Psychology Meets UX

An interview with Selda Koydemir

I’m doing my undergraduate studies in two areas: psychology and business administration. I have a special interest in topics that combine these two areas. User experience (UX) is an excellent example since we can create a better user experience if we can mix insights from psychological principles with product development.

I’ve recently interviewed Selda Koydemir, who is the founding director and head of research at WeKnowUsers. We talked about the link between psychology and UX.

What are the benefits of incorporating psychology into UX?

Psychology is an inevitable part of user experience. In fact, they go hand in hand. We need to understand the users better so that we can create products that satisfy the users. In order to do that, the motivations of users, their needs, and frustrations should be explored and understood. Psychology is a perfect tool for that. Many psychological theories can explain what people do and why they do it as they are interacting with a certain product. For instance, questions such as “Why do users initiate a certain action? Why do they perform a specific behaviour? What do they need to complete an action?” can be answered with the help of psychological theories and their principles. We can also learn users’ cognitive limitations and why they make mistakes. All this information can be used to drive better design decisions.

Psychology also offers an array of research methods and techniques that are relevant to user experience research. For example, some standardised surveys are good examples. Besides, the moderation techniques used in usability testing studies or interviewing techniques used in ethnographic studies or contextual inquires can be borrowed from counselling psychology which offers information about how to make people disclose information in testing sessions or during an interview, how to make them comfortable, how to empathise with them, and even how to manage stakeholders — which is actually a big challenge for many UX professionals.

Can you talk about one psychological theory that you make use of in doing user research and in generating insights for designers?

There are many theories, but let me talk about self-determination theory. It is a motivational theory which proposes that we have three fundamental basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Relatedness refers to the need to create bonds with others and the world around us; competence is concerned with the need to feel accomplishment and with constantly improving ourselves; and autonomy refers to the need to feel that we have a sense of free will when doing something and some sort of control over the environment which we are in.

How is that relevant to design and user experience? For instance, users engage more when they are given the opportunity to have control over a video that appears in an app or a website. They feel frustrated if the video starts playing immediately. Or let’s say users are visitng a shopping website. They feel more autonomous and thus more satisfied if we presented them more than one option (not too many, though) for payment — credit card, bank transfer, PayPal etc.

As for the relatedness, there are many different ways to support that specific need of users such as creating tasks that do not induce isolation or alienation, including opportunities to create interpersonal relationships and communicate with others, and ensuring that users can develop and maintain a level of trust in the product. Social network products such as Facebook and Instagram, and customer testimonials are some ways to help users satisfy their relatedness needs.

Progress meters are good examples for satisfying the competence need of users. For example, if a diet or exercise tracking app sends users feedback, users can see their self-improvement which can increase their engagement and satisfaction. Besides, providing users with skill development opportunities — like in many video games — is another way of touching the competence need.

In poorly designed digital environments, people become bored and disengaged. Satisfaction of basic needs in such an environment, on the other hand, might increase satisfaction, engagement and enjoyment. Although it may be difficult to satisfy all three needs at the same time, it is possible to target one or two in a given solution.

I’m wondering if there is a research method or technique you borrow from psychology.

Sure, there are plenty. But I really like experience sampling sampling methodology which is frequently used in psychological research. It’s not preferred by many user researchers, because they either don’t know the technique or they don’t have the time and resources to do it since it takes time and a lot of effort.

Selda Koydemir - User Experience Research

Prof. Selda Koydemir

Can you give us some details about this technique?

Experience sampling can can be used at the beginning of product development to understand the needs of users, who the target audience is and what they want. It can also be used after the product is released to assess whether the product is actually meeting the needs of users.

The method includes interrupting users during the day to get their feedback in real time. The idea is to ask the same question several times at random times during the day. This can be achieved by sending notifications to users’ smartphones via an app or SMS.

With the help of this technique, there is plenty of information we can gather such as whether the product solves the users’ problems, whether people would be willing to use the product, how often will they use the product, to what extent will the product solve people’s problems and how, or which features can be included in the product.

There are many steps involved in experience sampling including determining the goals of the study, the question(s) to be asked to the users via notifications, and deciding how many people are needed as participants (since you get many data points from one participant, the number of participants may be critical). The questions we ask in experience sampling are also important. We normally do not ask opinions or thouhgts of users, but rather focus on behaviours. This is the best way to get an accurate picture of their needs. For example, we may ask the users why did they use the product, or what problem(s) they had when using it.

It is possible to gather both qualitative and quantitative data by experience sampling which makes it a great source of data collection. Data analysis generally involves classifying the data into predetermined categories, coming up with frequency counts, creating tables to calculate the number of times the category values happened, and generating bar charts. Then, it is possible to synthesise the data into themes, and generate design implications.

Selda Koydemir is the research director of WeKnowUsers — a user analysis and user research agency based in London. For more information, please visit and

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