Vision and Attention, Sense of Location, Language, Memory, Decision Making, and Emotion.

Designing for the “Six Minds” of the User Experience — A Case Study of Car-Dashboard User Interface

Regardless of whether someone is using a digital product or doing any other activity, there will always be a lot of cognitive processes going on in people’s minds. To understand complex neural and psychological activities easier, John Whalen proposes Six Minds of the User Experience: Vision and Attention, Sense of Location, Language, Memory, Decision Making, and Emotion.

Rian Dutra
9 min readJul 19, 2021


Photo by Why Kei on Unsplash

In this discussion, I will use my own car (at the time I wrote this article) as an example and will draw on John Whalen’s book to discuss the neural and psychological activities that occur while using digital (and physical) products.

Vision, Attention, and Automaticity

To talk about these senses in a practical way, I’m going to give an example using my own car at the time. It’s funny how my wife always forgets to put on her seat belt. It’s a fact: she always forgets. But my car’s system values passenger safety because it notifies us when someone isn’t wearing a seatbelt. And the system notifies both the driver, through a visual warning on the dashboard, and the passengers through an audible signal — which becomes quite irritating if the passenger is reluctant not to put on the seat belt.

However, the car’s multimedia dashboard has a small problem (Figure 1). The first thing I do when I get in the car is turn on the music, but it doesn’t always automatically connect to my cell phone playlist. If I turn on the stereo, and plug in a bad radio or passenger cell phone with a bad song, and turn it into reverse, I completely lose visual access to multimedia control, as the rear camera is automatically triggered. From then on, I get a little lost not knowing how to turn off the sound or change the music; and this also has to do with the Sense of Location.

The visual, sounds and attention-related aspects are directly related to the user interface, and visual features such as colors, contrasts, sizes, hierarchies, as well as sound features such as error signals, actions, interactions, etc.

Below, we can mention some important points related to vision and attention:

  • What elements are users looking for?
  • What is the user’s visual flow?
  • What are the most frequent points of eye contact? Where do they look?
  • What sound stimuli can be used to improve the user experience?
Car dashboard.
Figure 1: Car dashboard.

Sense of Location

My car’s dashboard has three main controls in the shape of a wheel: on/off of the multimedia panel (and also control volume), air conditioning, and another one that I still don’t understand so well what it’s for, but I think it’s something related to radio. And that’s a little confusing, as the wheels are very similar. Consciously (and calmly), I confess that it’s even easy to use them, but in the rush of everyday life, I end up getting confused.

For example, there are times when I start the car and the sound is too loud. I try to turn the sound down but end up turning the wheel on the air conditioner. When I had bought the car and didn’t know how to use the system so well, I tried to change the music track using the third wheel several times, but I always ended up switching to the radio at some unwanted station (since I only know how to change music using the touch screen).

There are also small buttons behind the steering wheel that allow me to change music, however, especially when I’m focusing on fast traffic, I often confuse the music buttons with the paddle shifts (“butterfly gear”), causing the automatic gear to change manually up or down, hampering my handling. It’s important to say that the buttons are quite different and that consciously I would never get confused; but they are close, and unconsciously and with the rush of cars behind me, I fumble and squeeze what shouldn’t be tight.

The sense of location is intrinsically related to information architecture, visual hierarchy, and navigational elements. It’s what determines how the user can get from one point to another, with or without difficulty. Below, we can mention some important points related to the sense of location:

  • How do you expect the user to move around the environment?
  • What are the interactions you expect in the flow?
  • How to make the user not get lost?
  • How to clearly show the current path, the taken one, and the way back?


As for the language aspects of my car’s dashboard, I don’t have much to complain about. Overall, the labels and microcopies are clear enough not to make me wrong. Furthermore, language in this context is not limited to texts per se, but also to symbols and any other element that has the objective of conveying a message. For instance, on the steering wheel, we have almost no labels, and the buttons with icons are enough for me to understand what each one is for (Figure 2).

Car steering wheel.
Figure 2: Car steering wheel.

Language can be influenced by several factors, such as geography, familiarity with the product, terminology, verbal tense, and ease of understanding, as Faléco said. Designers often make the mistake of thinking that users know the product as well as they do, making interfaces less clear and more confusing, or even overwhelming users with too much information. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to see translation problems in applications and websites, presenting microcopies and texts that do not make much sense in the user’s daily life.

Below, we can mention some important points related to the language:

  • What words and terms is the target audience most familiar with?
  • Which tone of voice is most appropriate for dialoguing with users?
  • Are the labels clear enough for each interactive element?


