Three Tips from Cognitive Psychology that Can Make You a Better UX Researcher

Having taught eight courses of university-level cognitive psychology in my past, I have come to realize that many of the mental hacks I use in my work as a UX Researcher come from this field. Cognitive psychology investigates the mental processes underlying perception, attention, thought, language, and memory. In this article, we’re going to discuss how you can utilize knowledge from this field to avoid memory errors and better utilize the brain as the powerful tool that it is to be a better UX Researcher.   

1. You’re going to forget more than you would like to believe 

When running a study that assesses qualitative data in any form, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I’ll remember what happened. I remember it now, so I’ll probably still remember when it comes time to write the report.” However, humans overestimate future remembering and underestimate future forgetting.  

One principle in Cognitive Psychology is that memories decay over time. In his seminal work in the late 1800s, Hermann Ebbinghaus found the rate of memory decay follows an exponential curve (sometimes called the forgetting curve). He discovered this by memorizing lists of artificial stimuli (nonsense words like “WID” and “COV”), and then testing and retesting how many words he could remember. He found that the best recall for the words was in the first twenty minutes after the memorization period, and following that, the number of words remembered continued to decrease. Experimental psychology has done considerable work since then to replicate these findings, even showing that there is a stability bias for human memory. That is, we incorrectly assume that we will have the same accessibility to our memories in the future that we do in the present.  

Takeaway: Do not overestimate your future remembering. When you are running your user sessions, if you see a trend that is beginning to emerge, write it down as soon as you notice. Additionally, whether you take notes during or after sessions, make sure you get any necessary notes or takeaways recorded before the next session starts. If not, new information in the next session can interfere with the knowledge gained in previous sessions. 

2. You’re going to forget some things more than others (and we can predict which ones) 

The primacy effect refers to memory being best for the first “thing” experienced in a set of information or events. For example, when asked to memorize a list of words, humans tend to have better memory for the words at the beginning of the list. A real-world translation of this is that you probably remember your first day of school (or at that new job) better than your tenth day. This is also why businesses compete for the television advertising slot that occurs right at the beginning of a commercial break, rather than the middle.  

The recency effect refers to humans having good memory for the things that were experienced most recently. The recency effect explains why it is easier to remember what you had for lunch today than what you had for lunch two days ago, and why you can remember more details from the most recent trip you took than the trip before that. This is because, in addition to having learned the information more recently, there is less competing input to interfere with the information you just learned.   

Takeaway: When you are writing your research report, do not just rely on your memory, because your memory is going to bias early and late user sessions. You took notes on each session for a reason, so make sure to skim back over them to jog your memory.  

Bonus takeaway: When writing your report or giving your readout, present the most important information first and last. Your stakeholders are subject to primacy and recency effects too, not just you! 

3. Memories change over time 

Unlike previously thought, memory is not recorded like it is on a video camera. Instead, memory is an active process that is created in the moment. Cognitive psychologists are aware of this and have worked hard to get this information into the public eye. When multiple people witness an event or crime, they tend to share their version of the story with each other. The problem with this is that, not only do eyewitnesses have varying accounts of a crime, but they can influence each other’s memories of the event. This is called co-witness contamination: when recounting the event, witnesses often include misinformation shared from others, and this misinformation can “contaminate” the memory. What is disturbing here is that the memory still feels real.  

When the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, William Hirst’s research group asked thousands of participants what they were doing when they heard the news and followed up with them consistently over a ten-year period to track their memories. They found that both consistency and accuracy of memories changed over time, yet confidence in memories remained high (despite the details having changed). This demonstrates the psychological principle that having high confidence in your memories has much more to do with emotional intensity than how accurate your memory actually is. 

So why isn’t our memory stable and accurate, the way a video recorder is? When someone tells you their version of an event you both experienced, your brain pictures the things they say so that it can help you understand their story. Confirming what already sounds familiar takes less energy. Plus, to constantly question our reality and memories would require substantial energy and probably not be worth it overall. For the most part, we get along just fine this way. However, the cost here is that erroneous details from others sometimes get mixed up and contaminate our own version of the story, causing us to remember things that never actually happened.* The power of suggestion is stronger than you think.  

Takeaway: Your memory is less reliable than you think. Take good notes during your user sessions and do not be afraid to refer back to them. If someone (such as a stakeholder) has watched some or all of user sessions and suggests a takeaway that does not quite resonate with what you are seeing, pay attention to that feeling. Remember that stakeholders sometimes have vested interests in a study’s outcome and may (innocently) pay more attention to and more often discuss parts of the session that back up what they are looking for. With that said, research is meant to be discussed, and it is often from discussion that the most helpful insights emerge. So, after you have finished collecting data, write down your own takeaways from the study so you can return to them later if needed. Additionally, be mindful of whether others’ views may be influencing you.  

Final thoughts: What if I can’t take notes during my sessions? 

In some circumstances, note taking can be costly to your sessions. This can happen if you have a particularly complex protocol or are running a focus group, where running the group conversation is a crucial component of gaining insights. In this case, transcripts can serve as a helpful tool to allow you to read through your conversations after the study.  

The main benefit of transcripts is that you can focus on the conversation, rather than interrupting the flow of the conversation with note taking (as well as avoiding the additional burden of task switching). An additional benefit of this method is that transcripts are unbiased because there is no need to select which pieces of information are important in the moment.  

The main drawback with transcripts is the act of transcribing. A few options are available: you can listen to the recording and transcribe it yourself, you can pay a transcriber, or you can use an AI-based technology to transcribe for you.  

So, when are we to transcribe and when are we to take notes in-session? Transcripts are ideal for focus groups, if you have the time or resources available. If your report is due in five days, you may not have time to transcribe focus groups unless you only have a few groups. But, if you have only a few groups and have room to schedule a day of transcribing and a day of reading those transcriptions, this can be a useful tool that allows you to focus on the conversation, dig deeper into participant opinions, and come away with an unbiased set of notes.  

Bottom line: Your memory is less reliable than you think. Take good notes and do not be afraid to refer back to them. If taking notes will be costly to running a good session (e.g., if your protocol is particularly complex or the group setting is too much to track), consider transcripts or recordings as a tool.  

*Footnote: Interestingly, these “changes” in memory seem to require time and do not necessarily occur immediately; False memory implantation works best after a few weeks. 

About the author

Hannah Claussenius-Kalman earned her PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Houston. She applies her expertise in cognition, neuroscience, and psychology to understand and improve how humans and technology interact. She works with a team of experienced UX professionals at Human Interfaces, Inc. to develop custom research solutions for any UX challenge. If you need help from a full-service UX research consultancy for a study, recruitment, or facility rental, visit our website, send us an email, or connect with us on LinkedIn.