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Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer

Future of IT, is Psychology

Enterprise IT is typically about Technology and Functionality. We’ve always been very good at identifying functional requirements, and translating them into a technical solution. I have noticed however, that a third discipline is entering the field. The discipline of human behaviour.


To some, this may sound strange. How on earth could lying on a couch and talking about your feelings help your IT project? Except for maybe avoiding burn-outs on the project team.

Others might say: Duh.

I know some people who will probably smile and say: “I told you this 8 years ago already!”. And they’re right. They did tell me that 8 years ago, but I couldn’t be arsed back then.

Psychology is not only “talking about your feelings”. It’s the study of human behaviour. Our IT applications are intended to fill a business requirement, by giving tools to a user (a person) so he can do the work required. There are already multiple stages in that statement alone, in which human behaviour will affect the result of our IT project.

#Requirement gathering phase

During workshops, IT folks talk with business chaps. The business chaps have certain issues. They require solutions to overcome some of their problems. The IT folks will try to understand the problems and suggest different possible solutions.

Is it just me, or does this sound a lot like “lying on a couch and talking about your issues?”

#Design phase

No doubt that the design of your product, will affect the adoption of your product. This is not only about the colours and shapes on the screen. It’s also about the amount of data visible, the screen-flow  the available functionality and the simplicity of use.

In most companies, one of the techies is responsible for the front-end design. If you’re lucky, the guy has a sense of taste. Most of the times however, the front-end looks like they just mashed something together at the end, to facilitate the use of the functionality. Not much different from generated test screens really.

In some instances however, the project team involves dedicated designers. These men and women not only have a sense of taste, they also understand how people will interact with your application. Their understanding goes beyond the colours and shapes. They see the functionality through the eyes of an end-user. It’s not a co-incidence that design studies include psychology classes. You have to understand human behaviour, before you can capture it in a tool.

A topic that frequently pops up in #design related discussions is #empathy. The power to put yourself in someone else’s place and see the world through their eyes. It can be incredibly helpful to find the right solution, or even more basic, find the right problem. #Empathy is a powerful tool, but if you really want to get valuable input from different perspectives, than it’s even better to #include different people. A simple example, if there is one colour blind person in the user base, you’d do best to include him/her during the design.

Testing and Training phase

At some point in time, the application will be more or less ready for a limited audience. Again, in most cases, they just pass the application on to a testing team, which is actually just a team of tech guys that will now test each-others work. If these tests are successful, the application is released to business, and they start using it in production. This obviously leads to a heap-load of issues, bugs and tickets in the first months. Effectively, they are testing in production.

You may have been in such a situation, and you may have even noticed that most of the issues are #PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair). But are they really? Isn’t it our mission to create a solution to a business problem, rather than delivering functionality which creates usability problems?

Ideally, after the technical tests, you would create a group of actual end-users, and send them through usability testing. In #usability testing, it’s not so much about the functionality. You’re also not testing the user. No, you’re going to test the ease of use of the application. The users will try to solve certain tasks whilst someone observes how they interact with the system. Which buttons do they click? How do they find help? How do they interpret certain texts? Do they even read the popups?

The results of these observations can than be used to improve the usability of the application. It helps if the observer has a good eye for human behaviour and is able to analyse actions to find the underlying thought process. A psychologist for example. Just saying…

Productive phase

At some point, real people will actually start using your product. You may want to make sure that they can use it efficiently and that they find their work rewarding. Such motivational aspects are called #Gamification nowadays. In essence it’s using certain mechanics to keep your users involved. Show them tangible results on their daily work. It makes them proud and it will drive the continued adoption of your project.

When it comes to #Gamification, balancing the rewards, efforts, missions etc… is a very important and very difficult job. Creating a mission sounds easy enough, but if that mission must be, not too hard, not too simple, suited for the purpose of the application attractive to the users, in line with the target groups behaviour, aligned with corporate strategy and yield the right amount of reward and feedback,…. uhm… Right… Lemme see…

Again, someone with a psychology background, together with a business expert, may combine the skills necessary to create a well balanced #gamification system.


Suppose your project was not intended for in-house usage, but must go public and has to reach customers? At some point, you will have to launch a marketing campaign. A lot of marketing is done via #social media nowadays. It’s very important to know your audience. Every #Social media channel has it own specific user group, behaviour, netiquette,…

There’s a lot of research being done to how people use #social media, and what kind of personalities are represented, or stimulated via different channels. This research can be crucial to marketeers to know how to promote something and on which channel they must engage to reach the target audience.

