RWDevCon Inspiration Talk – Cognition by Cesare Rocchi

Learn how concepts from cognitive science can be applied to the design of your apps to give a better user experience. By Cesare Rocchi.

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Note from Ray: At our recent RWDevCon tutorial conference, in addition to hands-on tutorials, we also had a number of “inspiration talks” – non-technical talks with the goal of giving you a new idea, some battle-won advice, and leaving you excited and energized.

We recorded these talks so that you can enjoy them, even if you didn’t get to attend the conference. Here’s our next talk – Cognition, by Cesare Rocchi – I hope you enjoy!


Everything starts like this:



A blank canvas, a scary blank canvas.

In front of this, you can:

  • Follow your inspiration, or your gut feelings
  • Look at other applications to follow their design
  • Follow Apple’s guidelines
  • Follow the latest trends

Or instead, you could start asking yourself, “What is the customer trying to accomplish and how can I improve his or her journey towards their goal?”

You put the user in the middle and adopt a user-centric approach. You have to ask, “How does my customer think?”

Meet Giotto

Meet Giotto, the most famous painter and architect in the middle ages.

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In spite of that, the Pope got in touch saying something along the lines of, “Hey dude.” (The Pope was living in California at that time.) “Hey dude, I might have a gig for you, but you should show me your drawing skills.”

Giotto took a blank canvas and drew a perfect red circle and sent that as a sample and he got the gig. He could have taken three months off and painted a master piece, but he instead drew just the circle.

Cognitive science was not around at that time, it was not formalized, but he exploited many of the tricks that are in cognitive science.

What Is Cognitive Science?

Cognitive science is a whole field devoted to human beings, to the study of the way we perceive. There’s lots going on, perceptual representation, language processing. Many of our senses are involved in the many different situations of our daily lives, even in passive situations like watching a TV.

Edward Tufte is an information visualization guru and said:

“It is worthwhile to understand universal cognitive tasks in order to design our displays in accord with those tasks”. – Edward Tufte

He’s right. Without an understanding of the tasks that our customers are trying to accomplish, it’s pretty hard to come up with a good UI.

I’m going to touch on three aspects of cognitive science:

  1. Human Computer Interaction
  2. Perception
  3. Schemas

Let’s start with the first.

Human Computer Interaction

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is the applied branch of cognitive science. It’s the guys that try to prove all the fancy theories that cognitive scientists come up with. It’s like theoretical physics and applied physics if you like.

HCI investigates the dialog between human and machines and models the dialog as two ongoing computations.

This is exactly what happens during conversation:

  • I say something, that’s an input to you.
  • You elaborate that.
  • Then you say something and that’s an input to me.
  • And I elaborate that.

The same happens with machines:

  • I type something in a form and that’s an input to the machine.
  • The machine shows a spinner and that’s a feedback to me saying, “Let’s wait a bit.”
  • Then after a while, I get my results.

There’s turn taking even when we interact with machines, much like when we interact with human beings.

Note from Ray: This same feedback loop applies to games. Learn more in my Adding Juice to Your Games talk!


One key aspect of this very complicated process is perception. The way we mentally organize our experiences.

You just did the laundry. You’re in front of a pile of messy clothes.



You pick up a T-shirt, you fold it, you put in a pile, and then you pick up undies and you fold them and you put in a second pile. You have two piles because you do not want to mix them up, and you want to put them in two different drawers.

This is perception. The T-shirt is the input, the piles are the working memory, and the drawer is the long term memory.


It’s impossible to not mention Gestalt whenever you talk about cognitive science. Gestalt is a school born in Germany at a beginning of the last century, and they focused a lot on modeling perception, trying to investigate the way we think, especially visual perception.

They came up with this linear model.

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Visual perception starts with a something that hits my retina and ends up in my brain.

Going back to the laundry example, for example the light hits the T-shirt and that triggers something on my retina and that triggers something in my brain.

This is a pretty simplistic model though, which does not allow to model highly interactive situations.

Neisser’s Perceptual Cycle

In fact somebody elaborated and came up with a different model, claiming that perception does not begin or if you like, begins the very first second you’re born and goes on as a loop. This is called Neisser’s Perceptual Cycle.

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This loop model has three nodes:

  • The environment modifies my knowledge.
  • My knowledge directs my exploration of the world.
  • Exploration samples my environment.

Perception is a constant loop. Now, we’re talking! Now, we can model highly interactive situations. for instance how we can foresee where a rolling ball is going to end up. Even in very complicated situation, this model helps a lot.

Perception is Selective

Another feature of perception is that it is highly selective.

This happens for example at conferences, and that’s great. During breaks, people form groups and start talking.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 11.38.14 PM

When you’re part of a conversation, you are totally able and often unconsciously able to ignore any other conversation going on nearby.

You wouldn’t have the power to process all the conversation in the hall.

This exemplifies how perception is very, very, very selective. It is selective when we use applications as you will see.