Do you need a formal psychology background to be a UX designer?

Over the last few years I’ve taken an interest in the psychological side of UX, with the aim to better understand humans and learn more about why we think the way we do. I’m hoping this helps me in my day-to-day quest as a UX/Product Designer trying to improve the world in my own small way.

The UX field is very eclectic in skills and backgrounds. Many UX’ers (Like me) come from a visual or interface design background and have naturally progressed into the world of user experience, developing their skills in research, testing and facilitation along the way.

A designer working in any field should have a strong sense of empathy, an ability to relate to people (users) and design solutions to their problems. After talking to someone about what they’re trying to achieve or what problem they need to solve, we’re able to ‘magically’ transform often unclear requirements, ideas and sweeping statements like “make it pop” or “It needs to be easy” into meaningful solutions.

I believe many of us have a strong sense of empathy and this problem solving capability, whether we consciously realise it or not.

In my experience (with no scientific basis or background whatsoever!) designers have a high level of emotional intelligence and have a natural ability to put themselves in the shoes of another (the user), learn from this empathetic connection and design a possible solution.

In other words we get inside the mind of the user to better understand the problem we need to solve.

Designers have been doing this since the invention of the wheel. Although now we are solving much more complex problems, we still have the same innate ability to empathise with another person whom is experiencing a problem and create a solution.

Startups, Agencies & Enterprises alike are now seeing the benefits of design and psychology and how they both can be applied together to solve a problem. UX is an industry which utilises skills from both ends of the spectrum. At the psychology end, the UX Psychologists have very good research, facilitation and most of all, an understanding of  why people make certain decisions and what motivates them. This skill is not only valuable in finding out what people need or want but also extremely valuable in a business environment when we need to back up design decisions with data and theory. A UX Psychologist may lack some of the more practical design skills like wireframing, visual and interaction design.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the UX Designers. These guys have normally evolved into UX design from another practice. Usually graphic, visual or interface design. I’ve also come across UX’ers with backgrounds in TV, Music, Journalism and Microbiology. The common trait with this real world experience is most of these come from the creative industries. The UX Designer probably gets the same ‘gut feel’ or an intuition as the UX Psychologist but is unable to put it into words, so to speak. The UX Psych has very good research & analysis and can usually communicate the rationale behind an assumption. A UX Designer’s strengths are in the solution creation. Once the designer understands the problem they can’t resist jumping in to solution mode and sketching out some ideas.

In my experience, these are the basic differences between a UX Psychologist and a UX Designer. I believe there are two distinct roles evolving which both work together. I’m not saying it’s impossible to get an individual who is great at both but I think you’ll find most people sway one way or the other.

In short, Do I think you need a psychology background to be a UX designer? – No. It definitely might help you to have a knowledge of it but having a graphic design background may also be just as beneficial.


December 23, 2013 / /