Great Design via Psychology

I was a web designer for over ten years before I understood that some of the best designs were so well executed, they didn’t feel like designs at all. Instead, every aspect of the creation worked so well it seemed obvious why the author had chosen the path they did.

The problem I still faced was I could identify great design but I couldn’t explain why it was so. Without knowing why, my “great” designs were a matter of luck. Occasionally I happened to stumble on a winning combination of elements through sheer determination and trial and error. I figured there had to be something my design idols knew that I didn’t.

In my hunt for insight, I found most graphic and web design content was interesting but didn’t answer my questions. I learned a lot of “what” to do and very little “why.” It wasn’t until I looked for insight from different disciplines like industrial design that it all began to make sense.

Why Some Designs Under Perform

Over the year’s I’ve taken the opportunity to talk with a wide range of people in respect to their thoughts and perceptions of design. When asked what separated average designers from great designers, the most common response pointed to a poor understanding of basic aesthetic concepts like color, contrast, and balance. In other cases, the differences were verbalized as being the result of an “untrained design eye.”

There is probably some truth to this, although it is far from the primary differentiators between average and great design. You could argue that there is an element of art to graphic design principles. Like other forms of art, talent and experience play a large role in how well you have mastered them. The problem with this thinking is that design is not art; design is science.

It’s a common trap to starting projects by focusing on the visual properties of design like color, contrast and layout. This is a top down approach, when really we should be taking a bottom up approach by focusing on process, intention, and psychology. This approach is common in human factors and industrial design.

It seems so obvious in retrospect, but if you are designing a website used by people, you have to do so knowing how they think. Psychology affects every aspect of design, aesthetics included. I am not just referring to usability either. The real, potentially world-changing value in design is not the ability to make something easy and beautiful. Design has so much more potential. But I digress, let’s explore how psychology relates to design.

How Psychology Influences Design

For all intensive and purposes, every website exists because someone somewhere will use it. The web is a self-directed medium; users are in control of how they use a site and to what end. Nearly all websites have some objective that (ideally) justifies the resources used to create it, and that objective is almost always tied to user behavior on the site. Filling out a contact form, for example, could satisfy a lead generation objective.

The best designers are able to create a website that influences the users’ ability to accomplish their own goals as well as satisfy the objective of the website. You could try and hypothesize the best way to do this and design a site based on your self-reflections, but unfortunately it would be no better than a shot in the dark.

The only real way to influence user behavior is by understanding how they think. Great designing is as much psychology as it is working with form and color. Not only does psychology give you the insight into what people find visually pleasing and why, it also informs you how they make decisions.

Psychology, anthropology, and sociology may seem like boring college subjects but they actually contain a wealth of great design theory. One of the best ways to branch out and become a better designer is to gain a greater understanding of people — and not just in relation to computer interaction. Knowing how people behave outside of technology gives you better insights into how they really think. Armed with the knowledge of your users thought patterns you can make decisions that influence user behavior. In this sense, good design is quantifiable.

Design Might be Subjective, but it’s Also Quantifiable

Because design is creative we often treat it as a subjective practice. We use our own tastes and biases to judge the value of web sites we view. We rationalize how well the site is designed based on our aesthetic tastes and our own experiences with ease of use. In actuality, design on the web is not subjective at all. One design can clearly out perform another and it isn’t necessarily going to be the one that you or the client likes the best. You can measure success through a range of techniques like website analytics, user testing and split tests. We need to start thinking about design in a more quantifiable way.

This doesn’t mean that we should ignore or forgo creativity; just the opposite in fact. Rather we should use our knowledge to intentionally plan our designs to be as effective as possible. If we could be sure that everyone shared our own personal viewpoint, then the eyeball-it-method would be extremely effective. Unfortunately, humans are dramatically different in this regard, and as such have dramatically different tastes. It’s only when you understand the specific tastes and psychology of your target users that you can design to their needs.

All of this directly relates to the higher calling of all designers.

The Designers Job

A designer’s challenge is to create the most effective website given the project needs and constraints. The websites you design have very specific reasons for their existence. The website owners expect to get something in return for their investment, and the users expect to get something in return for visiting the site. At the end of the day design is about creating something that a specific group of people will use. Because that group of people will think differently than you, psychology must guide your design decisions — not intuition.