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Psychology of Design

Psychology of DesignCreating a website design is more than just throwing a few elements onto a digital page and hoping for the best. Today’s designers not only need to have excellent creative skills but understand their target audience and what makes them tick.

Design psychology is essential when it comes to the user experience and can mean the difference between a site that fails to impress and one that successfully converts visitors to customers and keeps them coming back for more.

What is Design Psychology?

Design psychology is complex and covers a range of different disciplines including neuroscience, cognitive psychology and even social science. The role of the designer is to be aware of the rules we understand currently = and use them to create websites that are optimised for performance.

The user experience, or UX, has become increasingly important over the last decade or so and includes understanding how different parts of a design affect people in different ways. Some basic principles apply generally but web designers also need to be aware of rules that will affect certain demographics.

Understanding who the typical user is and how they behave is the starting point for any successful web design and nailing down the details is critical before any work begins on the pages. This enables the designer, for instance, to make the right graphic choices, organise the menus and create colour combinations that are both engaging and effective.

There are some staple ‘laws’ that website designers focus on more than most: Hick’s Law, Millar’s Law and Jakob’s Law.

Hick’s Law

Hick’s Law states that the complexity of the information we have presented to us can mean it is more difficult to make a choice. So, for example, if you have a page that contains too much information or hundreds of different menu items the user will find it difficult to settle on one thing. You’re essentially working against them and potentially convincing the user not to buy your products in the first place.

Another way to put this is ‘keep it simple’.

Our brains are living computer systems. If we have too much information, it leads to cognitive overload and we end up prevaricating or becoming confused. In the case of a web design, this will end up with the user going back to Google to find something that isn’t so confusing.

If you’ve ever spent several minutes flicking through Netflix content pages, you’ll know that too much choice can prevent you from choosing anything at all. Netflix counteracts this by creating specific, narrow tabs such as a top ten list in the UK or categories of TV and film. It’s all about cutting down on the noise that may potentially confuse us.

Ecommerce sites suffer from Hick’s Law more than most and that’s why designers will often organise menus into categories to ensure that users find it easier to navigate and make a choice quickly. Hick’s Law doesn’t just apply to websites. Only a decade ago we started to see TVs with highly complex remotes that people found difficult to use – today we have minimalist remotes with few buttons and voice activation.

Takeaway: Make your website easy to use and, if you do have complex processes, break these up to ensure decision making for your user is easier.

Millar’s Law

In 1956, psychologist George Millar looked at the extent of short-term memory and its retention. He suggested that we can keep around 7 things in our working memory at one time, any more than this and it can be difficult to process.

Unfortunately, this has led some designers to limit menu size, for example, to the magic number seven which kind of misses the point.

What is more important is the concept of chunking, where similar items are placed together, often in a visual way. It gives the user more chance of finding what they are looking for and understanding how your site is organised.

In simple terms it’s not the size of the information that you need to include on your website but the way that it is organised. The result, if done properly, makes your site more visually appealing and much easier to engage with.

For an ecommerce site, chunking would include something like creating a finite number of categories. Even on product pages themselves, you can chunk by splitting up your content and making it easier for people to understand.

An example would be for a product such as a smartphone. Retailers will often create an almost entirely visual page to get a visceral reaction from users and include separate tabs for technical details.

Takeaway: Organising your website content into more easily digestible chunks makes it easier for your user to not only find what they are looking for but to make quicker buying decisions.

Jakob’s Law

Jakob’s Law is slightly different in that it focuses on the user experience from a web design point of view. In most cases, users will spend a significant amount of time on other sites and will be set in their ways when it comes to what they want to experience and what they are conditioned to.

In short, if your website gives them something that differs widely from their previous experience, they are like to have a negative reaction.

This is the reason why ecommerce sites always seem to be organised in the same way, whether you’re on Amazon or the John Lewis website. People have expectations and you need to be able to affirm these with your own offering.

Yes, this can make things a little boring but familiarity is a powerful tool when it comes to marketing online. As users, we create mental models about the world around us and that includes our expectations for websites.

We don’t necessarily like to be surprised and the more you align with the typical user’s mental model the better. An example would be the design of a car – we expect the lights and signalling to be on the left. The windscreen wipers and other controls are on the right. Swapping it round can be confusing for the driver.