It looks to me, as if Psychology is becoming an increasingly more important part of IT, and it’s about time we get professional help

PS: I have some firends who majored in psychology and compain how hard it is to find a job these days. In my opinion, there could be a whole range of possibilities in IT, to have a rewarding and genuinely challenging job as a psychologist. This could open up a whole new jobmarket.

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      Author's profile photo Sascha Wenninger
      Sascha Wenninger

      Hi Tom,

      sounds like the new-ish discipline of "service design" might make a good home for psychology grads: using empathy for end users to design services (IT or otherwise) for their use.

      Funny you should write about this today, when the last thing I did at my current client today was to redesign a print form to make it easier on the eye and to clearly highlight some important safety information. To me, there was a failure to apply empathy in that case: the BA's attitude was that this was "just an internal form of a bunch of warehouse guys", who would "probably get it all dirty in no time". So in their mind, it wasn't worth spending an extra hour making it look nice. 😐

      I can definitely relate and really do hope that the application of psychology/empathy/UX becomes more prevalent in the near future. Luckily we have many non-EnSW leading the way and showing it's possible, and even makes business sense! So there's hope!

      Thanks for sharing!


      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer
      Blog Post Author

      Hi Sascha,

      There's definitely room for an extra discipline within IT. The human touch.

      The idea seems to get a lot of traction within the community already. A lot of the mentors and tought leaders are already inspiring others to look at the cold bits and bytes from a different perspective.

      SAP may not be the first, nor the best, but with such a community, there's a lot of potential.


      Author's profile photo Tom Cenens
      Tom Cenens

      Hi Tom

      Thanks for the blog post. This post reminds me of the last meeting we were in together (not so long ago).

      Psychology definitely is an interesting topic. Irrational thinking is what pops up in my mind when I see "psychology" mentioned here in this context.

      A relevant book here: Irrationality

      Of course there is a relation with empathy because practicing empathy can help to understand another individual.

      Best regards


      Author's profile photo Julia Dorbic
      Julia Dorbic

      Empathy is my favorite word... 😉

      Author's profile photo Raquel Pereira da Cunha
      Raquel Pereira da Cunha

      Very interesting post. I lived the experience of an usability test during last Teched and it was very different from an usual testing experience. As you mentioned, their goal was not only making me test the functionality, but observe how I used the application, my behaviour, how long I took to execute each task, how easier it was for me to find the right buttons and fields to complete the tasks and the feelings I expressed during the test.

      I see a lot of terms here: Usability, Gamification, Empathy, Inclusion, Design, Social, and now Psychology. Humanizing IT.

      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer
      Blog Post Author

      Hi Raquel,

      I also attended a usability test in Madrid last year, as an observer. I all fairness, I was actually observing the SAP observer to figure out what he was looking for. Much of the ideas I'm playing with have actually started growing during those 3 days of TechEd. The Empathy dinner we had (You were there as well if I remember correctly), the design thinking courses, the UX sessions and the great talks with so many toughtleaders.

      7 months later, and those 3 days are still inspiring me. 🙂


      Author's profile photo Raquel Pereira da Cunha
      Raquel Pereira da Cunha

      Yes, I was in that Empathy dinner too 🙂

      Thanks to our dear Marilyn Pratt we keep being inspired by different people and different ideas each year. Let's see what we will have during TechEd this year 🙂

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt

      Thanks and I'll take the bait.  It is no secret that I am socializing the idea of having a "FailFaire" (see ) and have enlisted the aid of Thorsten Franz and will be looking to you Raquel and others like Michael Krigsman Paula Rosenblum James Governor Anton Wenzelhuemer Otto Gold Bhanu Gupta Jelena Perfiljeva to share perspectives and stir it up!

      Author's profile photo Paula Rosenblum
      Paula Rosenblum

      Count me in! 

      I might argue that the right "ology" is sociology rather than psychology, but either metaphor works.  That's why you try to find natural leaders to be on the development/implementation teams - people will follow them.

      And now I'm going to take a look at the failfaire so I know what I've signed up for,

      Author's profile photo Paula Rosenblum
      Paula Rosenblum

      It is as I thought.  Do count me in!

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      The original Failfaire idea was partially inspired by my work so, yes, happy to help 🙂 Here is how it started:

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt

      Yep.  I attended one of their events at the UN last year and they are very generous and open with the branding.  The folks I saw want to encourage others to be bold enough to have such an event.....

      Author's profile photo Jelena Perfiljeva
      Jelena Perfiljeva

      Well, even though I'm always right I do have a couple of juicy stories to tell, so - count me in too. 🙂 Thank you!

