Psychology in Design

Every week on The UX Blog Podcast, Nicholas Tenhue interviews user experience professionals about current trends, hot topics, and their careers. Subscribe on your favorite podcast player!

victor yocco

In this episode, Victor Yocco, an author, speaker, and UX researcher speaks about his work in research work in zoos, his experiences with alcohol abuse, and ways to design experiences for those who don't want to drink at events. Victor also has a new book 'Design for the Mind'.

Victor was kind enough to give the readers and listeners of The UX Blog 39% off his book. Use the code: 39yocco for 39 percent off the cover price if you order it through the publisher, Manning.


Nicholas Tenhue: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The UX Blog Podcast. Today I am joined by Victor Yocco. Victor if you would just like to introduce yourself to the audience and tell us a little bit about what you do.

Victor Yoco: Sure. I’m a UX researcher at a studio based in Philadelphia, Intuitive, and we work with clients across industries, financial services, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and non-profit museums, universities.

We have design and front-end developers. We also have additional resources to our parent company so we can do all the backend stuff as well and I’ve been here for about three years and I had a research team, there are nine of us now. We do everything from standard usability testing, UX assessments to contextual inquiry and interviews.

My background really is in research and looking at how people receive communication and how that impacts their behaviors. Before I was doing UX research, I was doing research in settings like zoos, aquariums and science centers and taking a look at how people are encouraged to change their behaviors based on the messages they receive in these settings.

For example, zoos and aquariums, they want people to leave this message around conservations issues and how their behaviors can impact positively or negatively the environment. So there’s a lot of psychology that goes into the messages and the programs they create.

Once I started working in UX digital design field, I realized all the psychology and communication theory that goes into these zoo and science experiences and everything I had to learn about when I was getting my PHD and when I was doing research as a what they call visitor studies in zoos and aquariums that applied equally to the experiences that we were creating on screens, just a different medium of delivery but really wanting to encourage people to engage in behaviors like using our products.

Nicholas Tenhue: I think what really interesting thing would be for you to kind of give us a couple of example of these kinds of systems in place like for example let’s take the zoo, can you give us some sort of concrete examples of that in action?

Victor Yocco: Sure. So a lot of the messages that people encounter in zoos are meant to convince them that their behaviors around purchasing things or how they use electricity that they need to think more about that and that there’s other ways of behaving that can conserve energy or reduce their impact on the environment.

So in the zoo, a lot of ways that people encounter a communication is through these very static signs which can be problematic because once you create a sign and put it up, it is something that might stay there for decades. If you don’t get more funding to change out your signs…

Nicholas Tenhue: So you’re kind of stuck if your messaging changes then, in the physical environment.

Victor Yocco: Yeah, exactly. And now, I would say that they’re on probably the lower end of the curve when it comes to adopting new technologies but by the time, say 2010, when I was leaving the zoo area 2012 and a lot of their exhibit areas were starting to incorporate technology like touch screen kiosks like Smartphone apps because they realized there was opportunity there to be more nimble and responsive with your message and that they could use technology to facilitate a positive visit experience not distract from.

So some of the research I was doing, like I was so working in Jacksonville with their zoo, they had received some funding to create Smart phone apps around the front exhibit spaces and they kind of wanted to know “how can we do this in a way that fits into a zoo visit, not detracts from it because people expect to spend time with family, people expect to not be staring at their phones hopefully but looking at the animals in the exhibit spaces so how does technology facilitate that experience?” It was moving towards that direction.

An example would be then, some of the research that I would look at would be how do we communicate this message in a way that activates people’s ability to receive it and think about the meaning of this message because when we talk about persuasion, one of the first key factors in truly persuading somebody is that you have to get them pay attention and understand, be willing to process the message that you’re putting for.

If immediately you’re not putting yourself or your product relevant, people will rely on secondary cues to understand whether or not they should care about your message and that’s when things like “is it visually appealing? Is it easy to use? Is it something that their friends are using? That those are the other secondary forms of persuasion that come into play when people don’t see the immediate relevance of your message or your product.

