How studying social science made me a better web designer

When I completed my degree in economics and politics, I felt quite down. I knew that I did not want to work in either economics or politics, even though I maintained an interest in the subjects. Instead I ended up pursuing my hobby of web design and became a professional at it.

For a while, I thought I had joined the many people who don’t use their degrees in their careers. But I have come to realise that my background in social science has been absolutely vital to my web design work.

I can code, but I do not have a formal background in programming or computer science. I used to think that hindered me. Now I think it is an advantage. My alternative background provides me with a different perspective to the one your typical web developer might.

The main skill of any designer is empathy. Design is about understanding people. To be a good web designer, you need to put yourself in the user’s shoes. It is a tremendously difficult — if not impossible — skill to have. You almost need to get inside a user’s mind to understand what they are thinking and what motivates them.

All that time I spent reading and thinking about economics has been time spent thinking about what motivates people and how they behave. I didn’t realise it at the time, but studying economics made me a user-centred designer.

For instance, economics taught me about the difference between expressed and revealed preferences. In plain English, that means that what people say they will do is not necessarily what they will actually do.

In web design, that knowledge stands you in good stead whenever you are gathering feedback from users. Listening to what users say is important. But you need to understand the limitations of taking what they say at face value. You must supplement it with information on what users are actually doing. That way you will come much closer to the truth.

Studying economics also taught me about homo economicus, economic man. This is the concept at the centre of rational choice theory. In simplified terms, it says that people try to reach specific goals at the minimum possible cost.

Studies constantly show this to be true in the way people use the web. Usability experts even have a slogan for it: “don’t make me think“.

For me, it is second nature to assume that web users are lazy, impatient and information-driven. I know that users scan webpages rather than reading word for word. It staggers me that so many web content creators still write lengthy waffle-filled webpages. Studying economics gave me a head start when it came to realising that less is more on the web.

To be a good web designer, being able to code is only a small part of the story. An understanding of what motivates people and the way they behave is essential.


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