The psychology of design

Published on Jun 7, 2022

by Dr. Duck

Like so many foolish people, I have invited a great deal of gnashing of teeth and frustrated sobbing (not really but sounds dramatic) in response to our home renovation.

Anyone who has built or renovated a home leaves the experience with war wounds. Hearing the horror stories of other renovations is a great comfort—because as you know, misery loves company. Note. Please pass on your horror renovation stories to nick@opposite.com.au to discuss with my therapist.

Take this for example. A person we met at a party described his experience, breaking into his own future home to take photographs of shoddy work that was getting covered up. Ceiling features were curvy instead of straight. The spot for the washing machine couldn’t fit any Australian appliance so they had to order a micro-size unit from the United Kingdom.

Perhaps worse still, their stove and oven were positioned slightly askew. The stove top was installed slightly to the left of the oven. Just a centimetre or two that could not be unseen by the human eye.

You’d think, is it really a big deal? A couple of centimetres yet the oven and stove work.

It’s strange that it’s universal for humans to prefer symmetry and order when it comes to certain aspects of our environment like how things line up in a kitchen. But think of a few other contexts.

A fringe needs to be cut straight as well otherwise the person just looks odd.

The seats on a plane are organised to line up perfectly. We’d be perplexed if every second seat was hanging a few centimeters into the aisle.

A picture frame just has to be straightened even if it is almost perfectly level.

An oven that is slightly off centre doesn’t feel right even though the oven works and there is no law of nature that determines it to be unnatural.

One psychological phenomena that can explain this is our need for closure. This is where we need an answer to a problem and hate the feeling of something being open-ended. You might hate movies that leave a mystery ambiguous or an ending open for a sequel.

People differ in how much they need closure. Individuals who are particularly high in trait anxiety generally dislike ambiguity and sweat over the details. They are more likely to spot where the design and plan do not match and will be especially aggravated by inaccurate measurement and lack of order.

Individuals high in need for closure also tend to be less creative than those who are lower in this need. This explains why so many designs are not straight lines and boxes. Our world is not just mechanically constructed with hard lines.

Truly memorable and inspiring designs, such as the Sydney Opera House, defy our need for simple order and structure. Nevertheless, there is still a sense or order and wholeness about the Sydney Opera House. It is not a meaningless collection of angles with no thought.

What makes something ‘designed’ and designed well is difficult to describe.

Design, according to the dictionary term means: to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan. It’s a deliberate process that involves thinking through how something will look, integrate, and be used and viewed by users. As such, the off-centre oven is more about what it says about the plan—that it was ineffective and a sign of poor craftmanship.

Poor design can also lead to general confusion and improper use of technology. Take an oven door that simply doesn’t open or a control panel that isn’t labelled. The aesthetics may signal quality and order but the use of the design is also fundamental—if not more so for most individuals.

The Opera House, for example, is a functional building and space for people. It is positioned at a place of interest, can be used for concerts, gatherings and networks, wedding proposals, photographs on the harbour etc. It is not simply ‘art’ as it has a clear function and purpose to be used.

There are specific heuristics in design that can be used to help guide our understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. These heuristics are those that most closely relate to our psychology—that is how we perceive a design and how it allows us to behave in a specific way. These principles can help explain confusion and human error. They can also explain why a specific design feels more intuitive.

We have summarised some of these heuristics into categories that align with how the user ‘uses’ them:

Functional–design heuristics that tell the user something about how technology functions through how it looks, feels or sounds. For example, if a button has the same function as another (e.g. a light switch) you expect all light switches to be similar in size and application, as well as to make a satisfying ‘click’ when you use one or a visual change (e.g. some feedback loop).

Freedom—Design heuristics that enable the user to have autonomy in how they use it. Unlike the light switch that goes on and off, a light switch that allows you to select different levels of light is a design consideration that allows the user to fine tune to their preferences. A building that is militant about its function, such as a movie theatre cannot be used easily for other functions, like an orchestral concert, even if it has the seats available. The space essentially forces the user down one path.

Relatable—Heuristics make use of the real world to prime understanding. For example the triangle on its side is commonly used as the symbol for ‘play’. This can be used in to start a movie on Netflix as well as start a video game on a controller. Our past experiences often dictate what we consider to be ‘relatable’. If I grow up learning to read from left to right and to start a book from front to back, I will naturally order my thinking that way when using software, for example.

Wholeness—These principles concern how the entire system comes together to ultimately ‘make sense’. In a design, it could be creating cues in the environment that give a section of a room closure or for control panels, it might be the ordering and grouping of lots of buttons into a group of functions. The Sydney Opera House is an example of a design that works when you consider it as a whole, as well as the broader context of where it is located.

Opposite have developed a mini-module of design heuristics that introduces you to the psychology of design. This module introduces the design psychology concept in the context of the video-game industry. The heuristics can be applied to various contexts and can be a useful method to cross-check whether your design makes sense.

If you are interested in learning more, you can get tickets for the free one-hour session at here. If you would like a more comprehensive program, our two day Human-Centred design program is restarting in August and is now run online.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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