Nicholas Tenhue: Alright. So in sort of marketing, we talked about things like social proof.

Victor Yocco: Yeah, exactly. And something that comes up pretty frequently when we talk about design, the interaction design are dark patterns and I feel like that is something that to me doesn’t fit the definition of persuasion.

The definition of persuasion is when you’re making a case for something, you do have a desired outcome and you are trying to get somebody to a certain area to do something, to believe in something, to support something but there’s never a coercion or trickery involved.

Once you introduce forcing people to do something, that’s coercion, that’s not in line with what I consider to be persuasive design or persuasive techniques.

Nicholas Tenhue: And in some ways it’s pretty unethical.

Victor Yocco: Yes so it is.

Nicholas Tenhue: What are your thoughts with companies that do take this approach in order to grow in terms of things that we can put into place to dissuade companies to doing this? Should there be some kind of liability etc etc?

Victor Yocco: Yeah and I think that something where it is so easy to implement those types of design patterns that it really takes a lot of work to call places out and make them aware of the fact that we won’t put up with that type of design.

Yeah I think the repercussion should be you either change it or people shouldn’t be using your products. Now that’s something that seems to be rather, I guess it can seem benign but oftentimes comes back and bites people is inserting language to end user licenses where we know people won’t read it thoroughly. They’re going to accept the terms but then they’ve accepted something that later on on thinking to some sort of Facebook research.

People, once they realize what’s going and that they’re being subjected to different types of manipulation through their social feed that they were not happy with that and I think that, well that might not have been a dark pattern where people were tricked, they did take advantage of people not being as attentive to reading end user license agreements and I think that is something we assume from my conversations, most lawyers don’t even read those.

When your fallback is well, it was in the license I think that’s a pretty or in the agreement to use the software that can be a pretty unacceptable thing to tell people when they feel violated, there needs to be some type of empathy involved in understanding “okay, well people aren’t expecting that their social feed are going to be manipulated by the company they view as being more of a platform now that they’re using not something that’s controlling and filtering what they’re seeing.”

Nicholas Tenhue: That’s a really good point and I mean that also opens up a whole other argument of how do we design good terms and services and sort of give full disclosure to what people are signing up for.

Victor Yocco: Yeah exactly.

Nicholas Tenhue: I’ve seen some interesting examples of summary, paragraphs summaries in the kind of margin to go with the terms of service so you could kind of scan there and read them.

Victor Yocco: Yeah and if something where when you’re in a banking industry, because I do have quite a few financial clients that they’re so concerned of government oversight andmaking sure that they meet all the different regulations.

I understand that getting all that information out there to people is critical and I think the other piece that you need to put with that is that they understand it because perhaps there is something unacceptable or perhaps there’s something where you can convince people that the cause for concern that’s causing you the need to include these types of terms of agreement is something that you should be pushing back against a government oversight on.

So you could potentially work in both ways “why do we need these regulations?” and we need our users to understand what it is we’re asking them to agree to.

Nicholas Tenhue: Exactly. So, why don’t you talk a little bit about your writing?

Victor Yocco: Sure, well one of the things that I’ve talked about in the past and written about is that I had spent most of my life struggling with alcohol abuse and when I moved away from that, I had to find something else to spend my time on.

When I started writing, I know I mentioned in the beginning that my background was in zoos and science centers, so when I transitioned into digital space and I started to realize how the theories that I was aware of and the different studies that I had had to read going through school and was my previous employment is that they still applied.

I was excited because something that I’ve always done in both my past life and currently is wanting to make sure what we’re talking about applies to practitioners. So academia has a very specific way of writing that doesn’t make it so friendly usually saying “here is why it matters if you’re a practitioner” and that’s the case whether you’re working with zoos or whether you’re working with digital designers.

I had felt already coming in to the space that the way I like to communicate, I don’t want to just do research and report out the findings, I want to have it be understandable as to the “so what” piece. I started writing about some of these theories and principles of psychology that I was aware of and how they would play out or how they do play out in digital design.