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Thanks to you mentioning me I've been made aware of this interesting blog _and_

      Personally I do reflect a lot on failure and work on my and my environment's attitude towards failure - in short - don't draw the curtain over failures, calmly analyze failures in depth (even including kind of respectful finger pointing - psychological group therapy 😉 ), draw conclusions for change and derive some kind of metrics to monitor improvement in follow-up projects. Pretty obvious actually but too often I experienced that people (including myself) try to avoid verbalizing lessons learnt, most probably due to our general attitude towards failure (failure is bad, weak, a defect, ...) instead of accepting it as the most natural thing there is (cf. biology).

      ahja, actually just wanted to say count me in 😉


      ps: this platform (not the community!) §$&$§& - 10x server error, logged out, jumping page - all while writing just 1 comment

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt

      Sorry for you pain.  Reading the book "Mistakes were made but not by me".  I'll have to own this bad user experience like it or not.

      Glad this topic resonates with you!

      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer
      Blog Post Author

      hmm, interesting concept.

      Considering that most projects fail over user acceptance, both topics may blend nicely.

      I also have quite some anecdotes of projects that successfully ended up in production, but which I still consider to be major failures, simply because of the whole project-process itself.


      Author's profile photo Robin Van Het Hof
      Robin Van Het Hof

      Hi Tom,

      Great post! Having extensively studied how people use, read and interact with websites and web-applications, I have noticed that empathy for a product can depend solely on (seemingly insignificant) things like a color hue that seems off by a few tick compared to the rest of the color scheme, or inconsistent line spacing. Success can really depend on really small things...

      Tasked with the delivery of a design proposal at a project not-so-long-ago, as a test -- but also to prove my point of view -- I delivered the same document not only in MS Word's well-known default style template to one group of respondents, but also in my own carefully crafted, "pixel-perfect" looking document style to another group of respondents.

      At the follow-up meeting, I started with a few questions regarding the content of the document. Not to my surprise, the latter group on average seemed to know almost all the details of my proposal, whereas the former group only seemed to know the highlights... Needless to say, the less-informed group received the "easier-on-the-eyes" document immediately after I exposed my little experiment 🙂

      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer
      Blog Post Author

      There's a lesson in there for me as well.

      I tend to dislike management summaries, as I expect people to read the documents I wrote in full.

      When I write a story, a blog, most people do read everything. When I write an internal document, technical design, guideline, mail... most people don't make it past the first page

      Embrace the management summary.

      Even if it's blunt and just says: This is not a good idea.

      Author's profile photo Ferenc Acs
      Ferenc Acs

      Hi Tom!

      I like your blog post, of course I am a psychologist! 😛

      I have quite some professional experience now to sell psychological services to business customers. I agree completely that enhancing usability can increase the performance of the workforce and therefore lead to more cost efficient work processes.

      There is only a problem in communicating this to potential customers because the outcomes are not easy to measure and the investment is quite high. A good user interface design applying golden usability standards requires several cycles of design, testing and redesign. That is expensive. It is tempting to leave this module out completely because apparently no competitor is doing it. If some competitors are doing it there is still the problem to see the benefit.

      Because we have a measurement problem here. How do you measure the impact of a good design? Managers in higher positions usually accept only one indicator: How much money can we save or earn?

      Until recently it was very difficult to measure such impacts by "soft interventions" like design improvements. I hope that with the renaissance of fields like workforce_analytics and talent_analytics there will be an improvement.

      Because the decision makers simply need simple numbers to make decisions! 😉

      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer
      Blog Post Author

      hmmm, one very easy measurement could be: "required days of training"

      That should be an easy figure to analyze?

      Author's profile photo Ferenc Acs
      Ferenc Acs

      Correct. Required days of training could be an indicator.

      There are many performance indicators or even behavioural markers (e.g. reaction time, eye movements) that can be taken into account.

      But from my experience it boils down to only this critical question:

      How much money can we earn or save by this?

      So I hope the above mentioned analytics tools will help to deliver these numbers in a convincing manner.

      Author's profile photo Julia Dorbic
      Julia Dorbic

      Great blog Tom, great to see my fellow designthinkers Raquel Cunha, Marilyn Pratt Tom Cenens and Robin van het Hof in this space as well 🙂 . And thanks to Marilyn's Empathy Dinner in Madrid back in Nov 2012 I met you all!

      Bringing the IT guys and the business guys together from the start and putting the ones who matter, internal or external users into the center of attention from the start is the right outset. Of course this approach is no rocket science, but it is the right application from all different angles which matters. User Research conducted by experts with a background in sociology or/and psychology makes the difference, and raising awareness among those who come from different professional backgrounds. Empathy, interdisciplinarity, quick iterations, failing early and often- all the ingredients for a successful project. Looking forward to reading more from you! Thanks again, Tom!