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I am starting my second year in grad school and thinking about what to study. One thing that I know is good to have a grasp of is cognitive psychology. But I would like to get someones perspective.

Have you studied cognitive psychology? Either 1 class or more... and what did that give you?

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8 Answers 8

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I reckon you could skip cognitive psychology and still be good at UX. Some people have the right mindset within them. However, a lot don't and an understanding of how the brain processes information, how attention and memory work and what kind of things interrup them I would say will give you a great foundation to build on. A lot of UX is about empathising with users in different situations and good understanding of psychology will provide that.

I found my study of cognitive and applied psychology gives me insight into user behaviour and interface design issues which I wouldn't have had if I didn't.

The bottom line is I love UX because I love understanding how people work and how to provide interfaces which help them be more productive and less error prone. If you want to learn more about how people process information and how the mind works study cognitive psychology. If you're interest in UX is because of something else, don't.

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Awesome, spot on. – Glen Lipka Aug 3 '10 at 14:27
Did you take a couple courses or do you have a degree in Cognitive Psych? – JeroenEijkhof Aug 4 '10 at 7:42
Totally agree! But i think that cog psychology it's more suitable for kinds like usability or accessibility than UX in general. I'm a cog psy graduated btw ;) – Elmook Aug 4 '10 at 14:57
any books to recommend? – Mashhoor Jun 27 '11 at 7:07

I got my PhD in cognitive psychology, then researched and taught it (lecturer/assistant prof) for the last nine years before deciding to move into UX. You don't have to go my route ;o) but I'd say that it's a really useful subject in which to get a little experience, mainly for the following three reasons:

  1. Being able to explain to your UX team the science behind why something doesn't work. This is incredibly useful, because it allows them to generalise the point and in doing so, learn from it. Example: in prototype testing, the user enters some data in a text field, presses OK to commit the change, and the screen reverts to an earlier page. The user's change is now registered peripherally on the screen, but because the whole page has changed, they don't notice it's there. Why? Change blindness. Knowing some of the basics of perception and attention means you can educate your UX team about why some things happen the way they do in testing, and it also gives them a vocabulary in which to frame the issue when it next comes up (and, ideally, avoid making the same mistake again).

  2. Participant-based research skills. It's pretty hard to get through a course in cognitive psychology without having to design and run at least a couple of experiments. This is great practice for later on when you may have to deal with participants: you get a grounding in explaining to people what is going on, practice at observing human behaviour in a lab-based setting, and you have to consider the ethics of participation in studies.

  3. Theoretical research skills. If you study nearly any flavour of academic psychology, you'll need to get used to reading and interpreting the experimental literature. This is a great skill to acquire, because it allows you to run off to, and interrogate, the literature whenever you want to understand a topic in more depth. It's really useful to get a feel for the relationship between psychological theory and human behaviour.

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+1 already for "Being able to explain to your UX team the science behind why something doesn't work." I'm not sure if CogPsy 101 is the best for UX designers - but it should beat nothing. – peterchen Jun 27 '11 at 9:11
I have been studying a lot since I asked this question and have been learning more about Cognitive Psychology. I use these principles all the time and it helps me to educate both clients and people around me. It also gives me a solid place to start looking and thinking about design problems. Thanks for a great answer. The last two though can also be acquired in other academic settings, especially the last one. The second point is something I have had much experience and education in doing my MS and taking usablity testing classes. Those were taught by someone with a PhD in cogn psych :) – JeroenEijkhof Jun 28 '11 at 20:43
I'm really glad it's working out for you :) And yeah, absolutely, (2) and (3) can be acquired in many academic settings. I wish I'd had the opportunity to do usability testing while I was a student! If only I'd known what it was at the time … ;) – finiteattention Jul 2 '11 at 11:08

I have a degree in informatics and really miss some basic knowledge about cognitive psychology. I read a lot at the moment to catch up on that.

