Overview of Cognitive Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction

Cognitive Psychology and Human Cognition for User Experience

UX is much about how users find and consume content, and understanding the cognitive processes and nuances users go through when finding and consuming content is important to architecting an ideal experience.

Mar 29 · 8 min read

In one real estate project I worked on, the website had a list of properties on which our team should design a new favorite system, that is users could bookmark houses they like best. So, we decided to use a heart icon as it could refer to “love” (how romantic!) and things users really enjoy. The heart would be a perfect icon: so beautiful, so cute and very intuitive, right? I did a user test. Result: Almost no user understood how to favor the listings. They simply did not associate the heart with favorites. The most plausible explanation — and some users confirmed that — is that current social networks have imposed that the heart is only for the enjoyment (i.e. they signal that they like something), but not for saving items in a favorite list.

As User Experience Professionals with an emphasis in Cognitive Psychology, we mainly want to focus on the way people process information. Cognitive psychology looks at how people process the information they receive and how the treatment of this information leads to their responses. In this sense, we are interested in what is happening within the users’ minds that links stimulus (input) and response (output).

Therefore, to achieve that it’s interesting for designers to study internal processes that include perception, attention, language, memory, and thinking. Questions like these can be asked:

  • How do users receive information about the outside world?
  • How do users store and process information?
  • How do they solve problems?
  • How does a breakdown in the users’ perceptions cause errors in their thinking?
  • How do errors in their thinking lead to emotional distress and negative behaviors?

Overview of Cognitive Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

The term “cognitive psychology” was first used by Ulric Neisser in 1967. Since then, many interventions have emerged from the cognitive study that has benefited the field of psychology, but not only, since it also touches on many other disciplines, being frequently studied by people in a number of different fields including education, business, and design, for example. Furthermore, Cognitive Psychology is one of the majors' contributor to Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research by providing and applying psychological principles to understand and help develop models that explain and predict human performance (Green, Davies, & Gilmore, 1996).

Cognitive Psychology is quite similar to Design in how it deals with a problem, being goal-oriented and problem-focused from the beginning. If you are entering treatment with a cognitive psychologist, one of the first things you will be asked to do is identify your problems and formulate specific goals for yourself, and then you will be helped to organize your problems in a way that will increase the chances of meeting your goals — and that’s exactly what designers generally do (or should do).

According to the cognitive science-based guidelines, human memory limitations, attention, learning, decision making, and perception had to be taken into account when designing an effective Graphical User Interface (GUI). There are numerous principles that had been proposed under these five aspects: Retention Theory, Schema Theory, Cognitive Load Theory, Gestalt Law and others (Aberg & Chang, 2005). Each theory proposed seems to has its own advantages and disadvantages. However, there are no “golden principles” that are able to clearly define the standard of building an effective and intuitive GUI.

When designing an effective and intuitive user interface, there are four main principles that are usually proposed:

  • Focus on users and their tasks instead of technologies used;
  • Consider functions first, presentation later;
  • The simplicity of GUI;
  • Promote learning and delivering information.

Apart from that, there are also a few cognitive psychology theories that had been considered to be the guidelines of designing GUI, as mentioned before:

  • Schema Theory defines that knowledge is organized into basic building blocks of knowledge, which also known as units.
  • Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is an instructional design theory that defines information processing which involves long-term memory and, short-term memory or working memory.
  • Retention Theory refers to the amount of information that can be memorized and retained by learners within a given time.
  • Gestalt Law is one of the foundations for instructional screen design. It is usually explained using 11 specific laws: Law of Balance, Law of Continuation, Law of Closure, Law of Figure/Ground, Law of Focal Point, Law of Isomorphic Correspondence, Law of Prägnanz, Law of Proximity, Law of Similarity, Law of Simplicity and Law of Unity.

Human Cognition and the User Experience

What makes an interface intuitive? Once designers understand the cognitive load and cognitive barriers they are more capable to design better products.

Leaving aside the issue of whether or not the user experience can be designed, which is just a semantic issue — although quite controversial — designers necessarily need to be aware that each user’s experience is unique, individual. The reason every experience has the potential to be unique to each user is, in part, because cognition is unique to each individual, too.

