Designing with the Mind in Mind: An Interview with Jeff Johnson

By Kristina Mausser

Published: February 6, 2012

Designing with the Mind in Mindmindful |?mïndf?l|
adjective [predic.]
conscious or aware of something

Design, as a creative process, is often subconscious. What we create might be based on design principles, but what we ultimately produce largely comes down to emotion—how we feel about a design and, more important, how we think others will feel about it.

Jeff Johnson’s new book, Designing with the Mind in Mind, demystifies the cognitive and emotive components of design by forcing us to consider the physiological aspects of interaction design and the psychological factors that influence its interpretation. I had a chance to catch up with Jeff recently to talk about how, as user experience and interaction designers, we can all be a little more mindful of these aspects of the designs we create.

“Design, as a creative process, is often subconscious. What we create might be based on design principles, but what we ultimately produce largely comes down to emotion—how we feel about a design and, more important, how we think others will feel about it.”

KM: Hi Jeff, thanks for joining me today! Let’s start by talking about what inspired you to write this book. It’s a really fascinating compendium of why certain design principles matter, which I think is a smart departure from the usual how to of most design books.

JJ: In 2006, I had a teaching fellowship at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I taught a class in Human-Computer Interaction to second-year Engineering and Computer Science students. New Zealand uses the English system of education, so college students there don’t take a wide assortment of classes; rather, they study a single topic. Discovering that my students had no background in psychology, I added a couple of lectures on basic cognitive and perceptual psychology to provide the background they needed to understand user interface design principles.

After returning from New Zealand, I turned those lectures into a professional development seminar and began presenting it at conferences. The seminar turned out to be quite popular, giving me and my publisher the idea of expanding the seminar into a book.

KM: It’s interesting to me that, right up front, you lead off with the book’s intended audience.�While interaction designers and UX professionals are on the list, I was surprised to see that you listed software developers first. Based on feedback you’ve received, are you surprised at just how many people from diverse fields are finding value in the ideas you share?

JJ: It is a convention for authors to state their intended audience in a book’s introduction. I’ve followed this convention in my previous books and continued doing so with this one.

In the book’s introduction, I used the term software development professionals to include everyone involved in developing software—designers and user researchers as well as programmers. I wasn’t singling out any of these job categories as primary.

“I have received feedback that the book is useful not only to its primary intended audience, but also to print designers, animators, and development managers.”—Jeff Johnson

I have received feedback that the book is useful not only to its primary intended audience, but also to print designers, animators, and development managers. Even some people who don’t develop software, but use it have told me they like the book because it explains why they sometimes have trouble using software and the Web.

KM: It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that literally had me hmm-ing out loud with every turn�of the page. The facts you present are so fascinating. How much research did you have to do to write the book, and what’s the one thing you discovered about how people interact with user interfaces that you found to be most fascinating?

JJ: I studied cognitive and perceptual psychology in the 1970s. Obviously, human perception and cognition haven’t changed since then, but as a result of new technologies that allow researchers to observe the human brain in operation—such as functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI)—our knowledge of them has improved tremendously. Thus, my Seventies-era psychological education was out of date. After returning home from New Zealand, I spent several months reading recent books and articles before I wrote my book, most of which I’ve listed in the book’s bibliography.

“One of the more interesting things I learned is how extremely focused and goal-oriented human visual perception is. … The high-res portion of our visual field is only 1% at the center of our entire visual field….”—Jeff Johnson

One of the more interesting things I learned is how extremely focused and goal-oriented human visual perception is. We hear a lot in the news these days about the 1% versus the 99%. Well, there’s another place those numbers come up: the high-res portion of our visual field is only 1% at the center of our entire visual field; 99% of our visual field has very low spatial and color resolution. The 1% at the center is the only part of our visual field that enables us to read. The main function of the other 99% of our visual field is to notice motion and irregularities, thereby directing the eye to focus the high-res 1% center there. This helps explain why people often don’t notice information on a screen. If nothing causes a person to move his eyes to the information, he won’t see the information. Based on this knowledge, error messages or data-entry fields that attract attention to themselves by shaking briefly are becoming more common.

KM: It occurred to me that it might be helpful to produce a set of reference flash cards presenting the principles that you explain in your book. They could be useful as handy reminders or even for teaching design. Are there any plans in the works for creating flash cards?

JJ: I have not had any plans for this, but thanks for the idea!

KM: A lot of the front-facing technology that we design—whether Web sites, mobile applications, or software user interfaces—have a business impact on the companies for which we produce our designs. In the book, you present quite a few examples of both poor and good user interface and interaction design. I couldn’t help but think about how businesses really do need to start keeping their customers’ mind in mind. Would you agree?

