POINT OF view
7 +/- 2 Things the Software Industry
Should Know About Cognitive Psychology
By Bennett Lauber, Manager Information Architecture, Sapient Government Services
The capacity of the human brain to process information has remained the same—even as the types of
users for software-based Internet connected devices has increased at an exponential rate. The field
of psychology, especially cognitive psychology has, among other things, focused on understanding the
processes by which we store information, make decisions, and communicate with others.
Understanding the research and the theories of cognitive psychology can help information architects to
create better user experiences.
Here are 7 +/-2 things we should all know before designing a system that interacts with users.
Everyone is different. Everyone thinks differently. By understanding the background and the needs of
real users, and creating and sharing descriptions of roles and types of users, development teams can
gain the perspective of users other than themselves.
Visual processing and depth perception:
Knowing how the human mind visually processes information can be an important tool to be used by
graphic designers when they are creating the “visual language” of a project.
Differences between novice and expert problem solvers:
Mostinterfacesfocusoneithernoviceorexpertusers. Interfacesneedtoprovideassistancetoauser that
is just learning the system. Eventually a transition to the “expert protocol” takes place. When this
happens these users should be allowed to turn off the extra assistance and instead be offered a series
of shortcuts (keyboard shortcuts, macros, etc.) to help them get their job done.
Recognition vs. recall memory:
Forcing a user to remember something, and then enter it into a text field, is much harder than selecting
an item from a radio button. Presenting choices provide the users with some prompts that may “jar
their memory” and help them to make a better choice.
This is one of the most widely cited/used theories in the user experience field. It basically proposes that
people can quickly find items on the screen based upon their size and their proximity to the current
focus of attention.
The fundamental attribution error:
This is a term that is often associated with the field of social psychology and is the basis for the
expression, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” People tend to make
judgments based upon what they first perceive in a situation, and not based upon any situation factors.
© Sapient Corporation 2012
POINT OF view
Your site might provide a great feature or function, but if people get a bad taste in their mouth, it will
influence their perception of everything.
Habituation and learned helplessness:
People are creatures of habit and will tend to try to do things that they have learned in one application
(or website) when they encounter another. Their “mental model” will eventually guide their default
interaction with your site. Some novice users have unfortunately adopted an “I dunno” mental model.
They feel helpless and many have learned to lean on their friends or co-workers for help. These users
often blindly follow a “cheat sheet” without ever branching off and exploring the interface.
Affordances as perceived action possibilities:
When your interface has a control that people may believe performs a particular action, they will try to
perform that action using that control. If something looks like a button, people will try to click on it. If it
looks like a link, they will click on it. If the particular perceived action is not a performer, you will have
an unhappy user.
Vigilance, focused attention, and divided attention:
People can only effectively deal with a limited number of items for a limited amount of time. Interfaces
need to be designed that understand and exploit these limits. A well-designed application can attempt
to steer the user’s attention to those items of interest and hold that interest until the task is complete.
Understanding and integrating each of these (plus, of course, the 7+/- 2 rule and others) can help
inform a strategic user experience plan that focuses on the cognitive skills of users to provide better
experiences and impact businesses ROI.
Bennett Lauber is an user experience professional with over 20 years of ex-
perience working with developers and educated teams of all sorts of shapes
and sizes in the value of usability and user-centered design. He began his
career as a Human Factors Scientist at the IBM Santa Teresa Lab where his
work on 3270 terminal screens seems light-years away from the interfaces
of today. Bennett eventually began working on what was then called “mul-
timedia computing” and led his career to focus on the “bleeding edge” of
Luckily, the human mind and the types of mental models that it can create
have not changed much over the years, so applying his knowledge of the
theories of cognitive psychology to the today’s interfaces seems much more
Lauber is an author of an upcoming book entitled, “Low Hanging Fruit” and
a speaker at several local user experience events, including UPA-DC and UX
Base-camp. While not working with government agencies on improving the
user experience of their web-based applications, he is searching for some-
one from the Wrigley Corporation so that his twin daughters could become
the next Doublemint girls.
© Sapient Corporation 2012
© Sapient Corporation 2011