6 Cognitive Psychology Theories to Improve UX Design | LiveSession Blog (2023)

If you’ve been working in the field for a while, you’re probably familiar with these basic UX design principles:

  • Keep the design consistent.
  • Focus on usability.
  • Meet the user’s needs.

Back in 2009, Whitney Hess, a popular UX design coach, drafted the Hippocratic Oath for UX designers. In this piece, she listed a few principles that a UX designer should keep up with. These include:

  • Applying all the measures required to create a good design for the benefit of the user.
  • Remembering that the art of UX design does not exist without warmth, sympathy, and understanding.
  • Respecting the privacy of the users.

All these points imply that the designer should focus on the needs of the user. Good design comes from the focus on effortless navigation, good readability, high accessibility, and overall usability.

To make it work, your UX designer portfolio should not only focus on the quality of your professional skills. There is much more to a good UX design than just having technical skills.

To a certain extent, a good UX designer should also be a good psychologist, understand human nature and what drives the consumer to choose one product over the other. Cognitive psychology can be particularly helpful in creating high-quality UX design.

What is Cognitive Psychology

The definition of cognitive psychology states that it’s occupied with studying mental processes, including attention, memory, perception, thinking, problem-solving, use of language, and creativity.

The main focus of cognitive psychology is human behavior and how the processes mentioned above affect it.

As it is aimed at studying human behavior in correlation with cognitive processes, cognitive psychology can help UX designers find ways to overcome psychological barriers. Thanks to this, they can create usable, accessible, readable, and easy-to-navigate designs.

The Effects of Cognitive Psychology on UX Design

To illustrate the impact of cognitive psychology on UX design, let’s consider the following example.

As a UX designer, you know that consumers value the overall experience rather than the details. Thus, the focus on the positive experience defines the entire UX design process.

But what is the reason behind this principle?

Cognitive psychology has an answer.

Among cognitive psychology theories, there is one called the verbatim effect. This cognitive bias causes people to remember general information rather than separate details or the form that this information comes in.

Moreover, the memory of the general experience will impact the details that people remember from this experience.

For instance, if a person stopped at a hotel and had a poor overall experience there, they will only remember the unpleasant details, such as bad view, poor housekeeping, a rude receptionist, etc.

In reality, there might have been good details about this experience, too, like a good breakfast or high-quality spa procedures, but if the overall experience is unpleasant, the memories of details will usually be unpleasant as well. This is caused mainly by the evolutionary reasons.

The impact of the verbatim effect on UX design

There are a few ways that this cognitive psychology approach can have on UX design, from preparing the website structure to optimizing website navigation. It also has an effect on the content, which is a big part of user experience.

The research from the National Library of Medicine, for instance, proves that the meaning of a sentence is better remembered than its form. The behavioral data from this research confirmed the typical verbatim effect after the participants performed a recognition memory test that showed the dominance of meaning over form.

What’s more, cognitive psychology influences the decision-making processes. This means that you, as a UX designer, need the knowledge of basic cognitive psychology principles to make your designs successful.

To help you understand the human behavior behind the decision-making process more, let’s take a look at some more cognitive psychology theories and approaches that can help you improve the quality of your design.

The Schema Theory

The schema theory explains why consumers prefer this design:

6 Cognitive Psychology Theories to Improve UX Design | LiveSession Blog (1)

over this one:

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The reason lies in the lack of usability, the absence of proper organization, and categorization.

The schema theory claims that all knowledge is organized into units. According to this approach, humans think and perceive information in schemas (units). That’s why we prefer it when information is broken down into categories, as it makes it easier for us to process it.

Schemata (units of knowledge) are developed from an early age. As the person ages up, they add more information into these schemata units.

Categorization is an essential part of the UX design process. Users expect you to break down the information in sizable and easy-to-understand pieces to help them process it faster.

The time that it takes for a user to process information is also a part of the user experience.

If a consumer buys something online, there is a 90% chance that they will choose the store with proper categorization of information about a product because it cuts down the time for product research and making the final decision

Dustin Engelman, Researcher at Studicus

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As you can see, this cognitive psychology approach lays the foundation of one of the most important UX design principles – the focus on usability.

Visual Perception Theories

While consumers like to think in categories, they also make many of their decisions based on visual perception.

Because of that, it’s important to pay attention to cognitive psychology examples of approaches based on gestalt principles.

So, what is a gestalt?

We call a phenomenon a gestalt when a person perceives it as a whole with no particular attention to its parts. Cognitive psychology claims gestalts are formed throughout our lifetime and have a significant impact on how we think and make decisions.

Here are several basic cognitive psychology approaches or laws involving gestalt principles that have an impact on UX design:

The Law of Symmetry

Symmetry creates the perception of stability and order. This happens because humans have a gestalt that forces us to perceive symmetrical objects as parts of the same group.

This rule can help UX designers structure a website or an app, as well as improve customer experience. The final product will look stable and properly organized.

