The Psychology of Experience Design

Basic psychology operates on a few simple goals: Observe and describe, explain, predict, control, and improve.

Experience Design follows the same principles. When creating products for users, it helps to know what motivates their behavior, what makes them tick, what they anticipate.The goal is to have a deep understanding of the person, the user—knowing not just their needs, but also their expectations. Yes, the two are often different, and if you’re not solving for both, your product will fail. So how do you accomplish this?

Needs vs. Expectations

In order to create something worth using, you simply must understand users' needs and expectations. Otherwise, your product will languish in the App Store until someone else can come along and do what you couldn't. Key to this is knowing that user needs and user expectations are not the same thing.

User needs are the reasons you started creating this product in the first place. There's a problem that enough people are encountering, and it's inconvenient or harmful enough that they need a solution.

User expectation, on the other hand, is a different animal—and it's one that's a little harder to understand. User expectation is what your users think your product will do for them and how they expect your product to work.

User expectation may be informed by their past experiences with similar products, ideas they've had on their own when encountering the problem you're setting out to solve, or things you've said to lead the way they anticipate interactions with your product. In order to be readily adopted and receive a good response, your product should meet, exceed, or redefine expectations.

We'll use an example that's near and dear to our hearts: the Tonic blog. Our need was to publish content that's informative and fun with a design that's simple, clean, and beautiful—all without needing to tap our devs to deploy our creatives' posts.

Now our users are creatives who are fairly familiar with at least one or two similar tools. As a result, our expectation was to have a comprehensive tool that featured an intuitive admin interface, flexible templates, interactive components, instant preview, hyperlinking, and the ability to change and tweak a layout at the drop of a hat. Identifying and satisfying the need itself was just step one—we needed a tool that also met our expectations. Version 1 covered the need, while the team continued to work towards aligning functionality to match user expectations.

Another great example is Apple. It's an obvious choice, but think about it: Smartphones have completely changed the way we operate in our daily lives. More appendages than devices, Apple satisfied the user need of "making phone calls" and amped it up to 11. They added email. They created apps and added those to the interface. They redefined what it meant to use a phone and created an entirely new experience. Now, the user expectation is that the phone can be customized and personalized until it does exactly what each user wants it to do.

Yes, appearances do matter

Aesthetics are a major, yet undervalued, factor to consider in user experience. There are a lot of tag lines saying design isn’t about more than making things look good, but the fact of the matter is this: Users expect things to look good and work well. While aesthetics shouldn't trump functionality, missing either of the two is a failure in Experience Design.

Bottom line: Your product has to satisfy a user need, and in order for it to be successful, it should also match or exceed, or redefine your users' expectations.

While the psychology behind Experience Design is solid, it's important to remember that users' needs are always evolving. And remember, you’re a user too. How do you interact with your products? What do you expect now vs. what you took for granted two years ago? Understanding evolving needs will always help you to design for the users you're serving and not fall behind the curve as the industry moves full-force ahead at a startling pace.