You may have heard this story about an elephant:

A king brings six men into a dark building. They cannot see anything. The king says to them, "I have bought this animal from the wild lands to the East. It is called an elephant." "What is an elephant?" the men ask. The king says, "Feel the elephant and describe it to me." The man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar, the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope, the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch, the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan, the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall, and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. "You are all correct", says the king, "You are each feeling just a part of the elephant."

The story of the elephant reminds me of the different view of design that people of different backgrounds, education, and experience have. A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the elephant that others are experiencing.

I'm a psychologist by training and education. So the part of the elephant I experience applies what we know about people and how we apply that to UX design. I take research and knowledge about the brain, the visual system, memory, and motivation and extrapolate UX design principles from that.

This article is a snapshot of the psychologist's view of the elephant.

1. People Don't Want to Work or Think More Than They Have To

  • People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.
  • It is better to show people a little bit of information and let them choose if they want more details. The fancy term for this is progressive disclosure, which I wrote a blog post about recently.
  • Instead of just describing things, show people an example.
  • Pay attention to the affordance of objects on the screen, page, or device you are designing. If something is clickable make sure it looks like it is clickable.
  • Only provide the features that people really need. Don't rely on your opinion of what you think they need; do user research to actually find out. Giving people more than they need just clutters up the experience.
  • Provide defaults. Defaults let people do less work to get the job done.

2. People Have Limitations

  • People can only look at so much information or read so much text on a screen without losing interest. Only provide the information that's needed at the moment (see progressive disclosure above).
  • Make the information easy to scan.
  • Use headers and short blocks of info or text.
  • People can't multi-task. The research is very clear on this, so don't expect them to.
  • People prefer short line lengths, but they read better with longer ones! It's a conundrum, so decide whether preference or performance is more important in your case, but know that people are going to ask for things that actually aren't best for them.

3. People Make Mistakes

  • Assume people will make mistakes. Anticipate what they will be and try to prevent them.
  • If the results of an error are severe then use a confirmation before acting on the user's action.
  • Make it easy to "undo."
  • Preventing errors from occurring is always better than helping people correct them once they occur. The best error message is no message at all.
  • If a task is error-prone, break it up into smaller chunks.
  • If the user makes and error and you can correct it, then do so and show what you did.
  • Whoever is designing the UX makes errors too, so make sure that there is time and energy for iteration, user feedback, and testing.

4. Human Memory Is Complicated

  • People reconstruct memories, which means they are always changing. You can trust what users say as the truth only a little bit. It is better to observe them in action than to take their word for it.
  • Memory is fragile. It degrades quickly and is subject to lots of errors. Don't make people remember things from one task to another or one page to another.
  • People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time. The "7 plus or minus 2" rule is an urban legend. Research shows the real number is 3-4.

5. People are Social

  • People will always try to use technology to be social. This has been true for thousands of years.
  • People look to others for guidance on what they should do, especially if they are uncertain. This is called social validation. This is why, for example, ratings and reviews are so powerful on websites.
  • If people do something together at the same time (synchronous behavior) it bonds them together—there are actually chemical reactions in the brain. Laughter also bonds people.
  • If you do a favor for me then I will feel indebted to give you a favor back (reciprocity). Research shows that if you want people to fill out a form, give them something they want and then ask for them to fill out the form, not vice versa.
  • When you watch someone do something, the same parts in your brain light up as though you were doing it yourself (called mirror neurons). We are programmed with our biology to imitate. If you want people to do something then show someone else doing it.
  • You can only have strong ties to 150 people. Strong ties are defined as ties that with people you are in close physical proximity to. But weak ties can be in the thousands and are very influential (à la Facebook).

6. Attention

  • I am beginning to think that the whole idea of attention is a key to designing an engaging UI. I'll write more in future articles about that. Grabbing and holding onto attention, and not distracting someone when they are paying attention to something, are key concerns.
  • People are programmed to pay attention to anything that is different or novel. If you make something different it will stand out.
  • Having said that, people can actually miss changes in their visual field. This is called change blindness. There are some quite humorous videos of people who start talking to someone on the street (who has stopped them and asked for directions) and then don't notice when the person actually changes!
  • You can use the senses to grab attention. Bright colors, large fonts, beeps, and tones will capture attention.
  • People are easily distracted. If you don't want them to be distracted, don't flash things on the page or start videos playing. If, however, you do want to grab their attention, do those things.

7. People Crave Information

  • Dopamine is a chemical that makes people seek… food, sex, information. Learning is dopaminergic—we can't help but want more information.
  • People will often want more information than they can actually process. Having more information makes people feel that they have more choices. Having more choices makes people feel in control. Feeling in control makes people feel they will survive better.
  • People need feedback. The computer doesn't need to tell the human that it is loading the file. The human needs to know what is going on.

