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3 Psychology Principles Web Designers Must Know

By Leona Henryson on 5th August, 2019

When you look around you what do you see? Everywhere you turn people are quite literally immersed in the digital world via their smartphones, iPads, and laptops. This isn’t something that happened by accident. In fact, there’s rather a lot of cutting edge psychology paired up with all the tech stuff that makes it happen. To give you a better idea about how you can ensure your web design taps into the popular psyche take a look at these principles of psychology you really need to know about.

Master Heuristics to Automatically Get More Click-Throughs

Your brain is busy making decisions. It does it all day long and eventually arrives at a state known as decision fatigue. For those of you who haven’t heard of it before you’ll have certainly experienced it.

When you arrive home at the end of a long day do you sometimes slump down in front of the TV and find it hard to decide what you want to eat? That’s a typical example of decision fatigue that most of us experience on a daily basis. Your brain isn’t like a muscle that cramps up or tears with overuse. But it will gradually run out of energy throughout the course of the day and eventually require an uninterrupted period of sleep to fully recover. So how does this help your web design efforts?

Your brain works on principles called heuristics a lot of the time — they’re like shortcuts that allow it to save time and energy thinking about stuff it’s already familiar with. In fact, what it actually does is rather incredible.

Meditation in design UXPin
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By creating simple models of concepts and relationships it then learns to spot these in new events and scenarios as they unfold before your very eyes. A great example would be fire. Your brain learns at an early age that it’s hot, that you shouldn’t touch it, and that if you avoid touching it you won’t get burnt. Sounds like common sense, but imagine how exhausted you’d be if you had to consciously make every little decision during your day. This step-by-step approach to thinking would consume all of your time. This is where heuristics comes in handy.

“When you come to apply heuristics to web design you want to apply certain tried and tested rules,” shares Anya Millington, a UX designer at Resumescentre and FlashEssay. “Drop-down menus at the top, logo across the top of the page, links in blue. These are all things our brains have gotten used to, so why change them?” she adds.

You may think you’re creating something far more aesthetic and logical, but the problem is that people will have to get to know how to use your site. Use a heuristic approach and they’ll already know how to navigate before they ever log on.

Serial Positioning Means the Start and End Points Truly Matter

Your brain is designed to process large amounts of information and fish out the bits that it thinks are most valuable. An interesting byproduct of this approach is that it places particular stock on lists. From the point of view of your brain, these are streams of data that have already been sorted and organized by an intelligent creator. They are therefore ripe for assimilation and application.

Interestingly the human brain pays particular attention to the entries at the beginning and end of a list. Those in the middle are not ignored, but engagement and retention are noticeably reduced. This is because it assumes that the start of the list is of primary importance and that the end of the list summates everything else already listed.

Oliwia Rivera, head of marketing for Online writers rating explains: “This means that if you want your users to engage with a particular tab on your site then you want to list it at the start or the end of your list of products and services. You can apply this principle to everything from drop-down menus to rows of tabs across the top of your homepage.”

Screenshot of the Tesla homepage
Screenshot of the Tesla homepage

You’re also going to need to be consistent with the order. If you unintentionally change the order of your tabs from one page to the next then this will confuse your users and ruin their automatic predilections to click on a particular link.

Hick’s Law Tells You Why It Can Be Harder to Choose

We all find it hard to make choices at times, especially when presented with 2 or more options. You may think that this is obvious or just one of your own annoying quirks, but there’s plenty of science to back it up.

Hick’s Law states that the more options you have at your disposal, the longer you will take to make a decision. If you’ve ever tried in vain with your partner to find a film on Netflix that you both want to watch then you’ll know the feeling. If you only had 20 or so options on cable then you’d already be watching something by now. But because you have thousands of titles to choose from you enter a state of decision paralysis.

Applying this principle to web design is actually pretty simple, provided you keep things simple. If you’re listing a product and you want to offer the option to read an expanded description then a simple ‘Learn More’ button will get the job done. If instead, you opt for half a dozen links that take you to pages detailing the specifics of certain areas of the product then your browsers won’t really know where to look.

Miriam Chaney, creative writer at Canada-Writers emphasizes: “A good rule of thumb when designing a product sales page is to include a maximum of 2 key decision points. One should be your CTA in the form of a ‘Buy Now’ button, and the other (if appropriate) should be a simple ‘Learn More’ option that drops down an expanded version of the text.”

Screenshot of the Iphone webpage
Screenshot of the Iphone webpage

Note that I’ve said: ‘if appropriate’ for the second decision point. If you don’t need the expansive text then do without it. This will further remove distractions and possible points of departure from the buying pathway you’re trying to keep every browser on.

Final thoughts

The secret of applying psychological principles to web design is taking a methodical and scientific approach. By quantifying the impact of the changes you have made to key metrics you’ll be able to iteratively arrive at a site which taps into the human psyche and takes browsers precisely where you want them to go.

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