It's not like there is some specific task in my UX work which I couldn't do without it (I do requirements research, ui concepts and usability tests). It's just the feeling that it would improve my interviewing skills (for research and tests) and help inform design decisions, if maybe only at a level that is hard to explain.

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I'm currently taking a degree in 'Cognitive Systems' which includes ComputerProgramming/Informatics, Cognitive Psychology, Linguistics, and a bit of Philosophy.

From the courses I've taken (mostly CompSci classes with a couple Psych and Ling), I've found the Linguistics courses to be just as relevant to UX design than the Psychology, if not more so. Discussions of how people communicate and perceive symbols influenced how I understand users, and hearing about different human languages demonstrates the variety of ways people think and process information. I've also gotten similar insights from the Anthropology courses I've taken.

Of course, different universities/colleges mean different things when they say a course covers 'Linguistics' (or anything else), so it takes a bit of hunting to see if such courses would be helpful for you.

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I also had the opportunity to go through a class, not in linguistics, but it was called a Communication Primer course and it focused heavily on how meaning is created with the use of words. It was very helpful to understand some of the nuances and have a clue on how to communicate 'meaning' with the language that I learnt. – JeroenEijkhof Aug 4 '10 at 15:39

Insights into cognitive (and social) psychology can be extremely useful (I did a 4 year degree in Applied Psychology, focusing on Human Computer Interaction), but as Damian Rees points out above - only study it if you are genuinely interested in it. You could certainly get by in UX without a background in cognitive psychology (many practitioners do, so it obviously isn't a pre-requisite). For me, working in the field of UX is the perfect mix - I love psychology and I love designing web and user interfaces so it gives me the opportunity to combine both. There's no reason why you can't stay informed about some of the issues by following popular psychology blogs (I'll post some links shortly ...) or even taking a look at something like to get you started - actually, the resources section of the getmentalnotes site includes some good links to books and online reading/blogs:

Why not take a look at some of these resources and see if they interest you?

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Wow! I want those Mental Note cards now :D – JeroenEijkhof Aug 4 '10 at 7:41
They are quite cool Jeroen (I am in no way affiliated to them btw!) - I flicked through them for the first time the other day in the middle of a sketching session. About half a dozen cards were relevant to the project we were working on which helped promote some discussion and sketching amongst the team, and some interesting ideas we may not have otherwise arrived at. – Tom Aug 4 '10 at 8:46
It took me while to find his 'demo' deck though... – PhillipW Aug 4 '10 at 12:50

Have you studied cognitive psychology? Either 1 class or more...


and what did that give you?

That's a difficult question.

A lot of the academic cognitive psychology probably isn't that relevant to UX to be honest... (for example the language generation / comprehension bit )

Without some good guidance you could spend a lot of time reading psychology stuff, which, while interesting isn't really that relevant to UX.

Which begs the next question...

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Designers/Architects can benefit by learning more about how people process, learn, remember information and understanding internal mental states. Because Cognitive Psychology is all about internal mental states and process, where the user get bored, perception etc. One simple answer to the question of "How valuable is studying cognitive psychology for UX,HCI?" is that there is already agreement about the importance of both topics to computer science education in general. For example, the report of the ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Curriculum Task Force [2] clearly identifies human-computer communication as one of the nine core areas of computer science. In this core topic the report authors include both computer graphics and human-computer interaction as related topics. Furthermore, the authors of the report point out that cognitive psychology is an important supporting discipline for three of the nine core areas of computer science, including artificial intelligence and human-computer communication.

Human-Computer Interaction and Cognitive Psychology in Visualization Education.

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I think it'd be useful, but ultimately, no amount of 'expert' knowledge will help a UX person nearly as much as knowing how to properly perform a usability test.

There seems an assumption that UX issues are something solved by just having talented, skilled designers. It helps, but it's not the whole story. A study of UX principles and ideas will only help you eliminate the most obvious problems - removing them all means sitting down with your users and watching how they actually use your software. And that's why knowing how to conduct, organize and accurately interpret user feedback is the biggest weapon in your arsenal.

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