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?

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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

Hi Susan,

I agree to most of the ideas here.
I have some questions in mind, like: "If a task is error-prone, break it up into smaller chunks."
Isn't that gonna make chunks of smaller error-prone task? I think there's no task that's error-prone, it's the design problem.
I also don't think more choices makes people feel in control. More choices might make them feel incompetence, because they can't decide what to choose.

Thanks for putting these ideas altogether!

Really helpful article..very intriguing..

Really Good one!

As I UX designer, I only agree with 90% of these ideas. Still a great article though! There was a lot here I hadn't thought about.

A few disagreements:

"Having more choices makes people feel in control" -- I'd say having an OBVIOUS choice makes people feel more in control.

"People prefer short line lengths, but they read better with longer ones!" -- there's a lot you have to do regarding line-length and spacing spacing to make a block of text easier on the eyes. Longer lines definitely don't mean better reading.

"...prefers short line lengths but read better with longer ones". The typographical term for this is /measure/. About fifteen words per line seems to be a good consensus. Excellent article!

Great article! Being a proffesional UXer and amateur psychologist myself, this article collates a lot of the issues I often raise together.

Regarding Framing I personally am a little skeptical of the actual effects, as I am aware of similar studies that showed no statistically significant difference when performing various types of priming

Hi Susan,

You might want to change framing to priming in point 8. The "Florida-example" you're mentioning is a classic example of priming, whereas framing is all about how you intentionally frame a proposition or fact so it is perceived positively or negatively.

Maybe framing is a subset of priming but I wouldn't say it works the other way around.

I found the article to be incredibly insightful and in exploring a couple of the principles further I had a question about the term mistake versus error in context to human behavior. Principle 3, "People Make Mistakes" uses the terms interchangeably but do you feel there is a difference between the two? (Regardless of how you define the two, I feel the advice to be no less relevant or valuable.)

In my initial research I found "mistake" is often defined as an "error"; however, within the definition of error (on Wikipedia of course) I found mention of a differentiation between mistake and error in context to human behavior. Basically the term 'mistake' was defined as an error caused by fault; fault being in that a human was either careless or thoughtless but had the information to know better. In contrast, an 'error' is a deviation from accuracy resulting from a misinterpretation of a potentially ambiguous instruction or an exclusion of the necessary information needed to attain said accuracy.

While it may seem like splitting hairs over linguistics, I feel the differentiation can aide a designer in creating a better system. For example, we can design a form-entry box for the purpose of collecting a person's phone number in such a way that will accept any format e.g. 555-555-5555, (555)555-5555, 555,555,5555,etc... This may help prevent an error caused by people not knowing what format the system requires and allows them to do what is natural and logical for them. However, that design might in turn exacerbate human errors caused by typing too fast or not concentrating hard enough because the interaction is perceived to be so effortless. In more critical systems, such as those designed for the medical industry, friction is a necessary component an astute designer would incorporate, but in the day-to-day world of product usage I feel this is overlooked by focusing predominantly on the "errors" (as described above) and not accounting for the "mistakes."

The benefit for me - as a perpetual student of design and human research - in differentiating 'error' from 'mistake' lies in creating systems and products that not only 'know' how to help but also WHEN to help. Error prevention used to be such a primary focus until I worked on a system designed to be 'fudgable' (taken from Alan Cooper's book, The Inmates Are Running The Asylum,) in order to keep the user moving forward, even through some fairly egregious errors. (Much like my use of apostrophes, quotation marks and semicolons in this comment)

I have developed a spreadsheet to translate these findings into heuristics that may be used to perform usability evaluations:

Any feedback is welcome. Thanks.

Great Article!

Short and Informative.


Brevity is the soul of wit!

A year since first published, but still acute and relevant. To cut out and preserve... :)

I touched UX Elephant from many different angles: Behavioural Sciences, Human Factor Engineering, UI development, and Interaction, Interface, and Information design. So, belive me when I say to you, it's a briliant alloy of advice!

Thank you Susan!

Excellent article.

This is how articles should be written. Frankly, bullets, (with pop-up text or footnotes, where additional explanation is prudent), is far more effective than the tired old book paradigm. I'm hugely impressed.

What an excellent resource for psychological ideas - some great guidelines for complementing the way your users think with how your website 'acts'.

Thanks Susan!

Very useful content. Really help me a lot to nuture my visualization.

I _really_ appreciate this; you've done an exceptional job piecing all of this together and couldn't have made it more succinct. Thanks a ton!



great article

Great article! Thank you very much!

kids these days! they don't take psych classes when they learn interaction design... ;-)

oh wait, i did. so did a bunch of other HCI students at GeorgiaTech, CMU, U of MI, U of WA, UC Berkeley, Stanford, VaTech... in general I've found that anyone calling themselves an interaction designer who went to design school (instead of HCI) probably didn't take psych courses.

thanks for synthesising and sharing, but i'd urge you to go a step further and push design schools you have contact/influence with and have their students take psych+qual+quant research courses (not to mention other forms of social, cultural & psychological knowledge).

Great stuff! But I lost my attention at about the 6th item =) If it had been 4/5 and then another 4/5 it would have been easier to read through the whole article :)

Great summary, will definitely print it out and keep it as a general checklist! thanks

First rate summary. You should add a few notes on skill acquisition.


To the previous commenter, thanks for the heads up. We'll be contacting the owner of the other site to have the content removed as it violates the not-for-commerical-use aspect of the Creative Commons license we use.

Thanks for this fantastic post!


Great Article. I wrote a similar but less indepth post on 10 Web Design and Layout Principles Every Designer Should Know in Jan. that focused on the tips, but left out the reasoning.

For those questioning the 7+/-2 rule, I agree with the previous posts, go read Miller's article for more information on how it applies to working memory in different situations. (FYI - you'll probably need a subscription to a journal database to do this, or pay for a copy of the pdf)

I am always thrilled when I see UX posts with a psychology awareness. Also, loved your book on "Neuro Web Design". While a lot of it was very reminiscent of "Influence" by Cialdini I liked your added sections about the workings of the brain and rationalization methods.

Good article, thank you!
One question about this part:
>>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.<<

Are you saying the message "loading file..." is too technical and it should be something like "importing customer transactions..."? If so, that point wasn't very clearly put.

One of the best UX articles that I've read.

Thank you!

Very interesting. Now I want to see articles written by folks from other disciplines explaining their perception of the elephant (UX)!

As for courses, I did the HCI Master's program at Carnegie-Mellon and one reason I picked it was because it had so many disciplines rolled into one: Psych, Graphic Design, Comp. Science, CogSci and many others. All of it was of course focused on theory, method and technique for designing more useful and usable software applications.

As Regis pointed out, much of what Susan summarized has been around for years. The science and the research forms the basis for many things we are supposed to be doing. But whether the research says someone can memorize 3 or 4 or 7 things isn't really as important as having a UX person who has the training and experience to realize that memory is limited and to be looking out for places in the design where having to remember a bunch of just-seen things could lead to problems.

Reminds me of the debates over "statistically significant" user numbers in usability studies. What's significant is when you learn something about your user population that helps you avoid or solve a problem. Doesn't matter if only one person helps you find that answer.

Looking forward to future elephant feelers.

This is simple and great. I'd like to see an expansion of this article enhanced with visual and potentially infographics!

Excellent! A must read for everyone under the UX umbrella.

After a long time I ready something so accurately concise on a vast topic and yet to the point. A micro bible for UX? This is so damn helpful.
Thank you Susan.

King should say: "You are all partially correct".
I wonder how many parts of my designs people get ... I'd pay to be in the head of some user for some time :)