What we don't know

in Design

I confess I still haven’t been making anything very interesting. In the past week and a half I flew to Seattle and back so I would have someone to kiss on New Year’s Eve. We came up with many creative and delicious ways to use homemade cranberry sauce, that’s something I guess. Work on my portfolio redesign continues very slowly. Trying to modify someone else’s HTML templates and CSS is more frustrating than I had anticipated.

In the meantime, last night I was talking to my dad about various things, including school, and he asked me if I have been keeping up with psychology research.

My initial thought was “not really,” but I follow the British Psychological Society’s blog, and I subscribe to the RSS feed for several APA journals, so every so often I skim over many boring abstracts I don’t always understand (I should probably just give up on Behavioral Neuroscience). And I have a network of peers who also serve as a sort of informal filter of interesting stuff coming out of the HCI community. So if any interaction design-relevant breakthroughs show up, I might not be the first to know, but I’d find out pretty quickly.

Pondering this led me to the question of what are the areas we know least about, where basic psychological research seems most likely to impact what I do? The basics of things like sensation and perception, cognitive load, and memory are fairly well understood to the extent that it matters to computer software design, so barring any massive paradigm shift there, I don’t think cognition or perception research are going to produce much in the way of game-changing knowledge. Social psychology is a little murkier, but also correspondingly less directly relevant to interaction design. Relevant, of course, but not necessarily directly informing interface decisions like “what color should I make this button?” or “what’s the best way for someone to access this function?” the way knowledge of the principles of visual perception or understanding cognitive overload might. It’s more that there are many things to know about understanding people’s behavior and how to influence it that designers should keep in mind, and social psychology offers one perspective on that.

So…what do I think will help most directly? Attention control, I think, is a big one. We basically understand how the brain processes sensory signals, and have some fuzzy but useful ideas about how those sensations become meaningful perceptions. But humans are just bombarded with sensations all the time, and we only become consciously aware of a small fraction of them. We don’t understand so well how or why a person ends up attending to the particular signals they do, and we know very little about helping people to manage their attention. There are graphic design principles intended to direct attention on a printed page, but many of them are inadequate to a messy, changing, multimedia interactive environment.

Maybe we never will understand attention in a way that can offer simple and concrete guidelines, we do know that what an individual attends to in a particular situation is influenced by many complex factors, both personal and environmental, and most of which are out of the control of a designer. Still, there is a great deal about attention management we do not know, and it seems to me like a good source of knowledge that would help designers create better products.