In design, there are several types of symmetry:

  • Bilateral (reflection) symmetry - Reflection symmetry is also known as the mirror effect.
  • Rotational symmetry – Also known as radial, this type of symmetry means that an object is rotated around the circle around one point, such as with the petals of a flower.
  • Translational symmetry – This kind of symmetry applies to shifting an object to another position while maintaining its shape, properties, and orientation.

For example, if we take a look at Babbel’s mobile app UI, we can notice a horizontal reflection symmetry. Equally sized blocks with information mirror each other, creating an easy-to-navigate list:

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Translation symmetry is great for content-heavy websites. “In such websites, balance and organization are crucial to usability, and creates a practical layout for the content,” says Marie Fincher, the head of content marketing at TrustMyPaper.

Here’s an example of how translational symmetry can help organize content and contribute to its readability:

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These examples prove that symmetry as a visual perception gestalt plays an important role in the UX design process. It creates a visual organization of objects and content.

The Law of Similarity

This gestalt law states that the human eye perceives similar elements or objects as something complete, as one unified object or group.

For instance, you can see how CNN groups the videos on its website based on this cognitive psychology theory:

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Using the similarity law in UX design allows cleaner and more usable navigation, which, in turn, creates a positive first impression of the product.

The similarity gestalt is related to the law of proximity.

The Law of Proximity

This cognitive psychology approach indicates that the elements found in proximity to each other are usually perceived as a single unit.

For instance, if you see the following pieces of content next to each other on a web page, you immediately recognize it as a feedback section:

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In design, when several elements are close to each other, they are considered as the same unit, even though they may have different content. This strategy is used to make navigation more intuitive and user-friendly.

The Chameleon Effect

As I’m talking about perception as an integral part of cognitive psychology and the UX design process, it’s important to mention the chameleon effect.

This cognitive psychology approach states that people tend to mimic the behaviors of others. The chameleon effect happens unconsciously and is associated with our inner instinct to fit in to remain a part of a group.

Among all cognitive psychology examples, this theory is the most effective in helping UX designers to encourage users to take the next step.

For instance, Duolingo uses their mascot, a bird named Duo, to guide you through the process of completing each lesson:

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The app also uses a crying Duo if a user skips a lesson to make them feel guilty about forgetting to take 15 minutes a day to learn a language. A fit and sporty Duo bird appears whenever a user achieves a new level on the app.

The chameleon effect involves a cognitive bias. In layman’s words, this means that the context systematically affects the judgment and decision-making. Our example, the Duolingo app, is built on this cognitive psychology approach.

The designers of Duolingo created certain contexts, such as crying Duo, to get the users to mimic a certain emotion, which consequently pushes them to a certain action.

Get In the Head of Your Consumers

There is always a psychological reason behind user behavior.

You know that users want everything neatly organized and properly categorized. That’s the schema theory in action.

It’s clear that consumers tend to group objects in a certain way and perceive them as a single unit. Gestalt laws will help you understand why they do it.

To remain a part of a group, people often mimic the behaviors of other group members. You can use the chameleon effect to get your consumers to complete the interaction or make a purchase.

Last but not least, now you know why consumers value the overall experience rather than certain parts of it. This is explained by the verbatim effect.

These are some of the core cognitive psychology theories that explain the origins of the key UX design principles. The knowledge of these can help you become a better UX designer.


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First C of Four Cs in User Experience Design

Consistency. Continuity. Context. Complementary.

What are the 7 theories of psychology? ›

  • Psychodynamic Perspective.
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  • Cognitive Perspective.
  • Biological Perspective.
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In UX, you'll be concerned with users' emotional journeys when interacting with a product, service, or system. When conducting user interviews and usability testing, you'll be able to leverage your psychology background to identify how users feel when interacting with a product.

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Is cognitive science good for UX design? ›

Moreover, Cognitive Science relates to UX UI Design. It makes you think about how users will interact with a product or design. Additionally, it answers other important questions such as what their tendencies are, and how to cater to the needs of your audience.

What are the six cognitive process dimensions? ›

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What are the 7 areas of cognitive development? ›

Among the areas of cognitive development are information processing, intelligence , reasoning, language development , and memory. Historically, the cognitive development of children has been studied in a variety of ways.

What are the 7 cognitive functions? ›

Cognitive functioning refers to multiple mental abilities, including learning, thinking, reasoning, remembering, problem solving, decision making, and attention.

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What are the 8 cognitive processes? ›

The eight cognitive functions are Introverted Sensing, Extraverted Sensing, Introverted Intuition, Extraverted Intuition, Introverted Thinking, Extraverted Thinking, Introverted Feeling, and Extraverted Feeling.

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Cognitive Skills
  • Sustained Attention. Allows a child to stay focused on a single task for long periods of time.
  • Selective Attention. ...
  • Divided Attention. ...
  • Long-Term Memory. ...
  • Working Memory. ...
  • Logic and Reasoning. ...
  • Auditory Processing. ...
  • Visual Processing.