Takeaway: Users bring their expectations for your site created from previous experience of other sites and embracing this familiarity is essential for a successful design.

Design Psychology and the Visceral Reaction

The immediate reaction that your user has to your website is critical. Our visceral brain reacts more quickly than our more logical brain. That’s why interviewers can decide on whether you’re suitable for a job within a few minutes of you walking into a room.

Web designers understand that first impressions count. That can translate into the type of images they use, how content is organised and other important factors such as how long it takes pages to download. Aesthetic appeal is a cornerstone of modern website design and it’s important to get the right elements in place. If you’ve ever downloaded a product page and found a grainy image, you’ll know what a bad message that sends. Not least it puts in doubt whether the website is reputable and a business you want to give your credit card details to.

Visual design can have a profound impact on how we think and feel about a particular business and can prolong how users behave.

Colour and Design Psychology

When it comes to design, colour plays an integral role and getting the right balance is essential for any website. This is a pretty complex area and one that can certainly make the difference between engagement or leaving your user feeling apathetic about your site. It’s not just the use of individual colours but how these are combined in your web design.

While it’s fairly simplistic, different colours are likely to elicit different responses. For example:

  • Red is quite a strong, even aggressive colour.It can be used to symbolise love, for example in relation to Valentine’s Day, but it can also give rise to angry emotions.
  • Blue is widely used by corporations because it elicits calm emotions but it is also associated with distance and even sad feelings.
  • Black is seen as traditional and reputable but also has a connection with death and tragedy. Black is particularly important because its effect often depends on the other colours that it is used with.

According to SEO guru Neil Patel:

“The colour scheme you use is a crucial part of the buying decision. Even minor adaptations like changing your CTA buttons’ colour can dramatically increase your success rates, while your overall colour scheme can increase brand recognition.”

Colour can vary in its impact depending on the type of industry you belong to and the demographics you are hoping to target. Even different genders gravitate to different colours. Women are more likely to prefer purples and blues in subtle shades while men prefer brighter tones.

Getting the right mix is not easy and it takes a website designer who understands the psychology of colour to get it right.

Pattern Recognition

One valuable aspect of the psychology of design is pattern recognition. We’re hardwired as a species to notice patterns as we try to make sense of the world around us. As we have said, users approach a new website with certain expectations and the role of the web designer is to ensure these are fulfilled.

Again, a typical example would come from ecommerce site menus. Your users will have preconceived notions of where they expect to find things and how these are going to be organised. If you have an off-kilter menu that suddenly changes the rules and puts categories in different orders, it can confuse people.

The same can be said for the images you use. If these are unclear or slightly funky, for example, product photos taken from obscure angles, it can not only disappoint your user but make them think you have something to hide.

Why People Scan

One key factor with web pages is that people tend to scan them first before reading in more detail. This may be a result of the large amount of content there is online nowadays – we have limited time to spare and want to make the most of it.

Users will glance over content to make sure it is what they are looking for and it’s something we’re very good at. The assessment of the value of page content, however, presents some problems for web design. How do you organise pages so that they have the best impact?

The most common type of scanning is the F pattern where the eyes follow the general line of the letter. For example, the user will scan the top line, move down the page a little and then scans a shorter horizontal line. This makes it important to place your most compelling content that tells the user they are in the right places at those points where they scan horizontally.

In some cases, this could just be the name of a particular product in the top line. For services, it could be a quick explanation of what you are offering. The key is that it needs to be prominent.

This method of scanning is generally used for text-heavy content where users may be trying to assess whether it matches their needs. If you have less text, users will tend to follow more of a Z shape.

Most of the time the user is looking for important keywords and snippets of information that relate to the purpose of their search. Organising text on a page is therefore highly important if you are going to attract the right users, get them to stay and encourage them to buy your product or hire your service.

The Importance of User-Centred Design

Most good web designers apply a range of different principles such as Hick’s Law and Millar’s Law but they’ll also have an understanding of the demographic they are trying to engage.

The psychology of design is all about the user experience and understanding what elements are likely to push their buttons. Get it right and you can expect more conversions and a greater return on investment for your site.

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