The Startup
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The Startup

Like American Children in the British Parliament

the Frontier of Design Psychology in the Digital Space

We live in a world today where our most prized possession has become a rectangular piece of machined, beveled metal, kept on our person at all times. It is intentionally designed to be attractive to touch, easy to handle, satisfying to lock, inviting when turned on. Some people find a similar attachment to their laptop or tablet, however my point isn’t to go on that obsessive rant about Apple’s design process and end product, as many designers are familiar with (or have heard from an opinionated colleague.) I’m not interested in who designed your device, either, whether it be Apple, Google, Samsung, or others.

Since each of these objects are designed for human beings, I want to shine a light on the why your device was designed the way it was, and how those design decisions have made it so indispensable in your everyday life.

Let’s start by focusing on your smartphone. The monetary value isn’t what forces you to keep it with you at all times, or else we’d all keep our most valuable possessions on us at all times — and let’s be honest, that would be ridiculous. Instead, the value comes from the interactions we each have every day with the programs, applications, and — interestingly enough — with other people glued to their phones as well. That, to me, is a relationship that is very important to highlight.

Physical product designers are quite familiar with the idea that, no matter what it is that you design, you cannot predict every single thing that a normal person might do with your product — it’s just not possible! I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve used my house key to open an Amazon box or pop off a bottle cap. As humans, we are naturally inclined to be curious, innovative, and progressive — and designers can’t account for everything.

On the other hand, our physical human interactions with digital devices are oddly limited (although to be clear, I’m leaving aside digital interactions with AR and VR, that’s another conversation entirely.) On a smartphone, we only have one window through which to interact: the screen. At that point, all of our interactions transition from a physical action to an entirely psychological exchange — an exchange of thoughts, emotions, values, and instinctual reactions. This exchange is where many of my questions and frustrations lie with the digital design industry.

If we, as digital designers, are crafting an experience that lives exclusively in the minds of our users, why is there not a more in-depth analysis or exploration of human psychology built into our design process?

The common digital, or user experience (UX), design process for creating experiences online or on your smartphone (eg. apps or websites) follows a few specific steps: discovery or exploration of the clients wants or needs, research on the problem space, ideating solutions to the problem, creating and utilizing user journeys and personas to identify additional problems, wireframing and implementation of your design, followed by testing. This is where the agile design process comes into play — iterate quickly to fail quickly, so to come to the correct solution quickly and ensure product fit for user groups.

Even just a light amount of research will tell you that many, if not most, design firms follow a similar internal digital design process. Although each firm might have their own spin on the discovery step or tweak to the creation of an effective persona, all have the common goal of creating a product for the general public to bring in money and sustain future projects. Everything revolves around speed and efficiency of the process. But will speed and efficiency produce the best end product for the psychological wellbeing of the users?

When it comes to the actual scientific process, the answer is no.

To properly design, implement, analyze, validate through peer review, and publish a scientific research study usually takes months, if not years. And often, the study fails and requires yet another study to figure out why the first study failed, and how to avoid the same outcome in future studies. Now, take that process and apply it to the human psyche — something that’s been studied for hundreds of years and still isn’t entirely understood.

That is currently the formal process for researchers and experts.

Now imagine sending inexperienced designers with no formal psychology background to design a product that interacts solely with the human psyche. It sounds like sending a group of American children to the British Parliament to solve Brexit — not only a terrible idea, but a decision that would leave long-lasting negative impacts on huge numbers of people.

The effect is the same here.

We need to remember that the world of digital design and user experience really only became accessible to the public around the advent of the iPhone in 2007. The empirical data to see the long-lasting effect that digital experiences are having on people just doesn’t exist. Tech changes so quickly that before we can see the effect that one product has on it’s users, designers jump back in and make another change. This ability to change your product at will can be seen as a negative thing, especially when looking for solutions to problems we’re only now beginning to uncover with digital products, but think about the power in that.

Tech continues to progress at a speed that we can move from being reactive in our design changes, as is often required with physical products, to instead be proactive in the way that we create. Proactive in anticipating the needs and actions of our users, not only in a physical, but also a psychological manner.

I’m not saying I have a solution to the problem, but instead posing a question and framing the space. We need to begin the discussion in order to become human-centered designers in every aspect of design, just like Don Norman always dreamt we could be.

Designers are a unique breed who, at times, have potentially too much power at their fingertips. We can see evidence of this everywhere, like in the writing of Mike Monteiro, Andrea Drugay, or Phil Delalande, who all have powerful things to say on similar topics, I just hope we can be fully aware of what that power is.

As a graduate student currently enrolled at the Royal College of Art and the Imperial College of London studying Global Innovation Design, my goal is to continue to pose these questions, seek to understand how we’ve ended up where we have, and begin to look for a solution. If no solution exists, at least we’ve taken note, not only as designers, but hopefully as people who are all unavoidably involved and — in turn — have a responsibility to do something about it.

I’ll let you know when I’ve made progress. In the meantime, if you think I’ve missed something, please let me know, always looking for more.

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Christian Pugsley

Christian Pugsley

Designer — MA/MSc Global Innovation Design @ RCA / Imperial College, just a grad student trying his hand at writing. See more of my work at www.cpugsley.com