Friday, September 21, 2012

UX Without Psychology?

"You can talk about behavior without knowing anything about psychology" 

according to Christopher Konrad, one of the panelists at the UX and Psychology meeting I have been discussing in the last few posts. Konrad has a significant background in  software for several large companies we all know and love (or hate, depending upon your personal taste) such as Microsoft, Intuit and Sandia National Labs. He also has a degree in Psychology and runs his own design firm (suitably named Konrad) so you can't just write off his comment without considering what it might mean.

No doubt Konrad likes to be provocative. He made another point by holding up a photograph of a user restrained in a chair with an eye tracker covering their face. Provocative gets you attention and if handled skillfully can make you think critically.

There is Psychology and then there is psychology. Konrad has critiques of both. Capital "P" Psychology can be, under the worst scenario, a deadening pileup of statistics and controlled studies divorced from reality. When it comes to understanding what users do in their lives, what they care about, the type of Psychology Konrad takes issue with is a waste of time.

psychology (lower case "p") refers to pop psychology. Inferring what Konrad meant by pop psychology, I take this to be exemplified in its worst guise through a certain genre of self-help books ("Break All Your Bad Habits in Six Days"). These kinds of books, software and the motivational speakers that promote them make me ill because they prey on gullible people. When it comes to professional UX work of any sort I cannot but agree with Konrad - there is no place for pop psychology.

Many people don't know what "psychology" (upper or lower case) means, as was evident by the enthusiastic audience discussion following Konrad's remarks. Not everyone agreed with him, but some did.

One of the other speakers, Matt Kelly, provided an excellent balance. Kelly is a human factors researcher at Pacific Science and Engineering whose work relies heavily on traditional psychological research methodologies. He gave some excellent examples of where collecting and analyzing formal data can make the difference between saving lives or losing them. He stressed the "...importance of not getting a 60% fail rate on mission critical applications - something might kill you".

If something might kill you, you want to make sure your application has all its ducks in a row in terms of how it and users interact. I couldn't help thinking about the term "collateral damage" which has come to stand in for people dying or getting severely injured. If running formal experiments and tests will save lives, power to Psychology.

Can you study behavior without Psychology? It depends what you mean by studying behavior and by Psychology.

Can you "do" UX without Psychology? 

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