The air conditioning system in my car is very good, but I confess that I mess up sometimes too. In fact, I can hardly ever turn it on in an automated way (in cognitive aspects), without having to put in the slightest cognitive effort to set the temperature and wind mode I need.

That happens because it’s quite different from the cars I’ve owned before, and it’s hard to memorize everything the car provides me; and we could even talk about the paradox of technology, which generally says that adding functionality often comes with the price of adding complexity. In other words, at first, we might think that having a car with a lot of panels and functions would make life easier for the driver, as they would have control over everything, but while technology provides benefits, it also increases the complexity of use. Dealing with the controls of a 1965 Jeep Willys is perhaps easier than using the dozens of possibilities of the contemporary Jeep. Of course, I’m not talking about drivability.

Turning on the air conditioning should be a little easier; however, with my car, I always need to think for a moment whether to press the “Off” button — as it also turns it on -– or if I press one of the blue and red arrow ones, or if I use the “A/C” button — which I sometimes vaguely remember that means “air conditioning” — or if I should use the touchscreen, where I have numerous air conditioning options, which makes me lazy just thinking about it.

Users carry expectations about how things work, automatically creating mental expectations about people, places, processes, etc. As designers, we need to make sure we understand what users’ expectations are so that we can anticipate possible confusion that might arise if we deviate from these norms (Whalen, 2019).

Below, we can mention some important points related to memory:

  • Does the design follow industry standards and conventions that the users understand?
  • How does the user see the scenario where the product is located?
  • What mindsets (e.g., signs, patterns, links, etc.) are being activated?

Decision Making

Decision making is not only about commercial aspects (e.g.: “buy product A or B?”, “Register me on this site or not?”), but also about small user decisions in the use of products (e.g.: “ how much coffee to make?”, “toast the bread or not”).

Going back to the example of my car, in certain moments — I don’t know exactly which ones — when I turn on the car and the multimedia panel almost simultaneously, a message appears saying to be careful when using multimedia when I’m driving, and then a long text is shown next to a small confirmation button. This can be very helpful for my safety, but it can have an inverse effect when I’m already driving and maneuvering to get out of a spot — this has happened a few times. What happens is that I get torn between: reading the long warning message and tapping the little confirmation button, or maneuvering and being careful not to hit the other cars on the lane next door. Of course, I always opt for the second option, but for a few milliseconds, I find myself unconsciously deciding which choices to make. This bad feeling could be avoided with a smarter system or even a voice saying what is written in that long warning text.

With regard to online stores, landing pages, and digital products in general, design can exert a great influence on users’ decision-making, especially when it comes to the sale of products or services. There is also the “bad” use of design to influence more aggressively and subconsciously. But let’s talk about Dark Patterns on another occasion.

In any case, it is crucial to make the choice and decision-making process easy and intuitive. Designers must be able to anticipate what the user’s needs and desires will be before the user demonstrates them, and incorporate these ideas into the UX Design strategy (Faléco, 2017).

Below, we can mention some important points related to decision making:

  • How to help the user to make decisions easier?
  • How to influence your micro-decisions through interfaces?
  • What are the most important points in user decision-making?


Finally, no longer talking about my car’s dashboard, but talking about itself, after reading this text, you might think that I don’t like my car so much, but on the contrary, I love it. When coldly evaluating its technical aspects, mainly like the engine power and price, I think that this car would not be the most ideal for me to buy, as there are better and even cheaper ones from the competition. But, what made me have a Jeep is because it is a Jeep, which brings me a great affective charge. So my decision to buy this car was not merely for its mechanical attributes, but for the brand, for what it represents in my mind and life, for the values and concept that the brand represents in automotive history, etc.

While we may think that we can make decisions completely logically, it is well documented that many emotions affect both our experience and our thinking (Whalen, 2019). Therefore, it’s important to map out what emotions the product can bring to users, what matters most to them, and what they expect along the way.

Below, we can mention some important points related to emotion:

  • What can bring value and meaning to the user experience?
  • What touches the user’s values and desires?
  • What will win them over, captivate and engage the target audience?

The Bottom Line

According to Whalen, the six “minds” together form a field called “Emergent User Experience”, a field that unites Psychology and UX Design. Understanding how users think and what motivates them in decision-making is critical to designing for a more human and meaningful experience for people.


Faléco, O. (2017). As 6 “mentes” do UX Design.

Whalen, J. (2019). Design for how People Think: Using Brain Science to Build Better Products. O’Reilly Media.



Rian Dutra

I show you how to design for how people think — by Rian Dutra (Design From Human) | Also watch me on Youtube 📺