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?


Nice reading. Thanks.

Hi Susan,
Could provide a link or reference to the research that shows people can only remember 3-4 items at a time please?

Thank you!

I saw your post and thought I would comment,

George Miller's classic 1956 study on short-term memory found that the amount of information which can be remembered on one exposure is between five and nine items, depending on the information.

Applying a range of +2 or -2, the number 7 became known as Miller's Magic Number, the number of items which can be held in Short-Term Memory at any one time.

Miller himself stated that his magic number was for items with one aspect. His work is based on subjects listening to a number of auditory tones that varied only in pitch. Each tone was presented separately, and the subject was asked to identify each tone relative to the others she had already heard, by assigning it a number. After about five or six tones, subjects began to get confused, and their capacity for making further tone judgments broke down.

He found this to be true of a number of other tasks. But if more aspects are included, then we can remember more, depending upon our familiarity and the complexity of the subject (in Miller's research, there was only one aspect -- the tone). For example, we can remember way more human faces as there are a number of aspects, such as hair color, hair style, shape of face, facial hair, etc.

Bravo! One of the most useful and precise articles that I have read on the web.

PLEASE, continue the topic!

Thank you very much, all in one place. I will use this to inform my own new web site build which is overdue.

Great article, learnt a lot from it, many thanks.

simple and very consistent. many thanks for the article!

Great job ... thanks for post

Wow, fantastic article! Thank you very much!

This is hands down one of the best UX articles I've ever read. Thanks for providing me with this valuable information. "Progressive disclosure" is the exact term I needed when I was trying to explain to a client that sticking a load of text above a form on a website really isn't the best thing to do.

Unfortunately, upon handing all of the files over, he discarded my professional opinion and has filled the site with a lot of useless information. I know I shouldn't let it, but it's upset me that a) he's not taking my opinion/experience at all and thinking he knows best and b) he's slaughtering something that I slaved over for hours just because he's comparing it to the likes of eBay and Yell when he's just a small guy.

I run into the same problem sometimes with clients, which is why sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to be an architect instead, because after the building is erected, the structure just never changes. However, we see clients taking over a site and persisting to place so much information and clutter, thus making the experience more complicated than it has to be for the user.

In this case just let him have what he wants. Any client is a human being which is not always reasonable (rational)

Great article. It mirrors and compliments similar statements in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by R. Cialdini.

I think you're forgetting one key point.... sometimes it's more marketable to make something a bit of a chore to understand... something they can work for.

Interesting read. I lived by 7 plus or minus 2-rule. I now have to rethink. :)

Great article..effective points...thanks for sharing this great article....

nice article! i have several pages of notes now to re-read and help with my design process. well researched and documented!



Great article. Will bookmark it, print it, and fuse it into my brain for reference.

Interesting question Justin, and interesting answer Susan. What factors affect the paradox situation. Can one set up framing to avoid such a paradox? I wonder if the same set of options presented using two different themes / skins / styling results with the same amount of overwhelmingness.

I imagine the points of this guideline could be put to use, playing on some of the points, like color and giving examples, large fonts, breaking large content into chunks, etc, would make all the difference in alleviating, or at least minimizing, the amount of users falling within the paradox.

I love reading stuff like this, where design and development skills merge with the inner workings of humans in order to achieve a forced or predicted outcome / experience. Truly fascinating!

Excellent article!

Susan - excellent framework for a diverse set of UX considerations and standards. I also appreciate the links into the research you cite and examples. I'm sure I will be leveraging this in the future with clients and colleagues.

One item I would question, however, is that "People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time." My experience, having tested hundreds of users on this, is that the number can be larger than 3-4 in certain contexts. For example, I have seen users easily remember upwards of seven steps in an online process where those steps align well with existing 'real world' processes (i.e., booking a business trip or onboarding a new employee).




The 3-4 number relates to working memory. If a computer task matches an already known/remembered real life task then the user doesn't have to keep the individual steps in working memory.

This is great!
Thank you for sharing!


I'll be sending to my psych board and all those people who don't understand why a Masters Psych Grad like me is in IT!
It also provides some great ideas for my next presentation of undergrad psych students!

Justin -- It is a paradox. People feel that they will have control if they have choices, so they want the choices, but when they actually have the choices in front of them, then they don't know what to do and hence do nothing.

Well done! One of the best UX guidelines I have ever seen.

I used alot of metaphors in the past to communicate these exact lessons:

Nice work.

As above, a fantastic summary.

Great stuff Susan, wonderfully practical tips that can be taken away immediate and put into use.

One question: you stated that "Having more choices makes people feel in control." How does this affect the "paradox of choice" phenomenon, where users have a harder time choosing when presented with more choices?

Is it simply a matter of balance?

Beautifully & simply put.
I shall use it as a great way to convey the basics of ux to programmers and engineers.