Talking psych to non-psychologists — part 1

by Mike Harris, Senior UX Consultant at Nomensa

I learnt a lot during some recent Easterly travels, the most UX relevant one being how information is passed from a domain expert to a non-expert — and insights in to how I can do it better myself. Whether it was a cooking class or a crash course in Buddhist architecture, I observed the flow of information passed down to tourists through various media, and noticed good and bad practices. On the flight home I considered my own responsibilities in disseminating information about my subject of choice to a wider audience.

Psychology is a crucial discipline for all UX people — whether they started there or discovered it via other routes. I am very much of the former category, fascinated in all things psych and have been applying it to the digital world ever since undergraduate years.

However, it may come as a surprise, but not everyone spends all day philosophising on how the mind works. These ‘non-psychologists’ actually have other things that they think about. Who knew?!

So for all fellow psychologists out there (and everyone else — please apply this to whatever your domain expertise is) if you find yourself starting to boulder on about ‘choice paralysis’ to a room full of furrowed brows and wandering eyes, please read the following advice. In doing so, I hope that none of us turn into that meandering lecturer — you know the one — to whom we all furrowed our brows and wandered our eyes.

Apply what we do to what we do

A colleague of mine coined this phrase, and it becomes more relevant each time we hear it. We need to wise up and apply UX thinking to understanding how our services are received by clients. In this case, we need to understand what happens in a client’s mind when we talk psychology. They will be trying to connect your words to their real-world pressures and in the context of what they can actually fix. The more difficult we make that connection for them, the less likely it is that they will benefit from the service we provide, and make those fixes.

It’s not that they don’t believe in psychology, it’s not even that they aren’t curious to learn more at some point, and it’s certainly not that they won’t understand it. They’re just not as interested in the theory as you are, right in that moment you communicate it. So let’s bridge the gap and apply psychological insights to real-world practice as soon as possible.

Apply first, reference second

It is my opinion that most domain experts feel some need to prove that they are the expert, and therefore show off their knowledge at the earliest opportunity. But I think this is counter-productive. I am reminded of the adage: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care”.

I have arrived at a simple rule for speaking or writing about your own expertise, when the audience are non-experts. And that is ‘Apply first, reference second’.

Read the two options below, for my money I much prefer the second one:

  1. “There is this theory in psychology called “cognitive dissonance
  2. “It is basically when an idea and a behaviour conflict in your head”
  3. “To resolve this, we either change our behaviour or we justify, alter or ignore the idea”
  4. “In the case of your users, we think this is causing a drop-off at point X in this journey; with the idea in question being Y”

Okay, it’s not bad. It could have been worse. But in any case, you lost half your audience half way through point 1. They switched on again near the end of 4; but you’re on an uphill battle to convince them of the relevance of your argument.

Let’s try again:

  1. “We know there is a high drop-off rate at point X. Why is this happening? We think that is because users have got message Y in their head. So now proposed behaviour X doesn’t make any sense.”
  2. “They are literally caught in two minds about how to continue”
  3. “This makes it a difficult decision, a simpler option for many is just to drop out instead”
  4. (“n.b. If you are interested, this is a known psychological effect called cognitive dissonance”)

It’s a classic case of starting with the pain — why should they listen to what you say next? Because of the low conversion rate — which directly affects their job. Then give them a possible answer, which hints at a solution. After that, in case they need extra confidence in it — reassure them it is a known phenomenon.

Justice to our expertise

This is just one of many practices I am trying to follow to help people apply psychology. I feel like there is a larger-than-necessary gap between academic rigour and its body of knowledge — and commonly understood psychological effects. Translation is a key step in the application of ideas — because the people making the fixes are unlikely to be psychologists themselves. If we get better at translation and sharing the knowledge we have, we do our subject better justice.

Originally published at on January 26, 2016.

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