I had this conversation with my wife yesterday as we discussed an article I am writing. I asked her about the psychological frameworks that measure cognitive events from priming, specifically within Gestalt Theory. My question was whether the common measurements we take in UX relate to the theoretical frameworks of cognitive, behavioral, or cognitive-behavioral psychology (I personally always thought it was cog-sci)

Her answer surprised me, as she told me she honestly didn't know. To explain it better, she told me that while we take a lot from Don Norman in UX (obviously), and he is a clear reference for both UX and cognitive science, most of the methods we use and what we try to measure are behavioral and influenced by authors like Gibson, and that cognitive-behavioral methods apply mainly to therapy, not to theoretical frameworks like UX.

However, she does not feel that a pure paradigm is used in UX and that she definitely sees more elements of Vygotsky's sociocultural psychology (which in turn partly influences Gibson).

She also feels that this lack of definition is the cause of many methodological research failures in UXR because we use formulas like Hicks Law (or Fitts') that are clearly behavioral, but we try to see them through cognitive lenses.

Now, she's a PhD in psychology, so her opinion clearly has a lot of foundation, but her doubts about it got me thinking: is there a psychological paradigm in which we can really include the most common UX research methods? Or is there, as she says, no pure paradigm, but a mixture of methods and methodologies?

Answers that can incorporate Gestalt and/or priming are also a great help!

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    The really useful insight is that the human brain is a pattern matching device, and we impose these patterns on the incoming data. Or as James Burke put it: "What we see, is what we think we will see". Which is cognitive. – PhillipW Jun 15 at 8:17
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    Is there a link to the article that you are writing that can be put in the comment section when it is completed, just out of interest? – Michael Lai Jun 15 at 23:55
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    @MichaelLai not yet, but I'll gladly share it as a comment next week – Devin Jun 16 at 17:37

What are Paradigms?

By paradigm or framework (or perspective), I believe you’re referring to a set ideas or assumptions of how human behavior and experience should be understood. For example, the cognitive paradigm regards the user to be an information processor that takes in sensory data and manipulates it to arrive at a judgement and decision to act. The behavioral paradigm regards the user to act as a function of a history of environmental conditions (mostly, users do whatever they were rewarded for doing before, although no hard-core behaviorist would use language like that). There’re also psychodynamic and humanistic paradigms, and some define others (e.g., biological, and, I guess, Vygotsky; new one for me).

Psychology paradigms are bigger than psychology subject areas, such as cognitive psychology (study of perception, attention, memory etc.) and social psychology (study of the influence of people on each other). Paradigms direct the researchers towards causal factors in whatever subject area they are studying. For example, one could study user behavior with either a cognitive paradigm or behavioral paradigm. The cognitive paradigm would see behavior as due to a decision process fed by information from the user’s perceptual and recall processes. The behavioral paradigm would see behavior as function of frequency and recency of the reinforcements (i.e., rewards) for that sort of behavior.

You may think UX is mostly cognitive paradigm, but really it’s a lot of cognitive subject area, not a paradigm. Judging from most of the questions on this site, our biggest challenge is making web sites and apps comprehendible to users, so we tend to think and talk about influencers of perception and understanding (e.g., gestalt principles and priming effects), which are in cognitive psychology.

OP’s Wife is Correct

If, as a UXer reading this, you find the above paradigms rather alien, that’s because paradigms are not really relevant in UX. UX does not fit in any of the traditional academic psychology paradigms. This is pretty much true of fields of applied psychology, such as engineering psychology, consumer psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, and educational psychology (but, significantly, not necessarily clinical and counseling psychology, which have the bulk of applied psychologists). Instead of having a single paradigm to define our perspective of user experience, UXers, like many kinds of applied psychologists, peruse a toolbox of theories and principles (like Gestalt), methods (like measuring reaction time to the millisecond), and known phenomena (like priming) that we apply whenever one looks helpful without any regard for (or even awareness of) philosophical consistency.

Paradigms, Schmaradigms

I believe applied psychology in general and UX in particular is better off with tools rather than paradigms. Even counseling and clinical psychologists may have more success if they are “eclectic” or hybrids (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapists), rather than dogmatically remaining in a single paradigm. And tools can come from anywhere. I don’t see Hicks or Fitts as being of the behavioral paradigm or any psychological paradigm. Both are applications of information theory, which is a tool from outside psychology entirely. Maybe regarding these formulas from a behavioral paradigm could improve our research just because it could provide a new way of understanding them, but the same could be said regarding the cognitive paradigm.

Some academics could argue for decades over whether a user failed to click a link due a perception-memory-decision-making process or a history of environmental reinforcements. To such academics, the two alternative explanations are clearly incompatible due to their roots in opposing histories and philosophies of science. However, I think to us as practitioners, it’s self-evident that both are right. The user didn’t click the link because it looked like an advertisement. The chain of causation had both informational factors (the ad had the shape and position of a banner ad) and reinforcement factors (users have been “burned” by banner ads often enough that they avoid them). Which factor we focus on is simply a matter of which we can control: it’s easier for us to change the appearance of the link than create rewards for clicking banners ads on other sites in the users’ environment, so we deal with the perception, not the reinforcement history.

Ascribing to a paradigm is like putting on a blindfold and feeling an elephant. You end up with a limited and unrealistic picture. The lesson of paradigms for applied psychology and UX is on what to avoid. One should question one’s assumptions and always be open to new perspectives. We can always use a new tool.

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    Great answer Michael, thank you for the detailed response, lots of food for thought – Devin Jun 15 at 18:22

I think this is one of those questions that can easily end up being a dissection and discussion about definitions, or something that becomes opinionated, so I will try to avoid going down those paths.

However, I think the real answer lies somewhere in both cognitive and behavioural domains because the classic user experience exists between a user and the interface, and so we have to consider both the existing behavourial aspects of humans (that derive from our learned social behaviours in a group) as well as the cognitive aspects of our perception and processing of the output from the interface (that we evolved from interacting with our natural environment originally). In addition, we also have to factor in how the human and interface interactions can modify existing behaviours, and how this modified behaviour can change our cognitive processes.

Now whether this all fits into some nice paradigm or not, undoubtedly it requires a mixture of methods (that come from the basic scientific research methods) to capture information we can use to refine our understanding of it all. In the past this was all confined to interpersonal or environmental interactions, but the digital medium poses some interesting questions about what the most effective way to do this actually is. The fact that we are starting to trend towards things like voice interfaces and AI/chatbot interactions means that we are moving back to something that we are more accustomed to. But no doubt it will continue to evolve and change as new technologies emerge (e.g. bot-to-bot interactions) and as we develop new behaviours due to our interaction with said technologies.

Some of the most fascinating research in psychology comes from working at the boundaries of behavioural and cognitive studies, such as the 'uncanny valley hypothesis' of our emotional reactions to different degrees of human-likeness. And I do think that as the social science research starts delving deeper into the relationship and interaction between humans and our more complex interfaces there will be new hypotheses and models developed to describe our knowledge in this area better.

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    Great answer Michael, I agree with everything – Devin Jun 15 at 18:16

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