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10 Psychological Principles to Design With

Updated Sept 2022

Design is most effective when executed with knowledge of psychology. Knowing how people react to visual stimuli allows the crafting of an effective design, without psychology you are guessing. Psychology itself is a vastly fluctuating and massive subject, but that doesn’t mean you need a Ph.D. to use it in your design. There are simple psychological principles you can use to improve the effectiveness of your design even without knowing the theory behind it.

While there are hundreds of relevant principles, the following ten can be used to improve the aesthetic quality, usability, and comprehension of your designs.

1. Visceral Reactions

Visceral Reactions
The first emotional reactions originate in the central nervous system. These reactions influence our behavior on a subconscious level, meaning we don’t realize they are affecting our behavior.

You may consider yourself self-aware and in complete control… well I’ve got news for you, you’re not. For centuries cognition has tricked humans into believing their actions are entirely thought-out and preplanned. Modern psychology says otherwise. Much of human behavior is still rooted and influenced by our “old brain,” the part of our mind controlling the survival instincts that kept our ancestors alive (Weinschenk, Nuero Web Design, 2009.) The old brain reacts much faster than conscious thought and is triggered anytime we’re exposed to a representation of food, shelter, danger or reproduction. These reactions are called “visceral reactions” as they originate from the central nervous system (Norman, Emotional Design, 2005.)

Not only are old brain signals faster than conscious thought, but they also influence us without our knowledge (ie, visceral reactions are subconscious.) Ever love a design but have a hard time explaining why? Chances are you had a visceral response, and your old brain reacted to the visuals positively. Because visceral reactions are rooted in our genetic makeup, the responses are relatively consistent across all cultures, genders, and demographics. As a result, visceral design produces very predictable reactions.

Visceral design is broad enough that it could (and probably will) have a blog post dedicated to it. To keep things short, I recommend using design elements that could represent any of the old brain triggers. Specifically, use elements that could represent survival, threat, or reproductive opportunities (sex sells.) For example, you could use an aqua blue that is similar to fresh water, bright colors that are reminiscent of fruit, or a clean open design similar to a safe environment.

2. Cost-Benefit Analysis

Form Fatigue
Form fatigue is a common example of the cost-benefit problem. The energy cost in filling out a long form often outweighs the perceived benefit of doing so.

Related to visceral reactions is the cost-benefit principle which surmises behavior is regulated by the perceived difficulty of a task concerning the perceived reward (The Journal of Neuroscience, 8 April 2009, 29(14): 4531-4541.) Basic human behavior can be summed up in two patterns: opportunity seeking and threat avoidance. For example, your body is hardwired to seek out energy-dense food, which is why calorie-dense foods like french fries and chocolate are more challenging to resist than lettuce. Because the fuel for energy (food) used to be a scarce resource and took energy to obtain, we have developed an uncanny drive to conserve energy where possible. Our ancestors survived by limiting their energy usage to activities that would provide high benefits.

Despite the centuries of evolution between our nomadic relatives, we exhibit much of the same behavior. Subconsciously we are continuously evaluating the potential energy expenditure for a given activity and our perception of the reward of doing so. On the web, this means if a task appears to have a high energy cost, users are unlikely to complete it unless the reward is of high value. The most common example of this is form fatigue. Long forms take a notable amount of energy to complete. Users who will receive something valuable for filling out the form are more likely to go through with the task. If the user is just looking to get information about a product or service, they will likely abandon the process and find a website that requires less effort.

Remember that energy expenditure is not limited to physical activity. Mental activity can be just as taxing (although in a different form.) Requiring frequent decisions, hunting, memorizing, learning, or contemplation will slowly drain the user’s energy until the cost of proceeding outweighs the benefit of completing their task.

3. Hick’s Law

I originally covered Hick’s law in my post about 10 Laws to Design By. Simply put, the law states that the more options one is exposed to, the longer it takes to make a decision (Hick, On the rate of gain of information. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 4:11-26, 1952.). Many claim they would like more options in a decision-making scenario, but their behavior illustrates the contrary. The difficulty of making a decision increases with additional possibilities, and in extreme cases, it’s so hard we’ll opt not to decide at all.

The classic example is a study that tested the effect of jam options at a busy grocery store. The study used a jam-tasting display with two configurations. One with 24 different jams and the other with only six.  They found with the 24-option display, 60% of people passing tried the jam, and  3% of them purchased it. With the six jam display, a lesser 40% of people stopped, but almost 30% purchased (Iyengar, Shena S. and Mark R. Lepper 2000. When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.79:995-1006). When faced with 24 different jams, the nuances between them all made it too difficult to select. With six jams, it was easy to determine which one tasted best, and more purchased as a result.

Hick’s Law directly relates to the cost-benefit principle. The more options a user must pick from — be it navigation, products or images to look at — the more energy it takes to make a decision. Eventually, the energy required to make the decision becomes so large the benefit of making it doesn’t seem worthwhile.

