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The Science of User Experience Design

Matt Donahue

User Experience design has always been, and continues to be, a field riddled with ambiguous labeling and nomenclature. We hear all sorts of conjecture and debate as to what terms have what specific meaning. Are profiles and personas the same thing? When exactly do wireframes become mock-ups? Is “mock-up” supposed to hyphenated? These are issues of semantics, and when it comes to the actual meat of the work we do, we could call a wireframe a “whosamawhatsit” and it wouldn’t change it’s purpose. From the perspective of standardizing our professional space, common labeling is important. This is not in doubt. Client, asset, and project management aside, there is something vital to the decisions that we make as designers that is not addressed as often as it should be: Science.

I venture that a large number of UX designers (really any designers, for that matter) frequently make design decisions based on a gut feeling, a trend, a personal aesthetic, or some “rule” that was learned in design school. Sometimes we make design decisions just so we can get a project out the door. We’ve all done it. All of it. However, our profession has slowly been increasing its awareness of why we make these decisions. Why does our gut and our experience tell us that this is the correct design solution for this business problem and its target user group? Why has this become a design convention? Why does this appeal to me?

All of these answers are deeply rooted in the sciences of perception and cognition. Perceptual biology and psychology play vital roles in why we implement our solutions in a certain way, and why those solutions work for our users. Even the rules of design that we were given by a formal education in the design space have scientific foundations that can be further explored for a better understanding of why these rules have proven to be successful over time. As designers, we have a responsibility to learn from even the most basic biological components of perception, and how the impact color theory. Why does redundancy help users be more efficient in their decision making, and when does it become more hurtful than helpful?  Why are alerts commonly red, not from a cultural perspective, but a biological one? Why are dark lines in layout worse than soft lines?

These are all questions that can be answered by scientific research. There is a deeper understanding of the design decisions we make than is shown on the surface. As designers, we need to move further from answers like, “Because that’s the way we do it,” and closer to answers like, “Because research has shown this to be effective.” Even answers like, “Because it draws the user’s attention,” should be expounded upon. At the very least, we should be having an internal dialogue in which we explain to ourselves scientifically why something draws the user’s attention. Having this knowledge and applying it to our every day work is what will make us true expert designers. We’re not designing applications or web interfaces. We are designing messages that are to be perceived by our users, their senses, and the associated biological and neurological systems that process those messages.

All of these elements address the visual design aspects of UX design. Largely, the principles we learn from understanding biological processing at some level only address how we go about sensory design. Graphic, UI, and sound designers can all make use of these principles in their own work. What really sets a User Experience designer apart is our understanding of how our users will react to, and interact with, our designs. This is where research in the cognitive sciences comes into play. Once we are able to understand how our user’s brain processes the information we’ve designed, we can make predictions about how a large percentage of our user groups will behave as a product of our designs. We can use those designs to mold our users’ movements and interactions. We can enable them become more efficient users in terms of accomplishing their tasks and goals. This is really where it all comes together for a UX designer.

Now, I am not saying there will not be hiccups along the way. There is no substitute for experience, but there is great value to us in learning from the experiences of others, and that experience is captured by the research done in the perceptual and cognitive sciences. The amount of research that exists that could help us with design challenges that we face every day is astounding. All we need to do as designers is research it, consume it, and make use of it. That is how we will grow as designers, and that is how our profession will continue to grow and demonstrate its value to our employers and clients. This is how we move forward.

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3 Comments. Leave new

linda donahue
April 30, 2013 1:09 pm

Well, written. Gave me food for thought.

Nice article Matt, having the data to back up a design decision with “research has shown” is extremely helpful. I also feel its important (and possibly more difficult) to separate the data by different personas, I’m often amazed at how something as core as Gender can change the results of such data.

Matt Donahue
May 1, 2013 10:49 am

Thanks, Ben. There are certainly factors that can affect the optimal design of a system based on personas. It’s important to leverage information about biological and pre-attentive aspects of perception that are not influenced by things like gender and cultural background, then build up from that foundation to account for those factors that are influenced by prior knowledge. There is certainly a breadth of models based around gender-related and cultural tendencies that can be used in conjunction with that base-level research. The hope is that if we start building this into our process, designing to utilize bottom-up processing becomes second nature in our system designs, leaving us more time to concentrate on those top-down processes.

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