Web Design + Psychology = Satisfied Users?

in Social, Webdesign


This article has been contributed by Brad of FinderMind.com.

What’s one word people associate with web design? Some may say creativityCreativity is often described as “making something that has value”. That’s one definition. Another one is “recognizing ideas and concepts and using them in solving a particular problem.”

Let’s just define ‘being creative’ as ‘producing something useful’. The next question would be: How do web designers know they are producing something useful? Many rely on intuition to tell them that. We know, however, that intuition can be deceiving. Not convinced? Maybe this list of cognitive biases will enlighten you. The truth is, we are not perfectly logical creatures. That’s why, I think, it’s useful to gain knowledge from multiple scientific disciplines and apply those principles to our professions. Web design is not an exception.

Web designers can learn a lot from some psychological principles and research on how the human mind works. This article will mention a few studies / theories and how to apply them in your overall design framework.

Do People Visit Websites to Achieve Particular Outcomes?

Ever heard of the term “market segmenting”? Marketers often use ‘focus groups’ or ‘segmenting by demographics’ in order to gain better insights into how to sell their products better. This approach is wrong, according to Clayton Christensen, who is a Harvard Business Professor and an author of several best-selling books on marketing and innovation.

A better way to understand what people want is to understand the tasks they are trying to get done.This theory is supported by research by James J. Gibson, one of the most important psychologists of the 20th Century. Gibson mentions a concept he calls “affordances”, asserting that people view the world in terms of outcomes. Let me explain.

Let’s say you want to buy a bike. Why are you doing that? Some old theories imply you might do that because of the color of the bike. Or maybe it is because of a wish you had in childhood wish of driving a bike. Gibson’s theory, however, offers a different answer: You don’t actually want to buy the bike, but hire the bike to get something done. You might “hire” the bike to get from one location to another. The job you’re trying to get done is to get faster to a desired location. You might even ‘hire’ the bike to fulfill an emotional task, maybe you didn’t have a bike in childhood and all your peers did and now you want to feel better by you too owning this vehicle.

Take another example on the web, the people search industry. There are over 100.000 searches per month on terms like ‘people search’, ‘people search engines’ and so on. A while ago I got an idea about writing a free people search post (which contained 25 websites for finding people). The post later got over 160.000 views from StumbleUpon and other social networking sites!

I never thought this type of article  would be so appealing to the majority of the population. Who would be interested in a bunch of people search sites, anyway? I later discovered, however, that people actually HIRE those sites to find/reconnect with long-lost family members/friends and so on. They are not interested in the sites themselves, but in the tasks those sites accomplish.

Another good example mentioned often by Christensen is about milkshakes. It’s a bit long to explain here, so take a look at this video for an explanation from himself directly.

How Is This Relevant To You As a Web Designer?

Guess what, people often come to websites for the same reason people are coming to buy something: They want to get something done. Maybe it’s to inform themselves about a particular company. Maybe it is to research about a product. It’s your job to find that out before you start designing. That’s the best way to make the site useful for the visitors.

You can find what visitors are trying to accomplish on the site with various usability tools like KISSMetrics, 4Q and so on. There are a huge number of web tools that can help discover what are people trying to do on a website.

Use the Psychology of Persuasion to Make People do Something

Dangling Carrot

So you’ve now learned what visitors are trying to do on the site. What’s the next thing to do? Make them more likely to do those things!

Research on this topic comes from psychologist Robert Cialdini and his best-selling book “Influence – Science and Practice” (highly recommended read).

He mentions several principles which can be used to influence people no matter where they live. Some of them include  “social proof” (a person is more likely to do a thing if he sees other people do the same thing) or “likeability” (we are more likely fulfill requests of someone we know and like.

How Is This Relevant To You As a Web Designer?

These principles can be (and already are) used online. Social proof = testimonials. Likeability = making the site ‘likable’. Another principle is “reciprocity”, we are ‘wired’ to reciprocate to a favor.

Neuro Science Marketing

This is a very new branch of neuro science which can help marketers design better messages. However, it can also help you, the web designer, design better pages.

For example, there was a recent study on how “websites that suck” increase stress. Brain wave analysis results concluded that 50% more concentration was required for participants on confusing sites. What’s the lesson here? Design sites that accomplish outcomes and eliminate unnecessary and ‘fancy’ stuff (although your temptation might make you do otherwise).

Another research concluded that attractive women make men impatient. This resulted in men thinking more ‘short-term’ or in a mating frame of mind. What’s the lesson here? You don’t want to put pictures of beautiful women on products/services with a long-term reward like life insurance or a product for saving money. Putting beautiful women there can have the opposite effect.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how web designers can benefit from these new and exciting developments in psychology. What do you think? Feel free to leave your opinion in the comment section below.