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  • Shapes. The second element of design is shape, when a two-dimensional line encloses an area. ...
  • Colors. Color is another powerful element of design. ...
  • Typography. ...
  • Texture. ...
  • Space.
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What are the 10 theories of psychology? ›

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Famous Psychologists & Theories:
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Piaget's theory remains the best known cognitive development theory. Piaget focuses on the way children think at different ages. He sees the child as a researcher: the child acquires knowledge through experiences.

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Understanding users' mental models is important in interface design because it helps designers empathize with how their audience expects things to work. This gives useful hints for designers to build experiences and interfaces that are intuitive, predictable, and therefore highly usable for their audience.

What increases cognitive load UX? ›

Mental Model

Therefore designing a new one with a huge difference in layout or labels leads to thinking in users. This increases the cognitive load. While using the layout and labels that are familiar to users will reduce the new learning of users and thereby decreases the cognitive load.

How is the study of cognitive load related to UI and UX design? ›

In terms of UX design, cognitive load is the strain a user experiences when he/she has to think too much just to get something done. Anything that requires users to stop and figure out what to do next is cognitive load.

What is a characteristic of mental models in UX design? ›

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What is cognitive psychology in UX? ›

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What is cognitive processes in UX design? ›

In UX design, we can think of cognitive load as the mental processing power needed to use a product. If the amount of information that needs to be processed exceeds the user's ability to process it, the overall performance suffers. The cognitive load is too high.

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Let's look at ten of the most helpful university degrees or majors you should consider pursuing a career as a UX Design professional.
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  • Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) ...
  • English. ...
  • Information Technology (IT) ...
  • Psychology. ...
  • Graphic Design. ...
  • Industrial Design. ...
  • Anthropology.

What is meant by cognitive psychology? ›

Cognitive Psychology is the science of how we think. It's concerned with our inner mental processes such as attention, perception, memory, action planning, and language.

What is cognitive psychology with examples? ›

Cognitive psychology involves the study of the mind and how people think. Examples of things studied in this field are attention span, memory, reasoning and other functions and actions of the brain that are seen as a complex mental process. The concept of learning itself is also an example of cognition.

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Cognitive mapping is a mapping method used to create a visual representation of a person's (or a group's) mental model for a process or concept. It can be a useful tool throughout user research, from gathering data to analyzing findings and articulating similarities and patterns.

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Key features of the cognitive approach are: A belief that psychology should be a pure science, and research methods should be scientific in nature. The primary interest is in thinking and related mental processes such as memory, forgetting, perception, attention and language.

What are the 5 cognitive processes? ›

The steps involved in cognitive processing include attention, language, memory, perception, and thought.

What are the types of cognitive psychology? ›

There are currently three main approaches in cognitive psychology: experimental cognitive psychology, computational cognitive psychology, and neural cognitive psychology.

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  • We have 7 areas of cognitive. “brain skills” that help us learn. ...
  • ▪ What you know. ...
  • ▪ Your skills for solving problems. ...
  • ▪ How quickly you perform mental tasks. ...
  • ▪ How you use your eyes for learning. ...
  • ▪ How you use your ears for learning. ...
  • ▪ How you hold information in your. ...
  • ▪ How you store and later remember.

What are the 7 cognitive areas? ›

According to the CHC Theory of Human Cognitive Abilities, there are seven (7) broad cognitive areas (Gs): Fluid Reasoning, Crystallized Intelligence, Short-Term Memory, Long-Term Retrieval, Visual Processing, Auditory Processing, and Processing Speed.

What is cognitive learning theory examples? ›

Examples of cognitive learning strategies include:

Asking students to reflect on their experience. Helping students find new solutions to problems. Encouraging discussions about what is being taught. Helping students explore and understand how ideas are connected.

What are the 8 core cognitive skills? ›

The 8 Core Cognitive Capacities
  • Sustained Attention.
  • Response Inhibition.
  • Speed of Information Processing.
  • Cognitive Flexibility.
  • Multiple Simultaneous Attention.
  • Working Memory.
  • Category Formation.
  • Pattern Recognition.
26 Nov 2020

What are the 8 cognitive functions? ›

Cognition basically means using your brain. It is a very broad term that includes many varied and complex brain activities (or cognitive functions), such as attention, memory, processing speed, and executive functions (i.e., reasoning, planning, problem solving, and multitasking).

What are the 5 types of mapping? ›

According to the ICSM (Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping), there are five different types of maps: General Reference, Topographical, Thematic, Navigation Charts and Cadastral Maps and Plans.

What are the 4 stages of cognitive theory? ›

Sensorimotor stage (0–2 years old) Preoperational stage (2–7 years old) Concrete operational stage (7–11 years old) Formal operational stage (11 years old through adulthood)

What are the 3 cognitive strategies? ›

Here are the best cognitive learning strategies mentors and trainers may use to help their students learn fast with a great percentage of knowledge retention:
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  • Memorization and Imagery to develop cognitive strategies. ...
  • Reflection to develop cognitive strategies.
12 Apr 2022

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