At one time or another, all of us have felt lost trying to find a piece of information on a webpage or locating a tool in a work application. Perhaps you’ve been frustrated trying to reset a password for a patient portal that you haven’t visited in a while. Experiences such as these are common but avoidable when developers take the time to understand how users engage with content. At NantHealth, we apply a user-first approach to our design process and the steps we take to learn and understand a user’s behavior in order to optimize our user-facing solutions.
Wired to Care – How Empathy Informs Product
As a healthcare technology company, we provide powerful software solutions to address complex workflows. Our users range from physicians to back-office medical practice professionals exchanging critical patient information and collaborating with insurance companies. To provide our users with the optimal experience, we need to understand the human mind clearly.
Understanding Human Behavior and Decision Making
Our understanding of human psychology is core to this process. This critical human component, based on decades of research, helps us better understand how a user will interpret information, engage, and react in various situations. Considering a user’s mindset, environmental factors, and capacity to manage the information presented to them, dramatically influences how a solution is developed to meet their needs best.
The mind of a user is complex; the necessary work to research, test, and validate the design of any interface quickly becomes a project in and of itself often running in parallel to UX architectural and visual design ideation. The studies we focus on take into consideration several factors: where a user lives, works, and other tools they use. Fortunately, a lot of the data we need is readily available through a range of resources documenting past and current scientific findings that define baselines for visual and interaction development. Established research, the cornerstone in UX culture, confirms the basic rules and understanding that provide a framework for initial concept development and reference for developing ongoing research studies to test and validate various product improvements continually.
Often UX research teams that collect and publish this data consist of practitioners with psychology backgrounds (sociology, anthropology, etc.). These individuals often inspire the entire UX team to be more mindful of the human’s mind as they design interactions. These team members also assist and inspire their teams through their psychology knowledge and can be helpful to establish psychology- focused UX culture by circulating behavioral books, conduct workshops, and provide training opportunities.
Examples of basic human understanding that informs a designer while building digital experiences:
- People identify objects by recognizing patterns
- People scan screens based on past experiences and expectations
- People assume that things which are close together belong together
- Pattern recognition helps people identify letters in different fonts
- Short-term memory is limited
- It’s easier to recognize information than to recall it
In the field of user experience, we are concerned with designing the optimal user experience to empower a person, make them fully grounded in their activity, and hopefully bring joy (depending on the context of the experience, of course). If we look a little deeper into the many studies of human psychology, we will find a field that focuses on how humans experience a state of heightened experience while feeling connected, called “Flow State Psychology.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, recognized and named the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity.
The idea of a flow state is described as a period of time when a person is completely connected with their current activity. Since the publication of “Flow State Psychology,” others have provided additional research later coining the term “flow state” – which requires a particular amount of struggle based on context and environment. Knowing that cognitive struggle is necessary to reach a flow state, it is not enough to create simplicity in our interfaces, we have to provide the right amount of struggle that catapults the user into a flow state. An example of flow in user interface design is when a user turns on their smartphone, accesses a social media application, experiences a certain amount of struggle (sign up, notifications, etc.) until they reach an individual to connect with, and dives into an in-depth conversation with that individual.
Graphic of the Flow Cycle by Steven Kotler / Jamie Wheal
This period of transition between the user entering the application and ultimately engaging with content represents the shift from the struggle phase to the flow state. At this moment, the user is fully connected to the experience. The user interface and the device itself have done their jobs, and for the duration of the flow state, become invisible. As quickly as a user moves into this state, environmental factors, such as bright sunlight momentarily washing out the display, can break the user’s attention and breaking the flow state. If the designer is aware of these environmental influences or other potential distractions that can break a flow state, they can accommodate for these changes and possibly introduce higher contrast and bolder elements to hold the user’s focus. This is a straightforward example that demonstrates how the understanding of a user’s behavior and their environment offers the designer the opportunity to present the user with the appropriate visual stimulus to maintain flow.
Understand That Design Simplicity is Not Enough
In our efforts to design optimal experiences, we need to reach the understanding that is merely designing easy-to-use interfaces and simplicity for the user is not enough. For content meant to be easily digested, the user needs an interface that can be effortlessly scanned at a glance and which provides intuitive layout and navigation choices, so the user can consume the content using their “fast-thinking” process. This “fast-thinking” process is rapid, meaning there is no effort made to pause and try to understand and is a process that tends to be sloppy and biased. Now, if we create experiences for our users that demand their full attention – like a checkout process, for example, a user can easily make mistakes, which could result in a customer service call. This situation brings on additional company expenses and can leave the user frustrated. In designing these kinds of experiences, we need to prompt the user to use their “slow-thinking” process where we slow down, pay attention, and choose to connect with the task at hand. To help the user switch from “fast-thinking” to “slow-thinking,” we need to introduce cognitive strain. To make that happen, we need to add what your basic designer will most likely refuse to do, and that is introducing cognitive strain by choosing (for example) typefaces that are harder to read or reducing contrast. Hence, the user needs to get present to the task at hand. Putting the same emphasis on a checkout process as we do when we design dashboards will not give us the expected results.
To understand this concept a bit better, let’s look into the field of Economy.
The Nobel-prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman wrote a very insightful book into human thinking, called “Thinking – Fast and Slow.” In this book, Kahneman shows us that most of the time, we use our very biased fast-thinking process that allows us to navigate this world while managing a number of other tasks. Certain activities, however, need our full attention, and we need to switch to our slow-thinking process that carefully assesses the environment and its associated tasks.
In designing complex interfaces, we need to understand that simplicity for the sake of simplicity is not enough. By understanding the ways of the human mind, we can accommodate the user by providing the right experience at the right time.
These were just a few examples pointing out the necessity that a user experience team needs to be anchored in the understanding of human behavior and decision making to design a smooth and meaningful experience for our users.
When it comes to designing complex application behaviors for people, it is imperative to understand the human mind, but this is not enough to create a custom-tailored experience for a particular group of users. To understand how a specific group of humans goes about specific tasks, we need to study these individuals in the environment in which those tasks are performed. These studies fall under the category “user experience research” and will be covered in our next article.