On the web, Hick’s Law tells us to keep options to a minimum. This applies to everything, including content on the page, navigational elements, images, etc… Anything on the page gives the user another option of something to read, focus on, or click. Removing everything unessential reduces the number of unnecessary options and makes user decisions easier.

4. Gestalt Psychology

It only takes a little exploration into cognitive psychology to smash the illusion that we have a firm grasp of the world around us. It seems our brain loves to take shortcuts and make assumptions, all the while reassuring ourselves that everything has been well thought out. The most nefarious of examples are the Gestalt Principles. Developed by german psychologists in the 1920s, the principles describe how our brain assumes unification or relatedness to visuals based on proximity and whitespace. For example, visuals in close proximity are perceived as related when not necessarily the case. Another example is that of similarity, where elements that look similar are considered to be related and elements that look different are unrelated  (Humphrey, G. (1924). The psychology of the gestalt. Journal of Educational Psychology.)

Elements grouped in close proximity are seen as related.
Elements grouped in close proximity are seen as related.

Beyond proximity and grouping, the principles include similarity, continuance, and figure-ground perceptions. Gestalt principles are complex enough that I could write a post about them specifically (and probably will,) so if you want to know more, it’s time to do some research on your own. Otherwise, just know that people will make assumptions about what they see and find meaning in visuals that might not be there. Ultimately it’s critical to be intentional about what appears on the page and how it’s treated.

5. Pattern Matching

Despite the low detail, most will recognize this shape as a dancer. The form is matched to preexisting patterns of what dancers look like.

Pattern matching (or pattern recognition) is how we process everything we see, from people’s faces to the written word. When visual stimuli enter our eyes it immediately starts a chain reaction in the brain. We subconsciously hunt hunting for anything similar to the current stimuli that we have experienced in the past. If the stimuli are matched to a preexisting pattern we recognize what we are seeing. Otherwise, the stimuli are perceived as being new. This process goes beyond recognizing forms and colors, it also triggers any cognitive associations with the matched pattern.

Look to the figure on the right; how do you know the silhouette is a dancer? Despite the lack of detail, the shape fits a pattern matching dancers you have previously experienced. Now reflect on your thought process upon seeing the image, did your mind wander to previous experiences, encounters, and feelings surrounding dancers? This is the pattern-matching system at work.

Pattern matching also influences how familiar something feels. The more you see something, the more patterns you have stored and easier related patterns are to identify. When patterns are easily matched, they feel familiar or  “normal.” Unmatchable or difficult-to-match stimuli feel foreign and can even be unsettling. While drastically different these new visuals are more memorable, at least at first. Like anything else, repeated exposure dulls the “shock” value of the stimuli, eventually making it feel ordinary.

6. Facial Recognition

Facial recognition is one of the most active forms of pattern matching. There is no pattern that we recognize that has more impact than the human face. We are a socially driven race, well demonstrated by the rise of social networks and the role of social organization in human evolution. But before computers, smartphones, and text messages, most interactions were face-to-face.

Human interactions are just as likely to be bad as good. As a result, we evolved with a semi-conscious ability to read faces. This technique is only effective because many facial expressions are involuntary. While you can put on a smile despite being sad, there are tiny muscles on your face that reveal your true feelings. There was a time when predicting the intentions of others was the difference between avoiding a threat and walking into danger.

People are instinctively drawn to the human face for two reasons. First, to identify another human. Second, to read the person’s facial expressions to determine if they are friends or foes. The more aggressive the facial expression, the more attention it receives, as demonstrated by a study where participant’s eyes were typically drawn to unhappy faces in a sea of people (Facial Expressions of Emotion: Are Angry Faces Detected More Efficiently? Cogn Emot. 2000 January 1; 14(1): 61–92.).

Not only are we drawn to people’s faces, but we also read their expressions and interpret their moods. We are most adept at recognizing angry faces as they represent a potential threat.

Related to web design, faces can draw attention or set a mood. People will naturally identify with images of people over objects, landscapes, or abstractions ( Neilsen, Eye Tracking Usability, 2010.) Furthermore, the expression of the depicted person will influence how the user feels about the website. Someone happy and smiling will convey a sense of welcome, whereas a picture of sad, starving children will convey sorrow and desperation. The more authentic the photo, the more effective it will be… this means dropping the stock photography and being intentional about what photos you take. Users will pick up on the emotions of those depicted, so avoid photos of people looking uncomfortable at all costs. This requires effort as the average person feels self-conscious when being photographed.

7. Social Influence

The influence of others extends far beyond facial expressions, there are specific actions that have predictable influences on human behavior. There was a time when being able to work together provided more significant avoidance of threats and more opportunities for food and reproduction. As a result, the basic “systems” of human interaction still exist in our DNA. In the article Persuasion in Design, author UX Designer Elisa del Galdo references the six universal principles of social influence. These principles are hardwired into the human psyche, and developed as a necessity for human survival.