“Companies have been asking me how they can design and develop products that people will love…. I tell them they need to understand people—their customers—and focus on their needs. Sadly, many companies still resist doing that.”—Jeff Johnson

JJ: Following all the recent press coverage of Steve Jobs’ death and what he accomplished at Apple, companies have been asking me how they can design and develop products that people will love—and even line up overnight in front of stores to purchase them. I tell them they need to understand people—their customers—and focus on their needs. Sadly, many companies still resist doing that. They say: “We don’t have time for that.” “It’s too expensive.” “Our software is complex, but users will figure it out.” This attitude prevents many companies from developing products and services that enjoy the level of success Apple has had in recent years with its products and online services.

KM: You share a great story about some feedback that you received from a participant in the middle of a usability test: “I’m in a hurry, so I’ll do it the long way.” I think everyone of us can relate to that in some way. I’ve been using a Mac for years, and I still know only half of the shortcuts that are available for tools I use every day. In many ways, your book helps designers reach the brass ring of interaction design: seamlessness and transparency. Can you give us an example of how the apparent simplicity of “the long way” for most users could become the short way if we design with the mind in mind?

JJ: Our bank provides a phone service so we can transfer funds between accounts without going to a bank or an ATM machine. We can do it either by using an automated touch-tone-based system or by talking to a human operator. The touch-tone system is faster, but not easy to master. As a computer geek, I took it as a challenge, figured it out, and now use the automated system regularly. In contrast, my wife, a professional photographer who is a whiz at Photoshop and other digital image-editing tools, tried the automated banking system twice and couldn’t make it work. So now, she always waits on the line for a human operator to be free, then does the transfer that way. As far as she is concerned, the automated system had its chance and failed.�She is not interested in learning to use it; she’s content with transferring funds by taking the long way.

KM: From a content perspective, even those in content strategy could benefit from some of the principles you present, because we all have a role to play in creating effective user engagement. Can you discuss a little bit about how interaction designers must consider readability and even terminology.

“If an application’s vocabulary is inconsistent, unfamiliar, or seemingly unrelated to users’ goals, people will have trouble learning to use the software.”
—Jeff Johnson

JJ: Chapter 11 of the book discusses several factors that affect learning. One factor is the vocabulary software uses. If an application’s vocabulary is inconsistent, unfamiliar, or seemingly unrelated to users’ goals, people will have trouble learning to use the software.

There is also the issue of how much text a designer should use to present information. Especially on the Web, too much text is a common design error that I described in my previous book, GUI Bloopers 2.0.

KM: I know you’ve just come out with a new book. In writing Designing with the Mind in Mind, what inspired you to write the next one?

JJ: The new book is Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design. I co-authored it with Austin Henderson, and Morgan & Claypool published it in November 2011. Even though an article we wrote for the January–February 2002 issue of Interactions and chapters in both GUI Bloopers 2.0 and Designing with the Mind in Mind discuss conceptual models, we felt that a book would allow us to explain them more clearly, making that design technique accessible to software developers.

“ Your book is an important primer that lets us understand why design is so much more than just color and personal taste.”

KM: I really enjoyed your book and our conversation today, Jeff. I think cognitive, perceptual, and behavioral psychology all play an important role in defining and creating engaging interactions. Your book is an important primer that lets us understand why design is so much more than just color and personal taste. I think anybody whose work involves creating digital user experiences could learn a lot from approaching design with a little more of the users’ mind in mind. Thank you!

1 Comment

This is an awesome article, Francisco, thank you for taking the time to share it with us. My tactic is to ask the client what they want to achieve. This is a profound question, and their answer always leads back to revenue.

I then tell the client to get on with their job while I go about solving the problem for them. I am blunt, just as Paul Rand appeared to be to some people. If a client wants to lead the design, they should also be prepared to take responsibility for its failure.

Too many inexperienced designers—I can see that some have arrived here and commented—will ask the client whether they are happy with the result. A good designer will know that their work will get good results. Generally a design for a business has nothing to do with what the client likes. The design simply needs to solve a problem, not satisfy a client’s taste. The client needs to like the results, that’s all.

Recently a client asked me, “Can we have a green gradient background and a spinning logo?” My reply was “No! Unless you can prove to me hands down that they will increase your revenue, no.” Blunt? Yes, very blunt, but I am always prepared to walk away from a project if the client wants to run it.

When was the last time you hailed a taxi and then jumped into the driver’s seat? The same goes with design. Be clear in your first meeting that you will solve their problem and, in the end, they will enjoy the results.

“Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions; there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.”—Paul Rand

I was going to bookmark this page, but I decided to print it out and place it in my portfolio. Some prospects may need to read it before I work for them! :o)

Oh, by the way, if you are wondering about the green gradient background design? I didn’t do it or the spinning gizmo. I didn’t use any of their ideas at all. A week into the site launch and their ideas are a mere speck in the distance. They are getting a heap of leads already. Result

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