Primary Design: User Experience and Product Design based on Evolutionary Psychology

Jan 29, 2017 | Design, Psychology | 0 comments

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As someone who studies cognitive science, reading every day about theories of memory, sensory input, and how our bodies and brains work together to formulate meaning in the world, I’ve had this nagging feeling over the last couple of years that there’s something missing in User Experience practice. I don’t want to say that every UX, UI or Design professional is doing something wrong on a fundamental level because they’re not. I just want to suggest an extension to practice that may assist in framing design, user profiles, user flow and even wireframing practice.

Geary’s types of knowledge

Educational Psychologist David Geary’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s put forth a model of knowledge rooted in the Theory of Evolution by Natural and Sexual Selection. In a nutshell it goes like this:

There are two types of knowledge: Primary and Secondary.

Primary Knowledge is knowledge that we are evolutionarily predisposed to learn. Examples of this include language acquisition, categorization of plants and animals, and basic social interactions and cues such as empathy and reading facial expressions.

Secondary Knowledge is anything we learn in school – anything we don’t naturally absorb by simply being human. This would include political science, history, mathematics, etc.

To be clear, Primary Knowledge is NOT knowledge we are innately born with, like instinct, but simply knowledge we can acquire with such little effort that we don’t ever need to study it, we just acquire it by virtue of being human.

As a fun educational factoid, Geary states that schools pop up when there is a gap between primary and secondary knowledge as a prerequisite for having a productive life within any given culture or society. Hunter-gatherers don’t need schools because their societies don’t require it, whereas most of us in the tech-world do need school to exist in our worlds.

Folk Knowledge

While not explicitly a subset of Primary Knowledge, but a related taxonomy, Geary also outlines something called Folk Knowledge, which is knowledge shared amongst communities of people.

Folk Physics refers to our seemingly innate ability to understand how objects move. If we throw an object, we never need to be taught that it’ll come down, our brains are able to make that inference without being taught. This type of knowledge has links to inference, user pathway design and simple expectations of how things are supposed to work.

Folk Psychology is our ability to read social cues and interact with other humans. It entails the ability to read facial expressions, which can tell us a lot about the people and community around us. Our ability to feel empathy, sympathy, anticipate violent outbursts, understand what a raised voice or body language are all socio-psychological tools that help to build communities and form bonds. This of course links to Design and UI/UX issues how we design an emotional connection to our users. Does what we design seem friendly or welcoming, that is, can we connect with a product on an emotional level?

Folk Biology speaks to our ability to classify plants and animals, and other things in nature. Without being taught, most humans and non-human primates are able to make a distinction between a plant and an animal and by extension classify objects and organisms within their environment into predator and prey, dangerous and non-dangerous.

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Embodied Cognition

Another branch of Psychology research, which is now embedded in cross-domain work within Cognitive Load Theory is called Embodied Cognition. Simply put, this are of research focuses on exploring ideas around the link between physical experience and cognition. My own research looks at the link between making conceptually linked gestures in mathematics education and how these differ from gestures that aren’t related to the concepts being learned.

So how does this relate to UI and Interaction Design? Well, the idea that our bodies are inextricably linked to our cognition is not that hard to comprehend. A lot of science we read tends to be ‘Well, that’s obvious’, but someone needs to prove that it’s true, so while many designers and UX professionals would say ‘yes this is a given’, the science still needs to prove the details and the mechanics of why.

Much of Embodied Cognition research is related to other areas of inquiry such as attention and intelligence. There have been really interesting studies in the last 10 years that talk about prioritized attention near the hands, again framed in an evolutionary lense, as well as our ability to orient and understand our bodies movements in peripersonal space (the area immediately around our own bodies) even when our eyes are closed.

Again, while this is a given to most of us, the implications for design professionals should link all of these ‘givens’ and frame an understanding of cognition that serves as a basis for some design decisions.

Primary Design

So how does all this hardcore psychology research relate to design practice.

I propose Primary Design as a framework for thinking about design through an evolutionary psychology lens or even more basic, a human perception lens. For UI and UX designers to work with a basic understanding of the psychology of human movement, perception and its relationship with cognition, design decisions could be made that incorporate what science has taught us about this areas.

One example that jumps out in my mind is UX for VR.

What Folk Physics and Embodied Cognition tell us is that we all expect certain things from the world. When we interact with an object, we expect to feel resistance, weight, texture and other properties that bind us to the natural world, the place where we evolved. When we have experiences that don’t align with our experiences in the natural world, it makes perfect sense why people fall over when in VR.

Our evolved abilities prepare us for a certain experience, and define that experience by a set of rules. When User Experiences in VR do not align with those rules about how the world works, our brains want to act like we are in the natural world, because we are. The choices made by designers for certain technologies often times break these rules, and they neglect to inform users. Virtual worlds and need to follow the same rules as the Real World, otherwise children fall down:(

This is why the virtual desktop and metaphor works so well in 2D interface design, because these metaphors ground an experience in the real world, making it much easier to understand and connect with.


Primary Design is built on the basic premise that humans already know how to interact with the world, and have certain expectations about how the world works. By taking advantage of that knowledge, and the rules inherent in how the world works, we can design much more intuitive, natural and engaging experiences in all areas of design practice, including interface, product and industrial design.

*The same may also be true for animals as well, since we all evolved in the same space — I’m looking at you @gameforcats.

The Relationship with Aesthetic Design

Of course, design is not all about interaction, much of it is about aesthetics, trends, color, typography, layout, space, and other traditional design concepts. These choices are already using principles of Primary Design in many ways.

Color Theory: Red means bad (blood), green means good (plants and food).

Time adaptations: F.lux uses natural hues of day (blue) and dusk (orange) to make using computers easier.

Swiping tiles left and right: this replicates physical movement of paper across a table.

There are many more examples of this in action, including the idea of basic affordances for action in physical products, so Primary Design is already here, and in practice, but not in an overt manner. Being able to justify design choices based on design theory as well as within a Primary Design framework, could help clients and directors understand these choices quicker and easier, and can also help to explain findings in UX research.


It’s impossible to separate humans from the environments they originally came from, so when engaged in any professional or educational context, it’s important to keep in mind what humans actually are, how they interact with the world and what experiences they expect from that world.

I can safely say that giving someone an experience that runs in opposition to how we experience the world, will probably present some challenges. Innovation and experimentation should always be encouraged, and when roadblocks are met, using Primary Design to understand these challenges may help to provide answers and insight when they can’t be found in design theory.

*Note, if you’re interested in more research on any topics mentioned, just tweet me and I’ll expand the reference section.


Abrams, R. A., Davoli, C. C., Du, F., Knapp, W. H., III, & Paull, D. (2008). Altered vision near the hands. Cognition, 107(3), 1035–1047.

Cosman, J. D., & Vecera, S. P. (2010). Attention Affects Visual Perceptual Processing Near the Hand. Psychological Science, 21(9), 1254–1258.

Foglia, L., & Wilson, R. A. (2013). Embodied cognition. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 4(3), 319–325.

Geary, D. (2002). Principles of evolutionary educational psychology. Learning and Individual Differences, 12, 1–29.

Tseng, P., Bridgeman, B., & Juan, C.-H. (2012). Take the matter into your own hands: A brief review of the effect of nearby-hands on visual processing. Vision Research, 72(C), 74–77.


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