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Statistical inference

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Often designers design stuff (products/services/interfaces etc.): to fit user personas, to solve problems, to make it beautiful etc. but don’t often consider the how it psychologically interfaces with the user. Such user experience design draws heavily from human psychological behaviors that are a result of millions of years of evolution. These behaviors will not change tomorrow or even in the next 10 years, therefore we should be aware of what these behaviors are and how our designs should take them into consideration.

I was therefore really excited to stumble on this article “The Psychologist’s View of UX Design” by Susan Weinschenk which is the most comprehensive collection, I have seen, of these “truths” of human behaviors. For my and your reference, I’ve taken the liberty to summarize the list here and added a sprinkling of my thoughts.

1. People Don’t Want to Work or Think More Than They Have To
Consider simplicity, lead by example i.e. show users how it is done, provide what people only really need, and help users make decisions.

2. People Have Limitations
Remember information overload? This is where it rears its ugly head. Keep information on a need to know basis, clump and/or create visual priority.

3. People Make Mistakes
People will make mistakes, respect that and try not to make them feel stupid. Having an “Undo” is vital and the best error message is none at all. Oh, do make sure the errors, if any, are not fatal please?

4. Human Memory Is Complicated
Human memory is prone to errors and inconsistency. It’s BS to say, “oh they will remember how to use it after using it for the first time”. Susan says “People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time. The ‘7 plus or minus 2’ rule is an urban legend”. From my anecdotal experience, I agree with her.

5. People are Social
People are social animals and will listen to others for guidance even if they don’t know that person. This is probably why many companies that the 5 star rating system seriously. Furthermore, the famous 150 “friends” social limit does apply. Any greater, the bond between people weakens.

6. Attention
People are easily distracted; design for focus or for attention, not both. You will be surprised how often both things happen at the same or at the wrong time.

7. People Crave Information
Susan says it best:

People will often want more information than they can actually process. Having more information makes people feel that they have more choices. Having more choices makes people feel in control. Feeling in control makes people feel they will survive better.

Don’t forget that feedback, such as at acknowledgement chime or a message, is also considered as information.

8. Unconscious Processing
Be careful in creating the wrong associations with your design, particularly important with communication and object design. There is a lot of subtle processing that happen especially through the visual sense, and this impacts greatly on decision-making. That is why, for the longest time, aesthetics was the key driver for the definition of good design.

9. People Create Mental Models
Mental models are the reason why Skeuomorph Design is so important in user experience design. If user research cannot determine a relevant mental model, use Metaphors to help with the ease of understanding and acceptance of a new concept or technology.

10. Visual System
Despite knowing that our visual sense is the strongest sense, this insight surprised me:

Research shows that people use peripheral vision to get the “gist” of what they are looking at. Eye tracking studies are interesting, but just because someone is looking at something straight on doesn’t mean they are paying attention to it.

I do encourage you to check out the full article at UX Mag, it is well worth the read.

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George E.P. Box, a statistician known for his body of work in time series analysis and Bayesian inference (and his quotes), recounts how he became a statistician while trying to solve actual problems. He was a 19-year-old college student studying chemistry. Instead of finishing, he joined the army, fed up with what the British government was doing to stop Hitler.

Before I could actually do any of that I was moved to a highly secret experimental station in the south of England. At the time they were bombing London every night and our job was to help to find out what to do if, one night, they used poisonous gas.

Some of England's best scientists were there. There were a lot of experiments with small animals, I was a lab assistant making biochemical determinations, my boss was a professor of physiology dressed up as a colonel, and I was dressed up as a staff sergeant.

The results I was getting were very variable and I told my colonel that what we really needed was a statistician.

He said "we can't get one, what do you know about it?" I said "Nothing, I once tried to read a book about it by someone called R. A. Fisher but I didn't understand it". He said "You've read the book so you better do it", so I said, "Yes sir".

Box eventually worked with Fischer, studied under E. S. Pearson in college after his discharge from the army, and started the Statistical Techniques Research Group at Princeton on the insistence of one John Tukey.

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