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December 02, 2015

The Psychology and Brief History of User Experience

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A Brief Overview of the History and Psychology of UX and UI Design

The term “user experience” was coined in 1995, but its history begins centuries before. Some date it back to Leonard da Vinci; others date it to Hippocrates. Either way, for centuries, user experience has been a motivating factor in developing technology to improve processes and increase efficiency, and therefore, productivity.

The concept of user experience design originated to optimize the relationship between laborers and their tools. When Hippocrates provided a description of an optimal workplace for a surgeon, he aimed to make the surgeon’s workplace more efficient. When da Vinci invented the kitchen conveyor belt, he aimed to make the lives of food preparers easier.

With the Industrial Revolution and the invention of automobiles, it became increasingly necessary to improve efficiency and productivity. During this time, Henry Ford pioneered mass-production techniques, and Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer, published “The Principles of Scientific Management,” a study of engineering efficiency. Together, Henry and Taylor shaped the modern notion of the user-machine relationship.

In the mid-20th century, Henry Dreyfuss, an industrial designer, wrote the book Designing for People, a book widely studied by UX designers. He believed that machines adapted to people would be the most efficient. Based on this belief, Dreyfuss contributed to the design of some of the most influential machines of modern times – upright vacuum cleaners, a Mercury locomotive, a John Deere tractor, and wall-mounted telephones, just to name a few.

In today’s times, UX and UI design has become synonymous with human-computer interaction (HCI). The computer is now the tool consumers use to pay bills, shop online, watch television, correspond with friends, and the list goes on. From a business standpoint, websites need to be user-friendly in order for visitors to successfully move through the buying funnel. To influence consumer behavior, designers must have a deep understanding of human psychology.

The Psychology behind UX and UI Design

"Design is the practice of creating non-random affect in people to solve a problem. In other words, you make them feel, think, and do stuff, on purpose."

Joel Marsh, Experience Architect

The user experience is made up of emotions and motivations. According to Joel Marsh from The Hipper Element, there are six important parts of an experience:

  1. What the user feels
  2. What the user wants
  3. What the user thinks
  4. What the user believes
  5. What the user remembers
  6. What the user doesn’t realize

Great UX design encompasses all of these aspects, particularly the last part - what the user doesn’t realize. With this point, the design is then so intuitive that it’s not obvious to the user what its designed to do, which is influence behavior based on the user’s motivations.

Motivations drive behavior. According to Marsh, “When users become loyal or have a deep appreciation for your product, it’s because of motivations, not emotions.” There are 14 basic motivations, and six of them can be used to design a user experience – sex, love, affiliation, status, justice, and understanding (curiosity). Understanding each of these motivations is key to designing a great user experience. For instance, teaser movie trailers are designed to pique a viewer’s curiosity. The viewer is then, hopefully, motivated to spend money on a movie ticket.  

We’ve only touched the surface of the history and psychology behind UX and UI design. The UX and UI design industry encompasses many specialty fields, each focusing on a niche in the process of designing to influence behavior. Designers study many aspects of psychology to understand the “why we buy” in order to make websites as user-friendly and intuitive as possible.
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