Today, on Episode 19 of the Edge of Innovation, we discuss the psychology of design with researcher and author Victor Yocco. Learn more about Victor and his new book Design for the Mind, here: http://www.victoryocco.com/
Paul: This is the Edge of Innovation, Hacking the Future of Business. I’m your host, Paul Parisi.
Today we have the pleasure of speaking with design researcher and author Victor Yocco about his new book Design for the Mind: Seven Principles of Persuasive Design. Over the next few episodes we’re going to explore the principles taught in Victor’s book and really try to get to the heart of psychology and web design. Victor, welcome.
Paul: Was there an “ah-ha” moment as you came out of the… When was the “ah-ha” moment?
Victor: Well, so specifically around writing the book?
Paul: Well, no. More so the realization that your, your need to be an effective communicator and how it translated. I mean, because, obviously, the book came about at a certain point in time. But before that, you had formative thoughts. And—
Paul: So, what happened, or was it just an epiphany?
Victor: I don’t think… I don’t have a great epiphany story. I would love to say, “Standing in front of the elephants one day…” But I would say, as a body of projects that I have a part of, I had a really good advisor in grad school who really got me a lot of hands-on experience and a job doing work in the setting that I was also doing my research. And I think that it’s something that, as I look at, you know, how I can give guidance to other people who are coming up in our field — whether or not they want to engage in research or design — but it’s engaging with people was very eye opening for me. Having to understand that people will feed off of you and people will respond to you in a way that reflects how you are approaching them. The way you present a topic is critical, you know.
If you run up to somebody in a zoo who’s obviously not there to engage in any type of research knowingly, and you say, “Please take my survey,” that’s one way of doing it. But if you make it something much more approachable, and you make somebody feel comfortable with who you are, and you ask them if they’re willing to spend a couple of minutes with you, then you get a completely different response. Even if it’s the person you thought, when you were approaching them, “Oh, man, they look grumpy and like they’re in a rush.”
So, really, seeing over time that a lot of these principles that I was learning are implemented sort of subconsciously when we want to interact effectively with people. And then, you see examples that are a little more blatant and also can be off-putting, like the used car sales pitch or something like that, which is where, I think, persuasion and that word really can come across as off-putting to people but that, from an academic perspective, persuasion is just taking information and presenting it in a certain way that provides your side of the story that provides people with an argument of for why they should consider doing or thinking the way you’re asking them to. And it doesn’t involve anything like coercion or forcing somebody, which is where we get into…
People often ask me about, well, what do you think about dark patterns of design. And that those are much more, like, trickery and coercion versus a persuasive technique says, “Hey, I think a certain way, and you should too.” Or, “I’d like you to think this way, ” Or, “I’d like you to engage in this and here’s why.” And it sort of wraps that information in a container that uses a persuasive technique. But it doesn’t say, “Hey, I’m dropping you off here on this site. And the only way you can get out is to check this opt-in box that will allow you to then start receiving emails 10 times a day or have your credit card be billed monthly unless you call in instead of being able to cancel it online.”
So, I do try to draw a distinction, which I think there’s a subtle distinction to some people. But I’m comfortable saying that I don’t think persuasion is necessarily dark patterns or that it’s engaging in any kind of trickery if you’re sticking to what the true value of persuasion should be from an academic perspective.
Paul: Yeah. I would agree. Now, many of the things that you’ve said, once you say them… We have a joke in the office that, you know, when you say something and it’s like, “Well, that’s obvious,” well, it wasn’t obvious before you said it. So, it’s not like… But I think many of the things that you’ve talked about in the book and that we’re going to talk about today, once somebody hears them, they’re going to say, “That’s obvious.” But before then, they’re not. And so, how do you…
Well, one of the things that I think is great is that you have taken all the obvious things and given us a very good roadmap with a lot of case studies so that we can take the…just persuasion. “You should be persuasive” is a good example. Well, duh, of course you should be. But if you don’t say it, and I would imagine, as I’ve looked at websites, and you’ve looked at websites, you say that probably a large majority of them fail at their persuasiveness.
