Creating websites with great user experience means focusing on the humans that will be using the site. Understanding human psychology is important for anyone who is involved in the design, content, information architecture or strategy of a website. I’ve chosen eight examples to showcase different psychological principles that can be used to improve website design.
1. Don’t assume people will make the rational choice
Most of us think of ourselves as rational people who make choices based on logic. However, research has shown that emotions, the number of choices and how choices are presented all play a major role in decision making. These factors can lead to people making what seem to be irrational choices. With this insight in mind, Washington Post keeps their subscription options simple, prices the premium option only slightly more than the basic option—which often increases the likelihood of users buying it even if they don’t need it—and appeals to emotions with their page headline “Real journalism matters.”
2. Use stories to engage people
We are social creatures who have used stories for thousands of years to both relay information and connect with others. Telling a story is often a more engaging (thanks in part to mirror neurons) and memorable (22 times more memorable to be specific) way to relay information than just presenting the facts. The above example is an editorial piece by Pitchfork on the band Bats for Lashes. The site’s use of narrative, imagery and parallax tells the story of the band with a delightful experience that engages the user emotionally.
3. Make it more visual
Vision is our primary sense. Which makes sense considering how many sayings we have about it. A picture is worth a thousand words. Seeing is believing. In fact, visual information is easier to process than words, we are more likely to remember it’s content and we are more likely to have an emotional response to visuals. This is partly because language is a learned skill whereas vision comes naturally. However, just adding stock images to your website isn’t enough. Images need to be meaningful to be effective; otherwise, they will just be a distraction for your users. In the example above, Google uses visuals as the primary means to tell the story of Abbey Road.
4. Design for the brain’s limitations
As amazing as the human brain is, it does have limitations. People have limited ability to process information. Their working memory can handle only around three to four items at a time for about 10–15 seconds and long term memory is often unreliable. This is why user interfaces should depend on recognition rather than recalling information from memory. The above example shows how Alaska Airlines helps people select their airport with an autocomplete which includes City/State, as well as airport name and code. This flexibility bypasses the need to remember the airport code and instead lets the user type in the city/state to choose the desired airport.
5. Help people recover from mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes. While a good user interface can help reduce them, it will never eliminate mistakes. Which is why error recovery like undo (CTRL Z) is so important to a good user experience. People appreciate undo so much they wish it was a feature of real life.
6. When in doubt, just make it easier
I often hear people say, “users are lazy,” but this isn’t exactly true. Fogg’s Behavior Model shows that triggers, motivation and ability (ease of use) are the main factors influencing whether people take action or not. We are most likely to take action when either motivation is high or the task is very easy. Since affecting motivation can be a long, involved process, the first line of action to drive behavior is to make the task easier. Amazon understood this very early. In 1997, they released the “Buy now with 1-Click” button, and it has worked so well that it’s lasted the two decades since they released it. Of course, this idea has evolved. It’s the basis for the “Dash” button, as well as voice ordering through Alexa.
7. Motivate people with rewards and not always external ones
When thinking about how to motivate people, often the first thing that comes to mind are extrinsic rewards like money, prizes or awards. However, research indicates that intrinsic motivators, like accomplishment, connectedness or curiosity are a more reliable and consistent way to encourage people into action. This is in part because of the overjustification effect. Pinterest uses several different types of intrinsic motivation. The first is curiosity or as Nir Eyal puts it in his book Hooked “rewards of the hunt.” Users spend lots of time scrolling on Pintrest because they are curious what awesome craft project, recipe, hairstyle or house plan they will find next. Second, many of the things on Pintrest are projects that create a sense of accomplishment and keep the user coming back.
8. Use social influence
Another way to motivate people is to use the power of social influence and identity. As humans, we have a strong need to belong, and the norms of our social groups influence our behavior. As a result, we are more likely to trust companies and try products that friends, or people similar to us, like and use. Facebook implements this technique on ads by listing friends who like the company that is running the ad.
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