The difference between art and design is that the artist focuses on aesthetics and creates an object to be gazed upon with fascination and wonder but serves no practical purpose, whereas the designer focuses on functionality and creates an object that is well-suited to a purpose and aesthetic concerns are secondary at best. The artist focuses upon the object, the designer upon the person using the object – ideally, the user’s ability and desire to complete a task using the object is the designer’s primary concern. For this reason, the work of the designer is less concerned with the principles of art and more concerned with the principles of psychology.
The user of an object must understand its value and be motivated to extract the benefit of using the object. This clearly has to do with cognitive and behavioral psychology, yet most evaluations of experience design focus on the object and its technical and aesthetic qualities – and as such designers are often encouraged in the wrong direction, or at least a less productive direction than would be taken if they carefully and systematically considered the behavior of the user who will interact with it.
For this reason, experience designers might benefit from a systematic method of planning and evaluating their work according to the processes defined by cognitive psychology. And so, this article presents a brief overview of the mental processes involved in taking a purposeful action, correlating them to the major steps in the cognitive process: perception, attention, identification, evaluation (before action), motivation, action, and evaluation (after action).
Granted, “cognitive psychology” is an immense and detailed field of knowledge, so what is presented here is a quick overview with some basic suggestions – it is entirely possible, and entirely advisable, to delve deeper into each of the steps and consider them in greater detail – but for the present, an overview should do much to enable designers to systematically evaluate and plan design tasks to ensure they more thoroughly consider the mental processes of their users.
The first step in the cognitive process, perception, questions whether an object makes information about itself available to the mind. If something cannot be seen, heard, felt, or perceived by any of the human senses, then for all concerns it does not exist to the mind. Information can also be conveyed using language, written or spoken, but this perception depends on prior experience – to say the word “horse” does not give someone the perception of a horse, but causes them to remember horses they have encountered, or to imagine what a horse might be if they lack any experience.
In terms of experience design, perception asks the question “do they notice it at all?” The designer cannot assume his audience perceives what is intended, but must consider the human sensory capacities to detect and distinguish the sensory qualities of the object that has been presented.
Defects in perception are best understood in terms of accessibility: a color-blind person cannot perceive the difference between red and green, such that a red shape on a green background would be imperceptible. Even people whose vision is normal may have difficulty perceiving dark shapes on a dark field, or light shapes on a light field.
To identify and correct design problems related to perception, consider each element of design to determine whether it is noticeable, or whether there is a need to make adjustments: perception is best supported by highly contrasting colors, loud sounds, strong aromas and tastes, more pronounced differences in texture.
The second step in the cognitive process, attention, questions whether the mind recognizes the information received from an object as worthy of consideration. The human senses are constantly bombarded by data about objects in their environment, and the mind cannot possibly deal with it all, so anything unimportant is discarded almost immediately.
For example, consider the experience of walking down a crowded sidewalk. In the course of a minute, it is entirely possible to pass by 100 people. A person perceives each passer-by – their clothing, their faces, their movements, and everything perceptible – but for the most part, they would not be able to recall a single person whom they had passed (and the exceptions are the result of processes that come later).
For experience design, attention asks the question “do they focus their attention upon it?” The designer must consider the environment in which the design is presented to determine whether the user might be paying attention to something else entirely. And within a design, the visual clutter must be considered – when many things are attempting to demand attention, the user may not be able to focus on anything at all.
To identify and correct design problems related to perception, first consider the channel: if the design is encountered in a bustling and noisy environment where the user’s attention is limited, it may be wise to choose a different channel entirely. Then, consider the object: what elements are most prominent, likely to be noticed by a user who is in various states of mind.
The third step in the cognitive process, identification, leverages existing memory to recognize things for what they are. Sense-data is raw and unidentified: people hear a rumbling sound, but unless they prior experience, they do not know what it is. Those who have experienced the sound in the past, directly or vicariously, and learned its cause identify it as being the noise of a subway train passing underneath the sidewalk. Those lacking that experience cannot identify the sound, and may choose to take their attention away from it.
It’s also worth noting that identification is not always accurate: a person doesn’t know what something actually is, but what they think it might be, and as such they may fail to identify objects properly – whether from lack of knowledge or lack of sense-data to evaluate.
For experience design, identification asks the question “What is this?” The designer must consider whether the user can recognize at a glance what it is that he sees. A “clever” coffeemaker that looks like a solid black cylinder is not going to be identifiable, and few users will invest the time to try to figure out what it is and will quickly move along to competing products that are more recognizable as what they are.
To identify and correct problems related to identification, consider the user’s experience of similar items in the past. It’s acceptable to make things a little bit different for the sake of novelty and wonder, but if the user cannot tell what it is, the novelty gets in the way of identification. This is where adhering to standard design conventions, as dull and uninspired as that may seem, support the success of a given design – if they can’t tell what it is, they won’t consider using it, and the design is a work of art but fails as a design.
4: Evaluation (Before Action)
The next step in the cognitive process, evaluation, asks: what is the relevance of this object that has been identified? Whereas identification determines what an object is, evaluation determines whether it is of interest – is action necessary to take advantage of an opportunity or avoid a threat? Unless it is relevant to an individual’s interest, an object is dropped from attention once it has been evaluated.
