Talking Psych to Non-Psychologists – Part 2

Spreading the word

I describe my job in many different ways depending on the situation – though I often use the words applied psychology. ‘Applying’ a subject typically means using the core body of knowledge to inform another area of work and life, rather than extending that body of knowledge itself.

We talked about translation in part 1 - the key step in the application of ideas. It’s no use only having the experts hold all the knowledge – they need to disseminate it. Via designers, via developers, via content editors, via managers.

If we get good at translation, we do our subject better justice – and allow its wisdom to permeate through design. If not, the popularisation of the subject is open to bad metaphors. This can easily happen – and has happened with psychology (think ‘pop psychology’ books, magazine articles, and token psychologists with dubious titles appearing on documentaries and adverts).

People love a shortcut. Metaphors make it quick and easy for people to feel confident with complex concepts, but they can cost you.

The cost of a bad metaphor

Until recently I thought that metaphor was an occasionally used, pretty inconsequential literary technique. Writers invented them and some of them stuck. But after a brief foray into their meaning with Andrew Grimes, I learnt that language is filled with them. Literally. Even that word filled – I didn’t really mean that. It was a metaphor. They have incredible power – they can paint 1,000 words and unleash imagination (and save a lot of time); but power can work both ways. A bad metaphor has several important costs:

  • Creating and sustaining a bad mental model
  • Mis-applying learnings in contexts where they don’t apply
  • Making further learning more difficult
  • Devaluing all other metaphors that you use

Full to the brim

There is much metaphor that bloats psychological discourse. The mind itself can be a network, a particle, an onion, a room full of cabinets, even a computer. Psychological effects can have metaphorical names (IKEA effect, the knotted handkerchief, foot-in-the-door). Our industry churns through metaphor faster than CVs can keep up with. “No, it’s not about journeys, it’s about moments, actually everything must be written as a story!” “We’re not designing the experience, or are we, or maybe – we’re just nudging people?”

It’s a minefield (or is that or mindfield?)

It’s valuable, but it’s confusing.

Find the right metaphors for your project

So what to do? Thankfully the upside of oft-changing fashions is that you are free not to worry about them. (And if UX terminology works anything like clothes, just wait 20 years and you’ll be on trend again).

Let’s be aware of the potential confusion, demystify when possible, and find the metaphors that will help you and your client achieve the project goals. If they speak in terms of stories, fine, but find the ways you can stretch, build on top of, or split up that metaphor to help communicate more ideas. Take some time out before a project even starts to find some great metaphors and sense check them to see if they could be misconstrued.

An example: User needs

It stands to reason we will always talk about user needs in user-centred design. It is crucial that everyone is on board with exactly what this narrative is there for, and exactly what it means. We talk A LOT about users; and have many words to describe their behaviour. Needs, intent, goals, wants, expectations and desires could all be conceivably interchangeable. We shouldn’t take this lightly – if we use these terms inconsistently we are only confusing clients. But again, it doesn’t matter which one you choose, just make it fit the project, imagine how you would extend it if need be, and use it consistently.

As we have seen – communicating (selling) your ideas or your craft to those with reservations is a crucial part of getting the job done right. The non-experts hold the keys. If we are not consistent with our narrative, we can’t expect them to reflect that to users. And we can’t expect companies, let alone entire industries, to embrace user-centred design as an ‘epic story’ in their narrative.