Speaker Spotlight: Scott Riley

By Oliver Lindberg04 Jun 2024Interviews

Scott Riley is a designer and developer who specializes in building early-stage products that are backed by mindful and ethical design practices. We asked him a few questions about the application of cognitive psychology, good and bad, to digital product design.

How did you come up with the idea for your book, Mindful Design?

I’m a serial ‘deep-diver’, and when something piques my interest I tend to have big bouts of hyperfocus. I’m on the spectrum and I’ve struggled with mental health for as long as I can remember, so all of that combined led to a lifetime (or at least an adulthood, I guess?!) of research into cognition, mental health and neurodevelopment.

As design evolved to be a lot more SaaS- and product-focused, I struggled to reconcile what I learned about how our minds work with the actual manifestation of these ideas in tech and design. Lots of ‘nudging’, lots of talk around ‘addictive products’ — it felt like 99% of the discussions were around reductive, outdated behaviourist concepts that simplified the brain into some kind of closed-box, predictable and manipulable system.

There’s so much more to how we process our world and how the human mind works, and the implementation of various psychological ‘tactics’ in the name of capitalistic KPI-chasing always felt a bit heinous to me. I actually made a decent enough career out of eschewing this, advising on things like positive onboarding, self-deterministic environments and calmer products in general.

Mindful Design was the culmination of all of that; it was basically pitched as the ‘anti–Hooked’ and fortunately my publisher was on board with that. There wasn’t much out there that looked at modern product design through this kind of lens, and I figured I was at least in an okay-enough position to get that out there.

What prompted the second edition? What’s new?

In all honesty, I wasn’t fully satisfied with the first edition. The second half was somewhat disjointed and didn’t really connect all the dots or reconcile all the open threads from the first half. One chapter in particular was super wanky and just felt out of place.

Also, I’ve been lucky enough to have a pretty decent career with trusting clients where these practices have been able to naturally evolve in different environments within different systems. Five years is a long time in tech, and I’m a much better designer (and hopefully writer!) from when the first edition was released.

In terms of what’s new, the wanky chapter is gone, and a better-suited chapter around expectations and surprise has taken its place. The second half, however, has been fully re-written, with the focus on taking a single project from initial idea and pitch through to production-ready prototype. It’s more of a ‘follow-along’ thing now, and anchored to an individual project, rather than a bunch of discrete ideas and sporadic work examples.

There’s also an entire open source toolkit to go along with the book, so you can access all of the workshop files if you want to start using them in your own process!

Please share one thing you learned about cognitive psychology and neuroscience when you wrote the book that may have surprised you as a designer.

Oh gosh, just one? I think the biggest standout to me was just how applicable the Self-Determination Theory is to a sound design process, and how underutilised in design it is in comparison to outdated behaviourist concepts like Operant Conditioning.

We have this broad, inspiring theory around intrinsic motivation, but everyone just seemed to want to make digital Skinner Boxes that drip-feed us notifications to get eyes on pixels and label them as ‘rewarding’ instead of ‘addictive pieces of shit’.

Can you give us an example of one evil application of psychology to web design and one ethical, inspiring application?

I’ll skip the biggest evil which is the application of aforementioned ‘Skinner Boxes’ that turned social media into an absolute joke, because there’s already so much out there on that. 

Instead, I’m going to go with the incessant noise that every website and — perhaps to a lesser degree — product seems to have these days. It’s basically a meme at this point, but slamming people with advertisements, newsletter popups, busy sidebars, and AI features that no one needs is just profoundly inaccessible. Processing information costs energy, it tires us out, and the modern web is an absolute dystopia of sensory bombardment. This feels insidious more than proactively evil, in that we seem to just succumb to ‘one more ad’ or ‘one more callout’, but it still belies a flagrant disregard for cognitive wellbeing.

In terms of ethical and inspiring, the example I always go to is iA Writer’s ‘Focus Mode’ (other writing apps have this too!). It essentially mimics how our brains handle selective attention — muting out peripheral information and highlighting one area of focus. I like this because it’s a very clear and concise example of leaning into how the mind works, essentially an atomic pattern of ‘the brain already does this, let’s help it out’. Lovely stuff.

What will we be able to take away from your talk?

Making things cognitively accessible is as important as any other aspect of accessibility we look to implement. Responsible design means caring about how people perceive their environment and how they process information. I hope to give folks some theories, tools, and examples to go out and make more mindful, responsible design decisions.

You’ll learn about the importance of understanding systems, key areas of cognition, and how to combine them to make those systems accessible to real humans. If not that, at least you’ll learn what a ket wig is.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

‘Righty tighty, lefty loosey’. Oh, and ‘done is better than perfect’.

At Pixel Pioneers Bristol, Scott Riley will talk about the practical aspects of responsible, mindful product design. The conference will also cover modern CSS layouts, AI and practical prompt engineering tips, how not to kill a design system, avoiding common accessibility mistakes, and more. Get your ticket today!