Although there are a ton of psychological principles that relate to cognition, in this material we will discuss two important ones that could potentially raise the level of designs for those who understand them.


A cognitive barrier is a difficulty experienced by someone when performing some action necessary to complete a goal. Most of these cognitive barriers are temporary and can be overcome just through information processing.

As usual, one day I woke up and went straight to the kitchen to make my first coffee (of the many I prepare in the morning). I went right to the cooktop and tapped the power button. He beeped three times and didn’t turn on. I did it again. It beeped again. I thought: I’ll have no coffee today, this thing broke. I didn’t know much about what to do because the cooktop was digital and had just a simple display with a few touch buttons. If I tapped the power button and it hasn’t turned on, all I have to do is go to a Starbucks. But there is no Starbucks in my city. I tried again. It beeped annoyingly again. And then I noticed that there was a light signaling next to the beep and it said “lock 3 sec” and then I thought: I think keeping my finger on this button would lock the cooktop panel, but as it is already locked, if I do it, maybe unlock it. I did. Unlocked. My coffee was safe. How dumb I went! Or was its design not so intuitive? — I’d rather think that is the second explanation.

For example, a user may have some difficulty filling out an extensive form with several complex fields, but understanding that it’s equally important to know when to add steps as it is when to remove them. Seven easy, short steps often impose a lower cognitive barrier than one long, difficult step. In addition, it is recommended to avoid unnecessarily difficult steps. Users will be more likely to complete difficult steps if they understand why the step needs to be so difficult.


Cognitive load is the amount of working memory required to achieve the user’s goal. The less a user has to think about what they need to do to achieve their goal, the more likely they’ll be to achieve it (Krug, 2000).

A cognitive load scenario is one where the user faces a large number of items to choose from. Generally, the more items they have in front of them, the harder and longer the choice will be. Therefore, understanding natural decision pivot points and how to manipulate the saliency of decision-making elements is key to ensuring users are quickly able to make the best choice.

Human working memory is limited — True story. A user is more likely to have a better experience and engagement on a simple site than one with a very broad and deep structure. In an article published in 1956 (Miller, 1956), George A. Miller essentially states that most people have the ability to store 5 to 9 things in their memory. That said, for instance, if you are creating a taxonomy or color system for status labeling, it would be ideal if you were somewhere in this range.

The key is to understand how much a person needs to think about a decision before making it. On the other hand, each experience must be assessed individually to determine whether people would:

  • Understand that they need to take some time to make a reasonable decision; and
  • They are willing to invest a time needed to make the decision.

The takeaway is not asking users to decide what to choose from tons of options. A good example is the main Netflix interface (Figure 1) that, while they display many options — and theoretically evading the 7±2 rule — they organize attractions in sections in a consumer-centered manner, showing suggestions based on user history, showing new TV series, displaying a list of movies from the user’s favorite category and even they highlight some great movies on the screen. For each section displayed on the interface, only a few items are available for the user to choose from, and the rest are hidden in a carousel format.

In fact, User Experience is much about how users find and consume content, and understanding the cognitive processes and nuances users go through when finding and consuming content is important to architecting an ideal experience or, at least, to designing a set of conventions that support a user having an ideal experience (Julien, 2012).


Aberg, G., & Chang, J. (2005). Applying Cognitive Science Research in Graphical User Interface (GUI). Umea Institute of Design.

Durrani, S., & Durrani, Q. S. (2009). Applying cognitive psychology to user interfaces. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Intelligent Human Computer Interaction. Springer.

Green, T. R., Davies, S. P., & Gilmore, D. J. (1996). Delivering cognitive psychology to HCI: the problems of common language and of knowledge transfer. Interacting With Computers 8.1.

Julien, J. (2012). https://uxmag.com/articles/cognition-the-intrinsic-user-experience.

Krug, S. (2000). Don’t make me think!: a common sense approach to Web usability. Pearson Education India.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review 63.2.

Nickerson, R. S., & Adams, M. J. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object. Cognitive psychology 11.3.

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