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“The Psychology of Design” 

I worked at IBM, all told, about 28 years. During that time, management put more and more pressure on us to make our work “relevant” to the business. In fact, the pressure was always there, even from the beginning. Over the years, however, we were “encouraged” to shorten evermore the time gap between doing the research and having the results of that research impact the bottom line. This was not an IBM-only phenomenon. 

I was a researcher, not a politician, but it seemed to me that at the same time researchers in industrial labs were put under pressure to produce results that could be seen in terms of share price (and therefore payouts to executives in terms of stock options), academia was also experiencing more and more pressure to publish more studies more quickly — and to make sure “intellectual property” was protected to make sure the university could monetize your work. This was about the same time that, at least in America, increasing productivity and the wealth that sprung from that increased productivity stopped being shared with the workers.

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In the late 1970’s, the “Behavioral Sciences” group began to study the “psychology of design.” For the first few months, this was an extremely pleasurable & productive group, due mainly to  my colleagues. Over the next few blogs, I’ll focus on some specific techniques and methods that you may find useful in your own work. 

In this short story though, I want to focus instead on some broader issues relevant to “technology transfer”, “leadership” and “management.” Even if you are or aspire to be an expert in UX or HCI or design, I assure you that these broader issues will impact you, your work and your career. I wouldn’t suggest becoming obsessed with them, but being aware of their potential impact could help you in your own work and career. 

It is telling that, almost invariably, whenever I told someone inside IBM (or, for that matter, outside IBM) that I was studying the “psychology of design,” people responded by asking, “the design of what?” So, I would explain that we were interested in the generic processes of design and how to improve them. I would explain that we were interested in understanding, predicting, and controlling these processes to enable them to be more effective. I would explain that we could apply these findings to any kind of design: software design, hardware design, organizational design, and (see last post about IBM) communication design. I would explain that design was a quintessentially human activity. I would also explain that design was an incredibly leveraged activity to improve. 

Looking back on it, I still think all these things are true. I also see that I missed the “signal” people were giving me that, while I thought of design as something that could be studied as a process, that most people did not think of it that way. To them, it was never the “psychology of design,” but only the design of something. 

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that somewhat different skills are involved in designing a great advertising campaign, a great building, and a great application. I agree that different communities of practice treat various common issues differently. I still think it’s worth studying commonalities across domains. For one thing, we may find an excellent way of generating ideas, say, that the advertising community of practice uses that neither architects nor applications developers had ever tried. Or, vice versa.

My own academic background was in “Experimental Psychology.” We were forever doing experiments that we believed were about psychological processes that were thought to be invariant regardless of the domain. It was an axiom of our whole enterprise that studying memory for any one thing shed light on how we remember every other thing. Similar studies looked at decision making or problem solving or multi-tasking. We came to understand that there were some interesting exceptions to being able to separate content from process. For instance, it is much easier to multi-task a spatial task and a verbal task than it is to multi-task two independent spatial tasks or two independent verbal tasks. 

We used a spectrum of techniques to study “design” from laboratory studies of toy problems, to observing people doing real-world design problems while thinking aloud. After about 3-4 months of very productive work, we were told that we had to make our work relevant to software development. That should be the focus of our work. We were told that this command came from higher-ups in IBM. That might have been true, or perhaps partly true. 

It might also be relevant that someone in our management chain might have been the recipient of a grant from ONR which was specifically focused on software development. So far as I can tell, nothing had been done on that grant. So, our past, present, and future work could have been co-opted to be “results” done under the auspices of the ONR grant. 

In any case, regardless of the “reasons,” the group began to focus specifically on software design. In one study, we used IBM software experts as subjects. Each person was given information that was geared toward a specific transformation that occurred in software development. One person was presented with the description of a “situation” that included a number of “issues” and they were asked to write a requirements document. In real life, I would hope that this would be done in a dialogue (and, indeed, in other studies, we recorded such dialogues). Absent such dialogues, what we found was that different software experts — all from IBM research — and all given the same documentation about a set of problems generated vastly different problem statements and overall approaches. 

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In other parts of the study, other experts were variously given requirements documents and asked to do an overall, high level system design, or given a high level design and asked to design an algorithm, or given an algorithm and asked to code a section. There was always diversity but the initial showed the greatest diversity. The initial stage is also the one that can cause the most expensive errors. If you begin with a faulty set of requirements — a misreading about how to even go about the problem — then, the overall project is almost certain to incur schedule slip, cost overruns, or outright failure. 

While the vital importance of the initial stages of design is true in software development, I would argue that it is likely also true for advertising campaigns, building designs — and even true for the design of research programs. We designed our research agenda under the assumption that we had a long time; that we were studying design processes independently of specific communities of practice or the nature of the problems people were attempting to address. We assumed that there was no “hidden agenda.” Although we believed we would eventually need to show some relevance to IBM business, we had no idea, when we began, that only relevance to software design would be “counted.”


Some of our studies on the “Psychology of Design.” 

Carroll, J. and Thomas, J.C. (1982). Metaphor and the cognitive representation of computer systems. IEEE Transactions on Man, Systems, and Cybernetics., SMC-12 (2), pp. 107-116.

Thomas, J.C. and Carroll, J. (1981). Human factors in communication. IBM Systems Journal, 20 (2), pp. 237-263.

Thomas, J.C. (1980). The computer as an active communication medium. Invited paper, Association for Computational Linguistics, Philadelphia, June 1980. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics., pp. 83-86.

Malhotra, A., Thomas, J.C. and Miller, L. (1980). Cognitive processes in design. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 12, pp. 119-140.

Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1980). Presentation and representation in design problem solving. British Journal of Psychology/,71 (1), pp. 143-155.

Carroll, J., Thomas, J.C. and Malhotra, A. (1979). A clinical-experimental analysis of design problem solving. Design Studies, 1 (2), pp. 84-92.

Thomas, J.C. (1978). A design-interpretation analysis of natural English. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 10, pp. 651-668.

Thomas, J.C. and Carroll, J. (1978). The psychological study of design. Design Studies, 1 (1), pp. 5-11.

Miller, L.A. and Thomas, J.C. (1977). Behavioral issues in the use of interactive systems: Part I. General issues. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 9 (5), pp. 509-536.


Blog posts about the importance of solving the “right” problem. 

The Doorbell’s Ringing. Can you get it?


Problem Framing. Good Point. 


Problem formulation: Who knows what. 

How to frame your own hamster wheel.

The slow seeming snapping turtle. 

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