Victor: Right. And I think that… So I like how you summarized that, which is, a lot of it is obvious. And I think that I state that fairly, obviously, in my book as well. Which is a lot of what you’ll see from a psychological perspective, you’ll think of as either maybe common sense or also like you naturally do that. And what a book like Design for the Mind does, I think, that can be helpful, is it also gives you the language behind what you’re doing. And it gives you an understanding so it’s not just, “Oh, hey, people enjoy looking at what other people are doing. And so that’s why social media can be effective.”
It’s like, people develop a social identity, and part of that is they compare themselves to others, and when they see people that they align with, they want to know more, and they want to engage in that type of behavior. And when they see people that they don’t feel like they align with, they want to do behaviors that make them more different from those people. And then, all of a sudden, you understand why does this work, or why might this not be currently working, but how can you fix it.
And I think it also can make you sound a lot more intelligent in front of a client, or if you’re pitching your colleagues for something and you can bring in some language that actually describes why you think your idea would be effective.
Paul: Well, I think that’s important to highlight. So, somebody that’s not a PhD in psychology or even has ever took a psychology course, I mean, it’s like electronics. In electronics, one of the things I’m fascinated with, you know, there’s resistors and capacitors, and we have ways to describe those with units and measures and all that technical lingo. And what you’re saying, I think, in Design for the Mind and making it accessible to the average person, average web designer, and even the experienced one, is there is a set vocabulary. And there are meanings to that vocabulary. Is that true? Or am I off base?
Victor: No, you’re correct. And each chapter that covers concepts has a specific section where I say, “This is how you would… This is examples of how you would talk about this principle,” in a way that doesn’t come across as condescending or would get you in trouble because you’re going to start using words that you don’t know what they mean, but it is like… Here, it can be made approachable in a way that your banking client, your banking project manager that you work with can say, “Oh, heck, I really understand what you’re saying. And I think this is going to be a great idea because of that.” And that’s really what I would like, you know, one contribution of the book to be, is that even if somebody read through it and said, “Yeah, this is all really obvious and I’m doing it.” But they could also say, “And now I understand why it works,” or how to talk about it. And that, I think, in itself, is something that can be valuable as setting you apart and helping your process to understand, “Okay, this is what I’m doing.”
And maybe, hopefully, somebody who’s super-motivated would want to go find out more, and go beyond what I could cover in the book, because there is so much psychology and research — some good, some bad — that’s out there that you could continue. You could an encyclopedic set of books on psychological principles. Whether or not I would want to would be another questions.
Paul: Well, I think one of the things that I want to pull out for our listeners is the fact that you’re not inventing these psychological principles. These are well-worn principles that are well established. What you’re doing is putting them into a context so that people who are interested in communicating via the internet, the web, can effectively apply these principle. Just talk about that a little bit, because somebody, you know, you’re not inventing anything here. So it’s not like, “Oh, he’s got some crazy idea about this. This is the way things work.” No, you’re not doing that.
What you’re doing is you’re taking it and developing it for somebody like me who doesn’t know or have a depth of knowledge there. And allowing me to understand. Sort of unwrapping a Christmas present and saying, “Oh, my gosh, this is… I now have a language that I can now quantify all the things I’ve been thinking about.”
Victor: Right. And you heard it from Paul. The book is the equivalent of a Christmas present.
Paul: There you go. It’s a great Christmas present.
Victor: But beyond that…so, yes. Exactly. And I this will… I can jump into my sort of story and catch people up to date in terms of where I came from zoos and—
Paul: Yeah. Exactly.
Victor: — By talking through that. So, I… Working with zoos, working with educators, working with art educators, working with people whose main job is to work with people and try to deliver content to them, I realized, as an academic, as somebody who was going to school to get my PhD, that there’s two completely different languages that are spoken between practitioners and academics.