8. Unconscious Processing

  • Most mental processing occurs unconsciously.
  • If you can get people to commit to a small action (sign up for a free membership), then it is much more likely that they will later commit to a larger action (e.g., upgrade to a premium account).
  • The old brain makes or at least has input into most of our decisions. The old brain cares about survival and propagation: food, sex, and danger. That is why these three messages can grab our attention.
  • The emotional brain is affected by pictures, especially pictures of people, as well as by stories. The emotional brain has a huge impact on our decisions.
  • People's behavior is greatly affected by factors that they aren't even aware of. The words "retired", "Florida," and "tired" can make even young people walk down the hall slower (called framing).
  • Both the old brain and the emotional brain act without our conscious knowledge. We will always ascribe a rational, conscious-brain reason to our decision, but it's never the whole reason why we take an action, and often the rational reason isn't even part of the reason.

9. People Create Mental Models

  • People always have a mental model in place about a certain object or task (paying my bills, reading a book, using a remote control).
  • The mental model that people have about a particular task may make it easy or hard to use an interface that you have designed.
  • In order to create a positive UX, you can either match the conceptual model of your product or website to the users' mental model, or you can figure out how to "teach" the users to have a different mental model.
  • Metaphors help users "get" a conceptual model. For example, "This is just like reading a book."
  • The most important reason to do user research is to get information about users' mental models.

10. Visual System

  • If pages are cluttered people can't find information. Use grouping to help focus where the eye should look.
  • Things that are close together are believed to "go" together.
  • Make fonts large enough. Use fonts that are not too decorative so they are easy to read.
  • Research shows that people use peripheral vision to get the "gist" of what they are looking at. Eye tracking studies are interesting, but just because someone is looking at something straight on doesn't mean they are paying attention to it.
  • The hardest colors to look at together are red and blue. Try to avoid red text on a blue background or vice versa.
  • People can recognize objects on a screen best when they are slightly angled and have the perspective of being slightly above (canonical perspective).
  • Color can be used to show whether things go together. Be sure to use another way to show the same info since some people are colorblind.

So, what's your description of the elephant?



   I enjoy whatever you guys are typically up too. These kinds of clever work and reporting! Continue the wonderful works guys I’ve included you guys to blogroll.


Thank you for sharing. This is very useful and good information. I got more information from your site. Glad to see more post from you.



Thank you for sharing this information.It was informative a s usual. Actually I looked up it on <a href="">wiki</a>.

I had tried all my best on last site I design , make it more UX as much as I can specially on inner pages and archive pages . but I always feel like something are missing .

I strongly recommend "Designing with the mind in mind - Simple Guide to understand User Interface Design Rules" by Jeff Johnson for a deeper review with examples and research results on this topic. It's a great, short, comprehensive book on  the factors of cognivitve psychology and it's part in Design, and filled with loads of good and bad examples of Interface Designs, and how to improve them. 

This is absolutely fascinating research. Thanks so much for putting this together! I'll definitely be following these best practices when I design interactive content. 

This is fantastic - thanks for sharing.  

thank you for the article! great read!

this was a great informative read! thank you! it's amazing how complex our minds really are. 

Great article! Thank you so much, Dr. Weinchenk. It's great to see how Psychology can contribute so much to the work we do in UX Design.

"If the user makes and error and you can correct it, then do so and show what you did."

If the user makes and error...I'm just going to let that sit there.

While it's sitting, I'd just like to say that the content of this article is very interesting and, as a new QAer, appears to be very solid and on point!

Side note, the irony is not lost if this was intentional. :P

I havent read half of this post, and Im already loving it.  Huge fan of your work.  Thank you for sharing this info.

Well it is a great article and the story was really superb to make us understand that what we think that is not the truth. Different people have different views as due to mismatching of thinking power and mentality structure; therefore we can get different results from any work in which group of people are involved. The graphical image describe about the psychological thinking of a person through which we can judge a person quickly. This blog delivers good amount of instruction about human psychology and how to understand its features and structure.

Great post on the UX.

Fail on headings 6, 8 & 10.

Splendid article! Thanks Susan!

Hi Adam,

Thanks for writing in about this post.

Regarding yoru request for sources to research -- There are several links in the article that go to research. Also, all the research on these topics are in my book 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People. In this post I talk about so many items it would make the article really long to talk about the reearch behind each one. But if you read my book all the references and research are cited in there.



Yes, I own the book, it's a great reference of interconnected definitions, explanations and interdependent means. Thank you, Doctor. 

Could the author please provide sources to research backing up claims made in the article?

Hi Barbara,

Thanks for your comment. People want lots of information, but if you give it to them all at once they will be overwhelmed and will stop looking at it/reading it/watching it. Progressive disclosure is useful because it gives them a little bit at a time, and then it is easy (click with the mouse) to get more. The person feels like there is a lot of information available, but doesn't have to deal with it all at once.

Does that answer your question?

A lot of interesting points, Susan - useful for reinforcing my vision to my web designers. I think a distilled version of this would also be helpfull. One question, among many, if you're able to answer, and that is how you square your point about giving less info and letting people ask for more with the later point about the desire for more information in actual execution.



Very informative and interesting article. Thanks for sharing Susan!

Amazing article - thank you!

These is a great article.

