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Portfolio of Allison V. Leach, a San Francisco User Experience Researcher and Strategist

Cognitive Design Thesis: Book

Graduate Blog

Graduate Design Portfolio

Cognitive Design Thesis: Book

Allison V. Leach

My year-long investigation in cognitive design culminated in a thesis book that documents my research. This work was submitted to (and approved by) the California College of the Arts Graduate Design faculty in May 2013.


In a world of infinite distractions and temptations, how might designers leverage recent findings in cognitive science to create artifacts that preserve willpower and facilitate productivity for improved well-being?

Informed by the work of willpower experts such as Kelly McGonigal and Roy F. Baumeister, as well as the latest insights from psychology, economics, and neuroscience, my thesis intends to demonstrate the value of cognitive design to designers and non-designers alike. Cognitive design translates findings from cognitive science into design opportunities, and has the potential to create significant personal transformation for its users.

Rather than a traditional study of design’s visual and physical form, my thesis concerns design’s conceptual structure and intangible influence, with an emphasis on the user’s internal experience.

Each of my design probes exploits scientific knowledge on willpower and productivity to test cognitive science’s possible applications in products for personal productivity. For example, how might outsourcing trivial decisions to a network preserve willpower, saving it for more important tasks? Can electronic pulses on a bracelet instill mindfulness of one’s long-term goals and ward off impulsive behaviors? Ultimately, the findings of my design experiments are presented in a series of recommendations and a Cognitive Design Code to encourage future cognitive designers.