As described in her article, the six principles are:

  • Reciprocation: We are compelled to return favors, often in greater value than the original.
  • Authority: We trust experts and those of high status or power.
  • Commitment/Consistency: We want to act consistently with our commitments and values.
  • Scarcity: The less available a resource, the more we want it.
  • Liking: The more we like people, the more we want to say yes to them.
  • Social Proof: We look to others to guide our behavior.
Smart designers can use these concepts to influence users toward desired actions. Giving away free information or tools can be used to persuade users to volunteer their contact information via the reciprocity principle. Signs of authority or expertise can increase perceived trust. Low inventory numbers might indicate scarcity and move someone to purchase sooner than they would otherwise. Identifying powerful ways to design using social influence doesn’t take too much creativity.

8. Selective Disregard & Change Blindness

You see and notice everything that happens around you, right? Well, you might be surprised. Our brain does a surprisingly good job of tricking us into thinking we absorb everything we see, but we often miss things that happen right in front of us. This phenomenon is called Selective Disregard and happens out of necessity as it’s impractical (and arguably impossible) to process every visual in our peripheral vision (Nielsen, Eye Tracking Usability, 2010.)

Just walking down the street, you are exposed to millions of visuals that could demand your attention, but unless necessary, your mind filters them out as if you never saw them. If you are looking for “Main Street,” any street sign will catch your attention and be processed. If you know where you are going, the signs will enter your field of vision only to be ignored because they are unnecessary. This phenomenon is known as selective disregard, in which your mind proactively forgets anything deemed irrelevant.

This most obvious example of selective disregard is banner blindness, where users have become so accustomed to ignoring online advertising they couldn’t tell you if the website they surfed five minutes prior had ads or not. Selective disregard applies to more than just advertising, users often gloss over anything that doesn’t appear related to their task. Sometimes users will miss critical elements because designers have strayed from convention. Because the search form doesn’t look like a search form, the mind ignores it and continues. All elements should be clearly labeled for usability and follow conventions matching the user’s expectations.

The more extreme brand of selective disregard is change blindness. Change blindness occurs when the state causes blindness to significant and noticeable changes. As discussed regarding the cost-benefit principle, our mind does all it can to conserve energy. One way it conserves energy is assuming nothing has changed unless there is a clear indicator otherwise. There are a few amusing and exciting demonstrations of Change Blindness on YouTube.

In the javascript-laden, non-refreshing web of today, change blindness is a thorn in any designer’s side. If something changes on your page, you better make it obvious, less you brave the scorn of frustrated users. Always remember that small loading GIFs and flashing content might not be enough and make changes painfully obvious when in doubt.

9. Progress Disclosure

Ever get the feeling that learning increases in difficulty with age? Think again; learning is complex regardless of age. Storing information is a high-energy, high-focus process.  The process of converting stimuli into stored memories is complex and influenced by hundreds of factors. You don’t need to understand learning theory to be a great designer fully, you just need to know that to conserve energy, people prefer to recognize information rather than store and recall it (ie, learn it.)

Furthermore, when learning is required, most people have a limit to the information that can be absorbed in one sitting. This means if you overwhelm someone with too much information, their eyes will likely glaze over, and their attention divert elsewhere. Remember that sinking feeling in your stomach when you visit a website with a seemingly endless page length? That’s the overwhelm I speak of.

This doesn’t mean you should opt to reduce the amount of information on a website; after all… content is king, right? Instead, you should present information so that it’s easier to absorb. Progressive disclosure is a presentational method that does just that. It’s a technique where information is given to the user in small bites with the option to learn (or disclose) more if desired. This prevents information overwhelm and ultimately leads to more effective websites.

Some argue against more clicks citing the infamous “Three clicks rule,” but pay no mind as Neilsen debunked it ages ago (Neilsen, Prioritizing Web Usability, 2006.) Instead, focus on small digestible chunks of content with a strong scent towards more information (where necessary.)

10. Dual-Coding Theory

Instructional design is rarely mentioned in web design discussions despite its overarching relevance. With the rise of web applications, web designers often find themselves as stand-in instructional designers. But even outside of direct instructional design, there is value to be learned from the study. One of the most relevant (in my opinion) is Dual-Coding Theory. Published in 1986, the theory explores the relationship between memory and learning through verbal and non-verbal channels. The theory stipulates two cognitive systems, one that deals with verbal stimuli (words, spoken language, etc…) and another for processing imagery.

Which is easier to process? The all-text version or the combination of visuals and text?

The key takeaway is that people learn and remember best when presented with both forms of stimuli, verbal and image-based. As explored in a previous post on mental processing, most people can comprehend image-based messaging faster than verbal. When imagery and oral communication are combined, the most significant retention level is achieved. In today’s text-heavy web, Dual-Coding means a shift in design methodology. Rather than simply designing the layout and “framing” the content, designers need to start contributing to the design of the content itself. Whether you are including diagrams, videos, infographics, or relevant photos, clients need assistance in providing the second channel of content.

In Summary

There is no better approach for improving your design than gaining a better understanding of the people you are designing for. There is little practicality in dissecting every psychological principle relevant to the design, but understanding a handful of key concepts can be a powerful gateway into designing with psychology in mind. The concepts listed in this post should be enough to keep you in the right mindset when designing and (hopefully) motivate you to learn more.

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