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

Boshra Javaheri
7 min readMar 19, 2021


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.

As product designers, we should harness both these conscious and automatic processes because they are relatively independent.


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.

The virtual world in most of today’s interfaces on phones and web browsers strips away many wayfinding landmarks and cues. It isn’t always clear where we are within a web page, app, or spoken experience (Alexa, Siri, etc .), nor is it always clear how to get where we want to be (or even create a mental map of where we are). Yet understanding where you are and how to move around the environment (real or virtual) is clearly critical to a great experience .


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.

When there is a dramatic difference between a custom- er’s expectation of a product or service and how we designed it, we are suddenly fighting an uphill battle by trying to overcome our audience’s well-practiced expectations.


“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.

Once we have an understanding of our customers’ level of understanding, we can create products and services that have the sophistication and terminology that works best for them . This leads to a common understanding and builds trust — ultimately leading to happy, loyal customers.

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.

The first thing we need to understand as product designers is how our customers define the problem they are solving . We need to meet them there, and, over time, help to redirect them to what their actual (and likely more complex) problem is and help them along the way. This is known as redefining the problem space .


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

As product designers, we need to understand both what the rational, conscious part of the customer’s mind is seeking (data to make good, logical decisions) and what the underlying emotional drivers are for making the decision.

*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.


There are many unspoken strategies and expectations that users employ, which is why we can only learn through observing users in their natural flow. These insights, in turn, help us with our visual design, layout, and information architecture by clarifying what the steps are, how they should be represented, where they should be in space, etc.


As product and service designers, what we really want to know is, what is our typical customer’s understanding of the subject matter? Then we can level-set the way we’re talking with them about the problem they’re trying to solve.


In designing our products or services, we need to make sure we take into account not only our product but the constellation of other “helpers” and tools — search engines are just one example — that our end users are employing in conjunction with our product. We need to consider all of these to fully understand the big picture of how they believe they can go from Point A to Point B.


We want to look out for moments of surprise that reveal our audience’s representation, or the memories that are driving them.

Decision Making:

We want to know not just the overall decision our customers are making, but also all the little decisions they have to make along the way.


We want to know what our consumers are thinking about themselves at a deep level, what might make them feel accomplished in society, and what their biggest fears are. Our challenge is then to design products for both the immediate emotional responses as well as those deep-seated goals and fears.

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.



Boshra Javaheri

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