Usability in daily life – Psychology of Usability

Psychology, a science of behavior and mind, is frequently being mentioned in the field of user experience and usability research. For example, one of the very critical factors of usability, learnability (Norman, 2013), included one of the most profound theories in developmental psychology: conditioning.

Conditioning is a concept based on the classical conditioning experiment posed by Pavlov(1927) and known as Pavlov’s dog. Conditioning theories describe the rules of behavior learning, which the relationship (direct or indirect) between stimulus and reaction become an experience and shape future behavior tendency. The learnability refers to how easy could a user understand how to operate a task with a device/interface he or she hasn’t used before. If the relationship between stimulus (in this scene, user’s action) and reaction (in this scene, the result of their actions) appears to be obvious, it would be difficult for the user to understand what’s happening and learn the process.

In a later study (Seligman,1967) a concept of “learned helplessness”, describes the repeating unpleasant experiences would result in desperation, which is corresponding to user’s frustration in usability & user experience test.

The way we encounter new technology is actually very similar to the way people encountered new technology 10 years, 100 years ago. Our mental model stabilized in a younger age to support us adapt to the existed environment, and lower down our efficiency learning a new concept. This tradeoff forces the designer to use a common understanding of reality, which is also called “knowledge in the world” in Norman’s context, to design functions that most of the users would be able to get the idea of features without massive thinking process. Especially while the tasks are already being difficult, there is no reason to add on cognitive loading just for “being creative.” 

A project (Botella, 2016)examined two different navigation structure: Hyperlink and linear. The researchers believe that the familiarity of information structure would result in efficiency difference significantly in elders. The result of the experiments supported their hypothesis that the linear structure is easier to understand for elders due to they’re more used to linear structure such as paper books. Both performance and efficiency are better. This paper supports the theory that “What have people learned” does matter to the learnability for the information system.

It is not impossible to break condition. Of course, human cognition works way more complicated than Pavlov’s dog. However, viewing the process of user experience and user flow in cognitive psychology helps diagnose issues in the design evaluation.


Botella, C. (2016). Effect of Web navigation style in elderly users. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 909-920.

Castilla, D., Garcia-Palacios, A., Miralles, I., Breton-Lopez, J., Parra, E., Rodriguez-Berges, S., &

Pavlov IP (1927). Translated by Anrep GV. “Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex”. Nature. 121(3052): 662–664. Bibcode:1928Natur.121..662D. doi:10.1038/121662a0.RoselloLos mapas del screener.El «Wandersmänner» de Michel de Certeau y el declive hipertextual de Paul Auster

Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. Basic books.

En G.P. Landow (Ed.), Teoría del hipertexto, Paidós, Barcelona (1997), pp. 147-187

Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of experimental psychology, 74(1), 1.

Spence, K. W. (1956). Behavior theory and conditioning (Vol. 35). New Haven: yale university Press.