Psychology as a Basis for User Interface Design

I just finished reading Desgning with the Mind in Mind. It’s a great book on interface design. Unforatunately, the entire organizing premise of the book is completely flawed.

The author assumes that good design is based on the application of cognitive psychology. Or, at least, that good design is substantiated by psychology. This is overarching theme of the book- that we can use scientific psychology to guide the application of design principals. None of this is obvious and there is good reason to be skeptical about it.

Soft sciences and pseudo-sciences both love to claim that they are founded on hard sciences and respected research. It lends them credibility. You see this pattern in things like the technical analysis of stocks, which claims to be founded on rigorous statistics. You can see it in economic models of incredible mathematical complexity as well.

These kinds of claims also provide a coherent mythology for origins of the field at the expense of ignoring real history. This book makes up such a history where the field of product design originated as extension of bio-psychological research. The mythology might provide a useful organization for exploring design, but it should be acknowledged as an incomplete truth at best.

We can trust the frameworks that underly many of the hard sciences because they make predictions or testable claims of some kind. As an example, Newton’s laws predicted the existence of Neptune. Does cognitive psychology give us something similar? I haven’t seen it. No principals of design in the book need the advances of cognitive psychology to explain their purpose or power. The most useful tool in discovering good design is empathy with the user.

Some important topics in design don’t fit the model in the book. Cognitive and biology pscyhology try to understand perception at the biological level. They study something universal to all humans. But many design principals depend heavily on culture. Cultural variance in design is outside of the model of design presented in the book.

The real scientific approach to design is the actually empirical approach - stuff like A/B testing. I don’t see how many of the results from these experiments fit together with the story in the book.