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12 Insights About People Every Designer — and You — Need to Know

Colorful illustration of side profiles of a group of people.
Design and psychology asks you to think and consider other people and how they interpret the world. [Dumitru/AdobeStock]

Psychology informs how designers shape products and experiences for you.

Psychology underpins design in many ways. The study of the human mind lends itself to methods of creative problem solving. Given this, it’s not surprising to know that many Salesforce designers hold psychology degrees. Among them is Aimee Slupski, a Salesforce experience designer.

“My background in psychology — especially the social and cognitive branches — has shaped my design approach,” said Slupski, who has a degree in computer science and psychology. Many of her colleagues similarly have explored a range of subjects from anthropology to philosophy. What insights about people do these designers find useful in their work and how might those insights help you build relationships, too?

Through a kaleidoscope of lenses, several Salesforce designers offered universal takeaways that would serve anyone practicing human-centered design.

What’s human-centered design?

It’s an approach to creating solutions that meet people’s specific needs.

Here are 12 insights about people that can inform your design work:

1. When people are unsure how to behave, they look at other people’s behavior to guide their own.

This is also known as social proof, a theory that gained traction in the mid-1980s. It describes situations when people aren’t sure what’s expected of them and they assume other people know more. For example: When someone wants to find a good restaurant nearby, they look at reviews on Google.

“Many times, a design goal is to promote a behavior or establish credibility, and social proof is inextricably linked to this,” Slupski said. Her studies have made her increasingly interested in what other shortcuts come naturally to us all.

2. People often rely on biases to process large amounts of information daily.

Slupski also said that we each consume a lot of information every day. Over a decade ago, a University of California-San Diego study reported an average American consumes 34 gigabytes of media per day. Today, it’s presumably even more.

To make sense of all this, people rely on habits and heuristics. The American Psychological Association defines heuristics as rules-of-thumb that can be applied to guide decision-making based on a more limited subset of the available information. That’s what gives rise to biases favoring what’s recent, confirms personal beliefs, or that others will like. And there are even more ways that processing so many bits of information impacts our brains — including the time it takes.

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3. The more choices a person has, the longer it takes to make a decision.

While Hick’s law may seem obvious, it’s an important reminder to the professionals creating decision trees. Salesforce UX/UI lead Zack Kirby said, “Keeping UIs simple is critical to user-friendly design. Creating a less-complex experience starts with a designer who can filter the options being presented to users.”

Kirby holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “[For UX design], there are a number of psychological principles that inform us and help us understand those mental processes.” He also considers how people hold bigger concepts.

4. People form mental models based on their own experiences and expectations of the real world.

We all have our own internal representation of the world. This is a mental model, which is also known as “deeply held images of thinking and acting.” It applies to perceptions of digital experiences.

“Because users now spend so much time online and interacting with digital products, they have expectations on how they should function,” Kirby said. An example of an expectation is that UX should be straightforward. “Deviating from these expectations could prevent users from successfully using your product.”

Design that is the simplest — but that maintains character — will be the most impactful.

Olivia Copsey
Creative designer, Salesforce

5. Busy designs overwork human brains.

The brain gets tired from everything it’s doing, short-cutting and speeding through processes. If a design is too busy, the brain tries to parse out what’s most important. If it can’t, all the information can be interpreted neutrally. Many times that translates to forgettable. As a creative designer at Salesforce, Olivia Copsey keeps this top of mind.

“I once heard that our brains are made for having ideas, not storing them,” Copsey said. “Design that is the simplest — but that maintains character — will be the most impactful.”

6. People remember feelings even when they forget details.

Emotion can leave a lasting impression. While the amygdala and hippocampus also support memory function, “emotion does not always enhance memory.”

In her user research, Copsey has seen this prove out. “It just shows that we need to make design that creates a feeling,” she said.

With a mother who’s been in social work for over 20 years, Copsey has been drawn toward emotion since she was young. After initially going to college to major in psychology, she leaned toward art, communications, and graphic design. Her career has been at the intersection of them all.

7. People are motivated by desire.

Desirability describes how much people want to use a product. Usability can be incomplete without a sense of enjoyment. It’s something Scott Hodgman takes into account in his work as a customer success director at Salesforce.

“I work a lot with attitudinal metrics, desirability, and usability,” Hodgman said. His background includes a master’s degree in the psychology of religion, especially underlying perceptions and cognitive dissonance. These themes of inner life and outer behavior are at the core of a more empathetic lens on humankind.

8. If someone has a problem, they also have a psychological construct contributing to its continuation.

There’s usually more to a problem than meets the eye. It could have been forming for years through related and unrelated experiences. “Sentiment is a complex construct built up and fossilized over time,” Hodgman said.

“Concepts like perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors reinforce narratives about an experience or application.” Much of this may not be immediately apparent to others. It can live beneath the surface or not yet be in someone’s realm of awareness.

9. People don’t always say what they mean.

This might be because it’s difficult to articulate a problem. No matter the cause, active listening leads to better understanding. The ability to observe a situation before solutioning can guide a more relevant, useful, and delightful design. Empathy is at the heart of design thinking. So is the ability to connect the roots of a solution back to the key insights of the problem.

“You have to watch and listen to see what is really going on before proposing a solution to what is at hand,” said Katie Luby, who’s an account partner on the Salesforce professional services team. “People may not always be able to tell you the root cause of a problem. However, their approach to solving it with workarounds can give clues to a value-based solution. You can take what works and make it better.”

10. The same person can have different goals and needs.

No one acts the same in every situation. People switch modes of thinking and behavior according to what’s at stake. Something lower stakes might be how you conduct yourself in a casual conversation. A high-stakes environment, such as a negotiation with a big client, requires a different level of engagement to maintain your relationship and reputation.

“In any digital engagement, you have to think about how to approach your consumer,” said Luby, who studied anthropology and human-centered communications design. “Is the need urgent? Or is it something I want to contemplate and learn more about? Those are things that will influence the content and options you provide.”

11. People’s problems are full of complexity.

People are multifaceted. They don’t fit into one tidy box. Michael Albers is a product designer for the Emerging Technologies team at Salesforce. Having designed AR, VR, and the ground-based command stations for NASA’s satellites, Albers is no stranger to complexity.

“A lot of designers search for very clean answers,” Albers said. “But these clean answers often happen through over-simplifying the problem. Sometimes, simplistic solutions remove the nuance necessary for solving a messy problem, whereas a collection of related-but-specific tools can be more appropriate.” He embraces the bigger picture and the whole person — even when it doesn’t initially make sense.

12. Humans have an inherent quirkiness.

Humans have a surprising way of mentally perceiving and physically moving through the world. If you don’t think it’s quirky, you might be taking it for granted. Isn’t it amazing that people can rapidly detect motion? That emotions can drive physical response? Remembering this supports design work and lets us come back to how humans work.

“Our understanding of human perception and physiology has to drive the development and optimization of the user’s experience,” Albers said.

While much will change in the future, this truth is a constant.

“At its essence, design and psychology asks us to think and consider other people and how they interpret the world,” said Olivia Copsey. “Anyone who thinks critically about how we exist and make sense of the world as humans already has a leg up in their designs.”

The more designers know about the science of the mind and the psychology of design, the better. This knowledge can be built formally or informally — from Trailhead modules to reading design books. The key is to never stop learning.

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Kate Hughes Senior Writer

Exploring stories at the intersection of design, technology and social good

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