Now, again, that’s fairly obvious. We all know the whole ivory tower versus real life. And so I became fairly proficient at translating what I was becoming familiar with in my academic studies to the real world scenario of on the ground at an art museum or a zoo or a science center.
So, a few years after that, I was offered a job to come do research with Intuitive, where I’m at now, in digital settings. And I really had no idea what user experience was or what digital design was. And that wasn’t why I was hired. In the beginning, I was hired because I had a really good research background. And I was able to convey that I could quickly learn the language of design and that I had a history of working closely with practitioners. Because, how Intuitive is set up is that researchers research, designers design, and they work together on projects to inform each other. So I have close colleagues who are designers on all my projects and they attend to different research activities, and I download what I find to them, and we work together to conceptualize the finding into recommendations. But my background wasn’t that I was going to come in and start designing solutions to anything. I was going to create studies and translate data into meaningful recommendations.
And what I realized once I got here, though, was what you said earlier, was, wow. Everything that I have learned that you apply in this zoo setting to communicate to people can be instantly applied to, with some minor modifications, a digital setting, and how we want people to behave. We might not have some noble goal of preventing the extinction of a specific species, but we want people to understand why they should be using online bill pay. Or why they should be signing up for their accounts online versus using pen and paper, and that if we’re going to try to promote these behaviors, we need to account for the psychology of users in those settings.
And I gave an internal presentation around the elaboration likelihood model here where I work at Intuitive, and it sort of just sparked me from there that I pitched an article on the topic to A List Apart, and they said it sounded good, and from there I sort of entered this realm of writing around a topic of applying psychology to design that I had never really thought as being something that I was passionate about as I turned out to be. Or really, that I was as, uh, I guess, effective at conveying to a practitioner what these academic principles meant. And so that’s where, then, the idea that I could turn enough content around and turn it into a book came from.
Paul: Did you think you were qualified?
Victor: That’s a good question. I didn’t necessarily care, I guess. But I figured, from an academic standpoint, I was qualified to talk about the principles, that I had enough familiarity, and I had written about them and studied them for years, that that part didn’t concern me. It was more do I have the qualifications to be accepted as a colleague of designers. And every day that went by, I be getting more experience in that realm. And working with some really top-notch designers on a regular basis was helping to build my confidence, and then also, seeing how I could look at the work we were doing and identify how the principles would be playing out or where they might be more effective if they were applied.
So that was something that helped with, I guess, boosting my level of feeling like I could be someone who wrote that book. And it seemed to be a space that I was very comfortable in, which meant a lot to me as far as wanting to keep moving forward.
Paul: Were there times where you ruffled feathers of designers, where you were saying something wasn’t as effective as maybe they thought it should be or would be?
Victor: Well, I guess that I’d have to say that, no, because I can’t think of anything specifically where I butted heads with anybody. I think that the designers that I work with, I tend to have a pretty good relationship when it comes to back and forth. And so, while I definitely try to put out the psychology and accounting for the users at all times, when a decision gets made and I make sure that my voice is heard, I think that beyond that, I don’t have a lot of pushback, I guess.
When we… A lot of times, what we have the luxury of doing is also engaging in some level of usability testing. And that can also help. I put out in the book that, you know, I understand, again, we look at what works best on paper. And then when you look at reality, things are totally different, that we all want to include — or most of us, at least — want to include research as part of our process, and the sad truth can be that sometimes that doesn’t happen. And psychology can be a way of trying to sort of prop that up or be a proxy when we don’t have direct data that we’ve collected from users and potential users.
But usually, I find myself in a situation here where we have built a project that will at least include usability testing once we’ve started moving forward with something. Often we have upfront research where we’re able to do interviews or contextual inquiry or, really, go in and start to understand what the product is, because we’re client facing. We don’t have our own product.
But when I’ve ever encountered something that I’ve thought, “Okay, this could use some tweaking,” we’ve put it into a testing scenario to try to see what exactly would be best. And that sort of removes the personal from it when you can look at it.