-backed research to better understand the behaviour presented to us.

Visual information

Theories provide a lens to help us understand how certain variables might influence and effect behaviour, whilst also offering guidance to address this. For instance, you believe that your users are having a hard time understanding your offering. Through observation, you notice that users are not engaging with the large amounts of copy that explains what it is you offer. This is quite a typical finding.

In the first instance, we would recommend redesigning this content to include bullet points and a summary to make the content more digestible. Whilst the design issue is addressed following this recommendation, we also need to consider other factors that could affect the user’s information processing. By completing a literature review, we identify the ‘Picture Superiority Effect’ (Curran & Doyle, 2011), a cognitive theory which also applies to this design issue.

This theory explains that visual information, such as pictures, are more easily remembered because humans process this type of information separately to text. For a designer, we can recommend that you utilize visuals and images alongside more concise copy. This can help users process this information as well as better comprehend your offering.

Keeping motivated

Another example of when we have applied psychological theory is when we have observed users expressing frustration around completing lengthy forms which has sometimes even resulted in them stopping the process entirely. We can initially recommend that websites need to consider the length and layout of their forms, but to better understand how we can further encourage users to fill out forms online we look to the Goal Gradient Effect (Hull, 1932). This theorises that the speed of an individual’s behaviour will increase the closer they get to completing a task/goal. Therefore, by highlighting the endpoint to users, for example displaying a progress bar on an insurance form, this can help keep users motivated to carry out their task and finish inputting their details.

Too much choice

In addition to the Goal Gradient Effect (Hull,1923), we have also frequently referred to Hick’s Law (Hick,1952). We often observe users become increasingly confused and struggle to make decisions when presented with a large number of different options, most often contextualised when choosing a product from a long listings page. Utilising Hick’s Law (Hick, 1952), we know that the more stimuli on offer, the longer it takes for a user to decide on which one to go for. Therefore, we can suggest to designers that they need to minimise the number of choices if they want to encourage users to make decisions quickly.

The insights gained from observing users provides us with the necessary context for understanding these online interactions which can ultimately help us to effectively apply psychological theory. Psychological theory not only elevates the design process but can create intuitive, user-first online experiences. We therefore reference psychological theories in our reports, to support findings and recommendations.

More reading:

How To Step Aside From Your Own Assumptions


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UX Consultant Emma Peters

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