These is a great article. These points also point to many of the challenges facing user researchers.

Thanks for bringing this forward. It is indeed a great read.
Interesting also to read the 'professionals' view on the article, very high-falluting.

"Dumbing it down" is the key behind designing UX for the masses. Inexperienced designers often make the mistake of taking the high ground and adding unnecessary complexity in their designs. Understanding the psychology and the mindset of the end-user was a long way in designing a product that actually use and not use the design process as an ego exercise.

Making things simple is a far cry from "dumbing it down." Any idiot can dumb something down, or as you point out complicate things, but it takes true skill and a willingness to put in the effort to make something appropriately simple.

Absolutely.  Simple is the hardest and most complex thing a designer can do.

Great article Susan. Like you said I am lazy. I like the one liners to re-affirms what I already know and things I don't i just take it as it is true as it seems logical (my logic is based on what you said in other points are true so I assume the remaining would be true) =)

While reading this article it's useful to remember that it's being written from a psychologists point of view. As a UX professional and designer, I don't agree with all of these concepts - "Make fonts large enough"? This isn't accurate. Try: "Create a visual hierarchy with typography that emphasizes important thoughts."

While there are many design and UX faux-pas in this article, it seems like the overall psychology aspect of it is good, but not great. The problem isn't with the article, but with the context. Susan is trying to cover the entire spectrum of computer-user psychology with one article. Unfortunately that's not possible, but this is at least a good primer for a high-level psychological discussion.

While reading this article it's useful to remember that it's being written from a psychologists point of view. As a UX professional and designer, I don't agree with all of these concepts - "Make fonts large enough"? This isn't accurate. Try: "Create a visual hierarchy with typography that emphasizes important thoughts."

While there are many design and UX faux-pas in this article, it seems like the overall psychology aspect of it is good, but not great. The problem isn't with the article, but with the context. Susan is trying to cover the entire spectrum of computer-user psychology with one article. Unfortunately that's not possible, but this is at least a good primer for a high-level psychological discussion.

Thanks for sharing, this is brilliant, and a complete and concise encyclopedia to the human experience!

I'm only thinking, what new this article brings to a our small usability world? No mistakes, no more than truth, but it's still not enough for professional designing.I expect more from internet magazine about UX.

I have to comment more fully. What an absolutely fantastic article! I have been a salesman for 40 years and am privileged to have received a boatload of training from some of the finest corporate institutions in America. In those training classes from Scott Paper Company, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Northwestern Mutual, 3M, Sandler Sales Training, and others, it is all about the psychology of persuasion, based on sound knowledge of what makes people make decisions, whether positive or negative. When I opened my website content company, the first thing I did was to become immersed in psychology, cognitive science, and related subjects. Just as in presenting information to a large group of people, it is not what you say that gets people to pay attention to you but how you say it. I look forward to seeing your next related article with great anticipation.

Susan, thank you for this is so useful as it concise and manageable tool to present to people who have preconception about users, especially folks with formulae!

The "retired, Florida, tired" effect (reported Bargh, Chen, & Burrows) is called "priming," not "framing." Sure, on some level it's tomato, to-mah-to, but good to be consistent in word usage. Framing refers to the way in which you deliver a message or an argument.

Nice article, it's very interesting, specially mental models approach it's true,

I didn't have to read far into this article to be surprised and dismayed at the conviction of the statement "People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done" and how misleading that statement is.

How do you explain how people invest billions of hours into playing games? Surely a game is entirely contrary to your statement. If the task is of no interest to the person, but an exterior force is pressuring the person to get the task done, then yes that person will take the path of least resistance.

Without context and support for a claim or statement, how can we expect newbies like Sammy Msafiri here create exhilarating and productive experiences out there? With publishing an article on such a popular site comes great responsibility.

Great article! enjoyed it very much.

Thanks for the article. I am a new web designer and this is very helpful. Thanks.


This is a nice list of a Psychologist's view of UX, but without any references to actual studies or any research what is backing up these claims? For someone with a PhD, I'm surprised you are making academic claims without any peer-reviewed research.

Thanks for an excellent article. I bought 'what makes them click' and it's a short book with tons of great information. I have recommended it to many people. That reminds me, I must read it again :-)

Thanks for the article. I plan to dig into this a lot more. I did have one question though. I am currently in a class on learning theories and we just finished reading several articles discussing memory and the 7 +/- 2 theory on the number of items people are able to recall. Your post says current research negates this theory as an urban legend. Could you provide some links or references to this research on the new number of items (3-4)? Thanks.

I had a quick breeze over this article. It's great that I'm gonna read it again. Thanks for sharing it Susan.

Great article! Lot of perspective. Would be better if more examples could be thrown in.

Great article Susan! Thanks for using short sentences - it was much easier to read and grasp :)

Thank you. This is brilliant and insightful

Would love to discuss more if possible.

Best regards,

Jacques Mechelany

What a superb article/list. I've learnt more in the last 10 minutes reading this than I have following the collective outpouring of the rest of the UX community that I've been following.

Great stuff!


great introduction, that says it all