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Angry Thoughts

Understanding how we think means better design

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From the moment I got into the field of design, I have been hearing how “design is more than pixel-pushing.” Rather, the most crucial step in any good design is understanding our users.

There is even that one UX mantra that goes “you are not your user”, which essentially reiterate the importance of good user research in every stage of the design process. But do we fully grasp the concept of understanding our user?

Now don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with user research principles and standard techniques. However, I want to suggest that good products require more than thoroughly knowing our specific target user’s characteristics. Instead, consider that, maybe, a User Experience that is sustainability positive, holistically drawn-out and takes into account physiological inputs, requires knowledge of how we as humans learn, reason, and think, and more than that, how this affects our relationship with objects, products or systems (and even with each other).

Welcome to the world of Cognitive Ergonomics

Lucky for us designers, there is a whole field of study that can help us out in this journey — Cognitive Ergonomics.

Cognitive Ergonomics is all about understanding how human cognitive processes, such as perception, learning, and memory affect our capability of successfully interacting as part of a system.

By system, we mean the result of an element (that may be an environment or some kind of artifacts, such as an object or machine) plus a human (the human factor).

Etymologically, the term ergonomics refers to the Greek term “ergon,” meaning work, and nomos, meaning “laws.” “Laws of Work” may seem a little weird and far from the practice of design, but this is because the study of ergonomics has its roots in the industrial revolution, where it was applied in a more operational manner to workers in factories, as a way of increasing productivity, but also to make sure that injuries in the workplace were minimized as much as possible.

Today, according to the International Ergonomics Association, Ergonomics has three main dimensions — Physical Ergonomics, Organizational Ergonomics, and (the one we will be focusing on) Cognitive Ergonomics.

The cognitive part refers to the intellectual and psychological dimensions of human interaction, and it borrows a lot of its concepts, such as mental workload and decision-making, from cognitive psychology.

Now back to Design, why is this important?

When we consider that User Experience has many of its foundations in Human Factors Engineering and Human-Computer Interaction, we start to get a glimpse of how the two areas are intertwined. But ergonomics may seem a little too theoretical to have implications in the day-to-day life of product designing.

To address this issue, let’s take a practical example:

Take a concept that you might be familiar with — Cognitive Load. This is the degree to which a task represents a challenge to our information processing systems. So when a task has a high cognitive workload, it means that it is very demanding to our working memory, much like a program (I am looking at you, Google Chrome) can eat up a big part of your computers’ RAM Memory.

Now let’s say we are designing a GPS system, and logically the context of use for our product is inside a vehicle, probably in the hands of a driving user. We know that driving is already a pretty demanding task due to the amount of motor coordination required (albeit much of it becomes automatic with time), but also the huge amount of stimuli that comes our way, and that we must interpret and react to in real-time.

If you were designing a User Interface that is to be used in this context, would you make it very detailed, with lots of features? Probably not, right? A clear Information Architecture that hides all non-essentials is a critical success factor for such a product.

We can go even further. How should the user input information in the system? Maybe a Voice User Interface would make it easier than a simple GUI.

Where these design decisions might seem obvious even without a deep knowledge of Cognitive Ergonomics, this is not always the case. The way I see it, it is important because design decisions should be grounded on facts, not hints.

Incorporating Ergonomics in the Design Process

At this point in my career, I can see two main ways of going about this:

The first one, Keeping the concepts in mind

This is the more subtle way of doing it. What I mean is that by having the basic notions of cognitive processes, such as how memory works, how many and what senses humans have (spoiler alert, it is more than five), we can implicitly work these concepts into our designs. As I mentioned before, we gain some authority over a design decision when we can substantiate it.

Don’t disregard User Testing

Let’s think of User Testing as a more Market-Oriented experimental method. We can have a prototype, and from that prototype, we develop a hypothesis of how users are going to act upon it in the context of use. We then build a procedure that tests these hypotheses and gathers real data from real users. Conclusions are then drawn from the data.

If appropriate, changes can be made to the product to make it more ergonomic, which just means that it is a human-centered designed product focused on increasing user efficiency and preventing accidents and errors.

The need for fast shipping sometimes overshadows user testing. After all, companies and design teams must be agile to stay profitable, but aware of the potential consequences of shipping a product that risks users’ physical or psychological well-being.

I am sure there are other ways of incorporating the knowledge from Cognitive Ergonomics in the design process, and admittedly, most of my current knowledge comes from a more academic setting. Nonetheless, I genuinely believe these two steps are a great way of starting to apply this knowledge in a quest for better products.

As a bonus, I leave you some additional readings and materials on this topic:

Originally published at https://blog.angry.ventures on February 14, 2022.

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We’re a digital studio with almost a decade of experience, challenges, victories, and failures. It could be said that our core areas of knowledge range from software development and digital marketing to service design and new business development. www.angry.ventures

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