The growing importance of psychology in software engineering

posted: April 11, 2021

tl;dr: As computers become more integrated into human life, psychology has become a more critical aspect of software...

When I started in the industry, computers were thought of as coldly rational calculating devices. That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to them: they were appealing to the mathematical and logical aspects of my mind. There was usually one right answer to a complicated calculation, and a computer could help find it. Most of the early use cases for computers involved calculations. The first device I can be said to have programmed was a programmable calculator. So when I got to college, with the goal of learning more about how computers were built and programmed, I took classes in mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer science.

I did take one psychology class in college at Cornell, Psychology 101 (now known as Psychology 1101), which was the most popular class on campus, with lectures held in Cornell’s largest auditorium, Bailey Hall. Lectures were given by Prof. James Maas, a renowned expert on sleep, and they were both informative and entertaining. Cornell has the advantage of Allen Funt, the inventor of the Candid Camera TV show, being an alum: Funt donated the show’s archives to Cornell, and clips were often played during Psych 101 lectures to illustrate aspects of human behavior. I learned a lot in the class, but it was not a required course for my engineering degree; it was a humanities elective that I chose to take. Today, given the importance of psychology to computer science, I would advise computer-focused students to take multiple psychology courses.

In the early days of my career, there weren’t many computer applications in which psychology played a major role. There were some early attempts at artificial intelligence, but those mostly remained within academia. In the commercial world, the applications were more practical and pedestrian. Spreadsheets were achieving widespread usage, for better number crunching in businesses. Office automation, through the creation of word processing, presentation, and database tools, was an important industry growth factor. Computer networking, where I spent much of my early career, was almost entirely rational: packets came into a networking device and needed to be routed out the right destination ports. Perhaps you could make an argument that the quality of service aspects of networking devices had some degree of connection with human behavior.

Mark Zuckerberg's vision of the future of Facebook

In those days, the primary applications where psychology played an important role were games, especially gaming (gambling) devices. Games have always had a need to delight their users so that users keep playing the games. That delight could come from the aspects of the game play, interesting graphics and music, and through social connections with other game participants. It’s especially important for gaming devices, such as computerized slot and video poker machines, to keep the players plugging tokens into the games, to maximize the financial return for the “house”. One of the primary reasons that slot machines transitioned from purely mechanical to electrical/computer-based is that computerized slot machines could create a much more enticing experience, with more appealing graphics and sound.

The rise of the Web also boosted the importance of psychology in the software industry. Websites with better layouts, graphics, and content became more popular than their alternatives. Smart companies began to focus on the overall “user experience”, which relied heavily on psychology. Then, with the advent of the smartphone and apps, the user experience with software became even more personal and ever-present.

The software industry luminary who best personifies the importance of psychology to software is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. I didn’t learn until recently that Zuckerberg, who was already a computer whiz in high school, was studying psychology at Harvard before dropping out to focus full-time on Facebook. This factoid made complete sense to me. I’ve never considered Facebook to be an amazing technical innovator, although they’ve contributed React.js to the world. "Move fast and break things" was an accurate summary of the quality of their products, in my opinion. Their site itself was mainly a way for non-technical people to set up a small website; I preferred to operate my own. The main innovations were in the ways they leveraged the social network graph, and used personal information and tracking technology to do highly granular targeted ads, which created an ad revenue stream measured in the billions of dollars.

Besides the ad engine, where Facebook has excelled the most is in the psychological aspects of the platform. Even though it hasn’t been considered cool for a decade or so, there is a strong emotional attachment that users have to the platform, because it allows them to keep in touch with and learn about friends and family. Human beings are social animals, and Facebook attempts to satisfy the innate human curiosity about others and need for connection. It also has attracted much scrutiny for its timeline algorithms, which aim to keep users on the platform for as long as possible, to generate as much ad revenue for Facebook as possible.

There’s much debate about whether Facebook, overall, is good for society. But there’s not much debate about Facebook’s success using psychology to create one of the most popular platforms and websites in the world. As computers become even more integrated with and embedded into human lives, psychology will continue to grow in importance within the software profession.

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