I had a few articles published some in A List Apart and Smashing Magazine and I realized that “there’s a hundred years of psychological research out there that certainly there’s enough in psychology that I could make a book links text out of applying different principles.

Writing a book was something that from early on in my life that I’d always wanted to do. I often say that I’ve always wanted to write a book, I’ve never wanted to write a book about applying psychology to design but it’s something that an opportunity presented itself and I started to gain momentum with writing about different principles from psychology and I started speaking on some.

I put together a book proposal and shopped it around and I was able to find a publisher with manning. So that was probably after I had been, I was able to write fifteen or twenty articles and get a book deal was in the first year of my sobriety so I was pretty pleased with that.

Going from there, I also transitioned and started writing some about my sobriety but trying to make it more applied beyond my situation and saying “here’s what matters” and I’ve written some articles saying “we have a culture in design and technology where we focus heavily on promoting the use of alcohol” either at our vents or at our work spaces.

For example, I work at a place that has the office keg and has a beer fridge and not that that’s wrong and we shouldn’t be doing that but we also need to remember that not everybody is in a position that can consume alcohol and be moderate about it, that would be my case. Or once I started writing, so many people reached out to me to share their stories and it wasn’t “Oh I’m an alcohol abuser and I can’t handle” but it was “I have these other experiences or these other issues related to medication or medical conditions and I’m not comfortable always being around settings where there is alcohol use being promoted.”

A lot of my speaking and writing has also been trying to make this broader awareness around “Yes we can have alcohol” but “yes we can also create inclusive spaces that make people who are not going to be drinking feel welcome in tech and in design.”

That is what’s really exciting for me is that angle, along with continuing to write about psychology and UX research, but I’ve gotten to speak at some events and I’ll be on a panel tomorrow actually at Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania talking about tech culture and I’ve got a few conferences coming up so I’ll be speaking on Alcohol and Tech.

So I feel like it’s very broad, it’s something that keeps me looking in multiple directions, whether it’s psychology or whether it’s alcohol or whether it’s UX research. I really enjoy writing about all of it so hopefully it’s something that I can continue doing.

Nicholas Tenhue: Yeah. It’s incredible that you’ve achieved so much in just in the first year of writing and also a guest that we had called Donna who’s the organizer for UX Australia talked about exactly the same point when you design a conference space, you need to design it to be inclusive. You don’t want to make it a sort of a binge drinking fest where other people can’t socialize.

Victor Yocco: Yeah, I think that from my perspective, being somebody who would choose not to drink at all because I’m aware of what happens to me or how I don’t want to put myself in that situation that it really, as I’ve grown comfortable with my sobriety and I’ve had conversations with people, and I realize that it’s not that alcohol is being introduced as this devious thing or that were trying to force people to drink in a way that is evil but it’s like, the awareness isn’t there and so if you don’t have a problem with alcohol, there might not be this broader understanding of when I talk about it or when I make it sound like the only reason people should come to this event is for the drinking, then it’s very off putting to some people.

I feel like having the opportunity to speak or write about it really isn’t preach or in a way it doesn’t make people feel like it’s us versus them is very important to me to say. I think we can all be in these spaces together if we’re acting responsible and only respect the fact that people are not cookie cutter in how they consume or view alcohol in general.

Nicholas Tenhue: Do you have any recommendation for companies or event organizers to be more aware of this?

Victor Yocco: Sure. I think the biggest things I recommend is in how we talk about our spaces or events so when we focus solely on this aspect of if it’s going to be in a bar or we’re going to have an open bar, it feels very exclusive from the perspective of somebody who isn’t going to be drinking and so when I present, I have a few examples of descriptions where I’ve shown for example, me or somebody who feels like “I’m not going to drink alcohol no matter what but I’m going to attend an event, what am I going to do? Am I going to sit there and drink out of a water fountain?”

That scene a line is simple as saying “hey, soft drinks are going to be available for those choosing not to drink. That does two things. First of all, that means you understand the fact that some people are going to show up not to drink alcohol and that I can expect that there won’t be this spotlight shining on me if I have a beverage that doesn’t include hard liquor or a beer. Secondly is actually that there will be some thought given to the options of what soft drinks and beverages might be available that don’t have alcohol.

