Designing human cognitive experiences.

“Natural science is concerned with the necessary, with how things are, whereas design is concerned with the contingent, with how things might be”, Herbert Simmon (1969).

The field of User Experience Design (UXD) is a conceptual discipline focused on the interaction between human users, artifacts, and their contextual environments.

So the main focus of this process is to design products and services that are intuitive and easy to use, and which are both relevant and significant to the target users. It combines product development, market research, graphic design and strategy to create a seamless process for users. This is done through the analysis of aspects like visual communication, information architecture, interaction design, usability, and accessibility of the observed system. According to architecture professor Chiu-Shui Chan, design is an human purpose driven by certain intentions and is accomplished by a series of actions to generate results. Design is a process, an artifact, and a discipline which can be defined as thinking activities executed by cognitive operations; therefore design is created by human cognition.

There is no doubt that our conduct emerges from the real-time interaction between a nervous system in a body with particular capabilities to process information and an environment that offers opportunities for action to this organism. As philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennet says, human brains are control centers for dealing with the the affordances (opportunities and risks) of our mobile life, therefore this complex organ is designed by natural selection to develop equipment that can extract the semantic information needed for this control task. Now from this point of view, our brain is part of a broader system that mixes perception and action instead of having to represent symbolic knowledge about the world and using it to simply output commands.

But human cognition is also constructive, which means that our actions in the world are actively constructed to facilitate concept formation,that is why User Experience Design focuses on outlining user interactivity and shaping communication opportunities to facilitate affordances. Although psychologist James J. Gibson coined the term “affordance” in 1966 to specify what the environment offers the individual, nowadays this term draws attention to the fit of the technology to the activity of the user and so lends itself to studying how ICTs may be appropriated by users or even misused. Affordances are an object’s properties that show the possible actions users can take with it, thereby suggesting how they may interact with that object, so designing products with affordances in mind is vital for clearly showing what users can do with them.

But, how can we help design good affordances? The answer can be found in Cognitive Ergonomics, a set of of practices that aim to ensure ‘appropriate human-system interaction by focusing in psychologica functions and behavioural level interactions. By drawing on knowledge of human perception, mental processing, and memory we can study the competencies and limitations of users in their interaction with the system in general (e.g., attention, perception errors, strategies, cognitive workload). That’s why optimizing the amount of working memory resources used by our users,  a cognitive system with a limited capacity that is responsible for temporarily holding information available for processing, is aligned with our inherent desire as designers to keep things clean and simple makes sense. By simplifying interfaces, putting people in a positive mood and creating a sense of familiarity we improve usability, reducing cognitive load and helping our users to not think too hard. Anything that requires users to stop and figure out what to do next is cognitive load, so when there is too much thinking the result is a confused user abandoning our product or service. A good UX design is that where the user can approach our artifact and continue easily without difficulties; all which can achieved by using popular and well-known mental-models, eliminating unnecessary steps, understanding how people use our system, decluttering our proposal, helping them decide by themselves.

As we have seen human brains have a limited amount of processing power when the amount of information coming in exceeds our ability to handle it, so our performance suffers, it takes longer to understand information, we miss important details, or even get overwhelmed and abandon the task. Designers should strive to eliminate, or at least minimize, processing that takes up mental resources but doesn’t actually help users understand the content. As architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe -whose tactic was one of arranging the necessary components of a building to create an impression of extreme simplicity- we should also adopted his motto “Less is more”, or  engineer Buckminster Fuller liked to say: “Doing more with less”.

Now that we are at this point talking about simplicity and minimalism it will be interesting to share Dr. Susan Weinschenk´s knowledge about the brain, the visual system, memory, and motivation and extrapolate this theories of cognitive science to UX design principles:

1. People Don’t Want to Work: we will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.

2. People Have Limitations: we can only process a certain amount of information without losing interest.

3. People Make Mistakes: anticipate what the users will do and try to prevent mistakes.

4. Human Memory Is Complicated: humans reconstruct memories, which means that what we remember is always changing.

5. People are Social: we look to others for guidance on what we should do, especially if they are uncertain.

6. Attention: grabbing and holding onto attention, and not distracting users when they are paying attention to something, are key concerns.

7. People Crave Information: learning is dopaminergic (addictive) we can’t help but want more information;

8. Unconscious Processing: most mental processing occurs unconsciously;

9. People Create Mental Models: since we always have preconceptions about a certain object or task, metaphors help users “get” a conceptual model.

10. Use Visual Systems to help people.

So for all this reasons, from a UX Design perspective, it will be interesting to embrace open innovation techniques centered on a participatory design approach which invites all stakeholders (e.g. customers, employees, partners, citizens, consumers) into the design process as a means of better understanding, meeting, and sometimes preempting their needs. Economist Eric von Hippel found that user innovation occurs when individuals or firms that actually use a product or service develop what they need for themselves. An important finding in the past decade of innovation studies has been the recognition of the role of communities outside of the boundaries of firms in creating, shaping and disseminating technological and social innovations.

UX designers solve problems, help users do things, and guide their behavior towards certain outcomes. The only way this can effectively be done is by thinking of innovative solutions and being creative and structured in order to truly connect with our users. And most of the times this can be achieved by using the KISS principle, an acronym for “keep it simple, stupid”, a theory that states that most systems work best if they are kept uncomplicated. Let’s turn our attention to this wise words…

*(Pictures:, &

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