#2 BookBites: Design for How People Think: Using Brain Science to Build Better Products by John Whalen Ph.D

This article is a part of a series of articles called BookBites(inspired by Tanishqa Bobde.) These articles will include summaries, quotes, and/or meanings from the books we’ve read. They serve as catalysts for us to reflect on and deeper understand these books and to give bite-sized views into these books to other readers.

This book is trying to establish a foundation for using human psychology in every design process phase. It is elaborating a method that can benefit everyone involved in designing an experience. Whalen breaks down the elements of an experience by introducing six cognitive processes. He also shows how to understand user needs better and what can be done to meet those needs. His methodology is called “The Six Minds.”

The book has three sections where he explains (1) each one of the cognitive processes so the audience can understand them better, (2) contextual interviews and how to conduct them, and (3) how to organize and categorize the findings to extract insights, also segmenting the users. Whalen is a great storyteller who backs up his claims with facts and leveraging many examples and case studies to prove his points. He introduces a dataset that he deliberately uses in explaining each step of The Six Minds so it would be easier to understand them practically. He also provides “Further Reading” at the end of each chapter, a valuable source for going into depth about the subject.

As product and service managers and designers, we need to think about all the steps along an individual customer’s mental journey and be ready to answer the questions that come up along the way.

The six mental processes are introduced in section one, so designers, product managers, and developers better understand them. Here is a picture of these six processes and their unique place in the brain.

Six Minds of Experience. Source: Design for How People Think by John Whalen Ph.D


What will happen in our brain when it detects an object (see it through the eye)? This chapter is answering this question and more regarding the sense of sight and design. Although in summary, the most important notions about vision in the design process are as mentioned below:

1- there are many processes taking place simultaneously of which we have little conscious awareness or control

2- many computationally challenging processes are taking place constantly that don’t require conscious mental effort.


How can a large Tunisian ant find its way back to its home in a desert? The answer to this question helps us understand our cognitive process devoted to our representation of spatial information and navigation.


How our abstract mind is using stereotypes and mental models to think? In this chapter, we learn how our minds move from the representation of things to conceptual stereotypes that we have by doing some experiments.


“Words are actually strings of morphemes/phonemes/letters that are associated with semantic concepts. Semantics are the abstract concepts that are associated with the words.” but these associations differ from person to person so that they can be different from designers to users. The only solution is to study users' word use and find out their level of expertise, which can be useful for segmenting them and their insights. Also, accuracy of translation and local use of words should be considered while designing multilingual products or services.

Decision Making

Experts and novices think differently, so their decision-making processes differ from each other. As designers, we should embrace these differences for every micro decision.


Not all days are good days, and we as humans are not always making rational sound decisions. That is why we need to consider emotion while designing a product or service. for example, how can “Satisficing”* affect the user, and what should we, as designers, do about it

*A notion coined by Herbert Simon of which means accepting an available (easily recallable) option as not necessarily the ideal decision or choice, but perhaps satisfactory given the limited cognitive resources available for decision making at the time.

Contextual Interviews:

Whalen argues that contextual interviews can shed light on the why behind people's behaviors, as well as what they are saying or what they are doing. He believes knowing the why behind the what is the success key to create a meaningful experience, product, and service.

In separate chapters of section two, he demonstrates the way to do the contextual interview for each of the Six Minds, how to extract insights from the findings, what clues to look for, and how to get the most out of this research.





Decision Making:


Finally, in section three, he elaborates on how to look for commonalities between the findings, segmenting the users and building a psychographic profile of each segment. Also, the way to implement the Six Minds in the design process will be explained here. In the end, the Six Minds are compared to the See/Feel/Say/Do system and integrated in a double diamond framework.

My favorite chapter of this amazing book is the last one, “How to Make a Better Human,” which talks about artificial intelligence(AI) and how AI can enhance human experiences while considering the Six Minds in the process of designing for AI, designing with AI or designing of AI.

“Design for How People Think: Using Brain Science to Build Better Products” by John Whalen Ph.D.


Every experience is a result of small experiences. As designers, we are here to make these experiences more memorable and enjoyable; we’re not here to make our user’s lives harder by creating new puzzles or useless products. This can not happen unless we have an understanding of how the brain and psychology can affect an experience so we can be mindful of our design’s consequences.

Designer and researcher passionate about people, their experiences, emotions, and interactions with AI. Get to know me better @boshra.me