So I feel like something that simple can be a major shift in the perspective somebody who either struggles with alcohol abuse or doesn’t drink alcohol for any of the other reasons that exist can view coming in to an event as having the possibility that this is going to be a lot more inclusive because I think the other piece is people having to make a decision whether or not to attend an event, or whether or not to hang out with their colleagues in a situation where they’re going to be drinking.

A big factor to that is not wanting to be called out for not being the one drinking and so if you’re somebody who has a history of abusing alcohol and you’ve decided you don’t want to drink, that’s not something you really feel like you have to confess to everybody. If you choose not to, it’s a very personal thing.

I’ve decided I’m okay being vocal about it but part of that is on behalf of the people that don’t want to be vocal about it. The other piece is, let’s say somebody is staying away from alcohol because they’re on medication. When you ask them why they’re not drinking, it’s the same thing as saying “are you on any anti-psychotic medications that don’t mix well with alcohol?” and we don’t have any right or business to be asking people that. Those are the types of thoughts that are going on in people’s heads that are in a situation where they’re wondering “well if I show up and I don’t have a cocktail in my hand or I don’t have a beer, I know that the company principal is going to ask me why I’m such a buzz kill and why I came to the event to not have fun or why I’m not going to toast with anybody.”

I think if we can understand that it shouldn’t offend anybody, if somebody at your event or somebody at your workplace is choosing not to partake, that really if they’re there, that should be good enough, if we make sure that everybody is comfortable and safe in these spaces.

Nicholas Tenhue: It’s amazing how one simple sentence in an email can change the entire experience.

Victor Yocco: Yeah I truly believe that.

Nicholas Tenhue: So it looks like we’re kind of to the end of the show. Any of some closing thoughts that you would like to add around these psychology of design or any of the subjects that we’ve touched upon?

Victor Yocco: We’ve covered so much today.

Nicholas Tenhue: We have.

Victor Yocco: I’ve enjoyed it. I think that as far as psychology and design goes, I really do think, if you read my book or if you read any of the books that are out there on applying psychology to design, there’s no one right way of doing it, and I hope that that point comes through to anybody that does read my book which is Mix and Match, use principles in psychology that work for you and if you find something that doesn’t work for you, move on. It’s just like a good design process, you iterate on a design, you test things and draw out what doesn’t work and you keep what does. There’s no one psychology theory that will solve every problem around usability.

Nicholas Tenhue: Right, there’s no universal answer to this.

Victor Yocco: Absolutely! And then in some ways I look at that as that’s the fun thing, you could try to really be a problem solver which I know my designer colleagues are very into, wrestling with tough challenges and trying to solve it. So take it as a challenge but look at it as a fun thing.

There’s this psychology research that’s taking place and hopefully me and the other people that write about it can be decent translators to making it what should this look like in practice and as you test it, as you use it or test it with your clients or with your users, then determine what’s best for you and keep that part, don’t feel like you need to address every psychological principle under the sun and have a successful product.

Nicholas Tenhue: Right. So where can we get your book?

Victor Yocco: Well, it is available through bookstore websites like My publisher is Manning Publications, their website is and I can provide you, if you’re okay with it for the show notes, a discount code that would give your users or your listeners 39% if they buy it through the publisher’s website and again that’s

Nicholas Tenhue: Wow! That is quite a handsome discount.

Victor Yocco: Does that work for you, I’ll leave you that to leave at the show notes.

Nicholas Tenhue: Absolutely, I’m sure all of the listeners are happy to hear that.

Victor Yocco: Awesome.

Nicholas Tenhue: Alright! Thank you so much for being with a great guest. I look forward to reading your book.

Victor Yocco: I appreciate it and thank you so much for having me on the show. I think all the podcast around UX are doing great things and really helping to, what I look at, is being promoting the cause which is getting people on board with wanting to include their voice with their users and you’re doing a great job with that and I appreciate that.

Nicholas Tenhue: Thank you so much. Take care then!