Evaluation, identification, and attention are somewhat interactive: sense-data must come to attention before it can be identified and evaluated, but past experience may also attune attention to certain sensory information. In the latter case, it is more accurate to say that evaluation causes a person to stop paying attention to something – it is ignored after it is identified and evaluated rather than before. In other instances, sense-data is ignored before it is evaluated at all (a person hears the rumble of an underground train, does not know what it is, and does not care enough to try to identify it).
For experience design, evaluation asks the question “What does this do?” Where the user has experience with similar items, this is often answered in their identification of the object (a coffee maker makes coffee) but when they are unfamiliar with the object, they may be willing to devote time to figuring out the function of the object from the sensory information it transmits.
To identify and correct problems related to evaluation, consider whether the object is intuitive, such that its function is self-evident. Labeling and instructions are also useful in informing the user of how it works and what it does if it cannot be made obvious from its physical attributes. And perhaps most importantly, this is where usability testing can provide helpful direction: a person who already knows what an item does is tainted and cannot evaluate how easily a person who doesn’t have the same knowledge can discover it.
The fifth step of the cognitive process is critical to persuading a person to take an action: it is here that the notion of “want” is evaluated. Something has come to attention, been identified and evaluated, and the person senses that there is some benefit from taking an action – but do they want to gain that benefit by acting immediately? Is the effort required worth the reward that can be gained, or are there other opportunities that may arise that are more worthy? A person must want something, and must want it right away, to become motivated.
For experience design, motivation asks two questions “What are the benefits to me?” and “Is it worth the effort to get those benefits?” The design must not only be functional in providing a benefit, but the benefit it provides must be of sufficient interest to the user to be worth the cost (including time and effort). In some instances, an object’s benefits are of no interest at all. In others, they are perceived as being too difficult to obtain.
As a result, there are two areas in which problems related to evaluation can be identified and corrected. The first is in they way in which a user will be directed to the object: if you are marketing to the wrong crowd, it will attract a lot of attention and then fail upon evaluation as the audience realizes that it is not relevant to their needs. The second is in giving the appearance of ease of use – and at this point it is merely the appearance, as the actual ease of use is evaluated in the next step (action) – but an appearance that suggests ease of use is critical to motivation.
The sixth step in the process is action, which is where the designer wants their user to arrive. To get this far in the process, all of the preceding processes must have executed successfully – though the previous step of motivation is most critical because a person may understand that taking an action will have a result, but if they do not want the result they do not undertake the action.
Also, motivation must be sustained through the action process. This cannot be overstressed, because the great failure of many user experiences is that the motivation of the user becomes dampened during the course of action – they decide to do something, but become discouraged along the way and revisit their decision to act. That is, they start the action but quit before completing it.
For experience design, action asks questions such as “Am I doing this right?” and “When will I be finished?” The user who undertakes a task seldom does so for the joy of doing the task itself, but because he is interested in achieving the result. The users must feel some motivation to take action, but are prone to quitting before the task is finished because they do not have a sense of making progress, or begin to doubt that they will achieve the desired outcome, or reevaluate whether it is worth the effort.
To identify and correct problems related to action, consider the feedback that the user receives as the task progresses. If a device has a button and pressing it seems to do nothing, the user begins to experience doubt – but feedback such as a light that comes on when the button is pressed, or a countdown to when the operation will be finished, do much to retain their engagement. Usability testing can also be helpful in evaluating action and identifying moments in which the user’s motivation wavers.
7: Evaluation (After Action)
The final step in the process, evaluation, is very often ignored. The designer wanted the user to take an action, but once they completed the action the designer is no longer concerned with their behavior. This is a serious mistake, because the evaluation process determines how the same object will be acted upon in the future – if the evaluation is negative, the user will ignore it, evaluate it as “nor worthwhile,” and have no motivation ever to interact with it again.
Evaluation revisits the question of motivation. Before an action is taken, a person asks “what will happen?” After the action is taken, they then ask “what actually happened?” And if the answer is “no” then dissonance occurs: disappointment, regret, and discouragement and ultimately disinterest in any future encounter.
For experience design, evaluation asks the question “How did that work out?” Ideally, they have the sense that their action had the expected effect and that the result of the action provided them with the benefits they expected to achieve by undertaking it. If they quit along the way, or if they are not happy with the results, users are going to be resistant to the idea of using the object ever again.
To identify and correct problems related to evaluation, considers whether the information communicated to the user during the before-action evaluation phase was at all accurate and adjust as necessary. It may also be worthwhile to survey users about their expectations, because in some instances the expectations they had – even if you didn’t mention them or attempted to communicate the exact opposite – will take precedence over the information the designer provides.
Evaluating the way in which a design supports each of the seven steps in the cognitive process (perception, attention, identification, evaluation before action, motivation, action and evaluation after action) is a procedure that can be very helpful in accurately diagnosing and correcting problems in experience design – and while it seems a bit tedious, it’s certainly more likely to be successful than attempting to evaluate design by vague and holistic means or applying design theory that is derived from these principles in an indirect manner.
In closing, it’s important to reiterate that this article has provided a general overview of the cognitive processes that has been broad but superficial. There are many textbooks and trade books devoted to just one of the steps, so the evaluations can go beyond the basic questions and delve into very detailed analyses to fine-tune the design – but taking a broad approach and systematically evaluating designs for their potential success, should be done before diving into any specific area. Ultimately, all must be addressed for the user experience to be successful.