Ok, Here’s a Psych Thing

Sometimes people are curious if and how I use my psychology degree as a designer. The answer is yes. I use it much more than I thought I would. Then they ask why, but I never successfully remember the very articulate words I rehearse to the walls of my shower.

My colleague Boon Sheridan shared this article with me a few days ago that looked into the different ways that offering a lot of choices might affect consumers. Many people who “are into psychology” unfortunately tend to limit themselves to the big, famous studies (that are now over 50 years old), and use them to make broad sweeping generalizations about design. That’s cool, but the good shit is really in the recent work–which has iterated on and likely overturned the older work–and more for the sake of design exploration and context. This article, for example, discusses four different points of view. It’s not giving us some magic formula.

Don’t read it, it’s boring as hell. Ultimately all it’s saying is that:

  • A person’s mindset helps determine how they react to a lot of options. If they’re searching, it’s ok; if they’re choosing, it’s hard.
  • We used to think that an abundance of options was better. Then we thought that small, curated selections were. It actually doesn’t matter, so long as a customer feels in control.
  • In some cases, people might not want their options categorized and curated. They might find it fun to dig through for something they like.
  • In choosing an option, people tend to avoid extremes, and will pick something in the middle.

Then the paper describes the scenarios the researchers used and the observations they made to come to those conclusions.

What this means as a designer is that you can use those insights as design direction:

Say you are designing a shopping experience. Which one of these sound like something you want for your user? Are you overwhelming your users no matter how many filters or categories you try to organize your options? Or are they complaining that they can’t find something that makes them happy? Are you trying to sell a certain plan? Awesome. Make the cheap one sound cheap, and the expensive one sound irresponsible.

When the time comes to get feedback, you’ve got your rationale already, and talking points that will make sense to stakeholders from any part of the business.

(Contrary to popular belief, these studies are usually not experiments and the data isn’t all quantitative–so you can test things with users just like any other assumption you’d make in your work).


When I was trying to decide whether I should quit psychology for good, I took an online career switching workshop. One of the most salient experiences I had there was this exercise where you were supposed to get magazines or books about the thing you thought you wanted to do for a living, and leave them around your place. If after some time, you noticed that you never picked one of them up to read, maybe it wasn’t something you’re truly passionate about. Academia runs on peer-reviewed journals–dense, esoteric, pedantic things. I put stacks on them around. They gathered dust.

A few years after I had left my program and was working in UX, I was packing up for a move and came across them. I spent the next three hours or so, reading stuff I couldn’t get myself to do so when it was my job. Reframed from the perspective of design and technology, they had become little goldmines of context and exploration.

In hindsight, studying psychology wasn’t a waste of time. For a few years after I left, I thought I had made a mistake. I regretted the years that I could have otherwise spent building my design career. Everyone else was younger and way more experienced. Assuring employers that my background was beneficial was a hard sell. I banked on the industry having a soft spot for people who quit school.

Then the internet changed, and suddenly it was something people wanted (because manipulating people brings profit). Big tech companies started to hire people out of academia who were making pennies–and gave them hordes of juicy data and creative freedom…

Someone still had to make the wireframes though.