Earlier this year I completed a 12 week online certificate course in psychology offered by the University of Toronto. Here are some of the highlights and takeaways that I found can be applied to user experience design.


Psychology influences the design process

There is a lot of evidence to suggest having a deeper understanding of psychology is valuable as an experience designer. User-centered design by definition aims to put the user’s wants and needs at the center of all design decisions. As I’m already working in the user experience design field, I was curious to see how much of a formal psychology course would be applicable to my day-to-day role.


Brain anatomy and physiology

The course kicked off by detailing how the peripheral nervous system works and how it relates to the brain. We studied the role of neurotransmitters and how they promote electrical signals in neurons to carry out physical and psychological functions. The lectures also covered how the frontal, temporal, occipital, and parietal lobes and subcortical regions process stimuli and how the somatic and autonomic nervous systems regulate voluntary and involuntary operations in the body.

Gaining a simple understanding of brain physiology helped us frame psychological concepts taught throughout the course.


How sensation and perception work

A portion of the course centered on how external stimuli is received, transferred to the brain, and converted to an internal perception. We briefly studied points of contact such as the eye and ear and how they recognise and filter stimuli. As designers, we create sensory stimuli to help users make decisions, so learning about the process of perception from a scientific perspective was fascinating.

Perhaps the most relevant to visual design, our class studied the laws of Gestalt psychology, a set of principles applied to cognitively acquire perceptions and apply meaning to them. The laws attempt to explain how we are able to make sense of objects based on how they are grouped, what context we can find in them, whether they follow a familiar pattern, and more. Gestalt psychology is a concept I had come across, but it was exciting to explore it in more detail as the practical principles can be applied to designing user interfaces.


How learning works

The course material covered how we learn, in particularly through forms of conditioning. Classical conditioning describes an involuntary response to stimuli, for example a user might feel anxious when booking a flight online if they’ve previously experienced flight cancellations. The other common type is operant conditioning, which is a voluntary response to stimuli using rewards and punishments. The process of collecting coins to purchase items in a video game could be seen as a form of operant conditioning.


How memory works

There are three primary stages of memory known as sensory, short, and long term memory and the distinctions between types of memory are categoried as implicit or explicit, semantic, episodic, procedural, and working. We studied each of these concepts in more detail, however you may already see how memory plays an important role in experience design. Depending on what task a user is undertaking, they may draw on one or multiple types of memories, either consciously or subconsciously.


Final thoughts

In addition to the topics briefly mentioned in this post, the course covered other interesting subjects like mental illness, social behaviourism, and psychoanalysis. Before enrolling, I had an appreciation for psychology but now I’d like to delve deeper into the field and apply what I’ve learned to user research and design.