Dieter Petereit March 14th, 2018

Never Forget These 5 Principles of Design Psychology

Dieter Petereit

Dieter Petereit is a veteran of the web with over 25 years...

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Never underestimate psychology. After all, it explains pretty much all our actions.Take the following principles of design psychology to your heart.

Psychology for Designers: An Aspect That Mustn’t be Disregarded

Joe Leech, better known as Mr. Joe, should be one of the most popular evangelists of the “psychology for designers.” Leech’s customers include Disney, eBay, the Museum of Modern Arts, and the Marriott group. A few years ago, he wrote the much-noticed book “Psychology for Designers,” which he’s working on ever since. Additionally, he travels the world, hosting workshops on the topic. Leech has a clear opinion.

For Leech, a designer without a clue about the human mind resembles an architect without a clue about building physics and droop. The buildings of the latter are at high risk of collapsing, the former’s websites are at high risk of failure. According to Leech, psychology should not be viewed separately from design, as it is an essential component. Without basic knowledge of psychology, significant success in design would be impossible.

However, Leech is very down to earth and doesn’t turn the topic into rocket science. Instead, he tries to communicate the required knowledge simply and straightforwardly. Basically, as designers, all we need to know is that the human brain tends to be lazy, and prefers to work within established processes. When it comes to processing information, it will first try to take in this information in a way that it’s used to. This saves energy and helps to keep the feeling of being in control.

As a designer, this teaches us several things, like not creating innovative new processes for established tasks.

Humans are not comfortable with the feeling of losing control. (Photo: Pixabay)

The psychological approach goes much further, though. Take another look at our article on microinteractions. In there, I have proven that today, microinteractions are a vital factor when it comes to setting your website or app apart from similar ones. These microinteractions are almost exclusively about psychology.

If an app or website can be consumed comfortably, this matches the expectations of the human mind more than being confronted with a clunky, unexpected “innovation.” In this day and age, where basic functionality is provided almost everywhere, such details are what makes the difference.

On his website “Psychology for Designers,” which Leech runs in addition to his book, he collects details and information on the topic, which designers can use to dig as deep into the topic as they want to. Here, he also covers topics like the psychology of pricing, or the effects of specific images.

In the sources for further content at the bottom of this article, you’ll find enough material to dive deep into the topic of “design psychology” for hours. As not all of us have that much time, I will present guidelines based on some established principles of design psychology in the following. Consider it essential information for a good start into psychologically profound web design.

Principle #1: Don’t Invent New Approaches to Established Processes

Our brain loves treading on familiar paths. Now, if unleashed on a website, it looks for familiar patterns to help with orientation. If you’re a very innovative designer who created utterly new usage patterns for the site, the visitor’s brain won’t be thankful. Thus: don’t do it.

Cartoon: Disruptive Design

Not everything that’s possible makes sense… (Cartoon: Noupe)

Principle #2: Don’t Create Drastic Redesigns of Established Pages

Take a look at Google: You can still recognize reminiscences of the service’s old design of the nineties. Every redesign over the past years has been subtle and modest. Especially with such high-traffic sites, it is essential to look at the psychological aspect strategically.

Generally, everyone hates changes that don’t come with a significant improvement. Improvement is only accepted as such if there was a flaw before. Thus, the definition of the term “improvement” is in the eye of the visitor, not in the eye of the designer.

Designers, on the other hand, like to think of their redesigns as improvements, forgetting the old saying: “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” And no, just because a website doesn’t follow the hot brand-new trend, that doesn’t mean it’s broken.

Principle #3: Use the Positive Effect of High-Quality Typography

A study by Microsoftie Kevin Larson and the MIT staffer Rosalind Picard was able to prove that there’s a significant connection between a site’s typography and the mood of its readers. This realization was quite surprising to the scientists, as, previously, similar effects were only known from funny videos or small rewards. (Study as a PDF Download)

In addition to the improved mood, it was also proven that readers read longer on pages with high-quality typography, while also being able to process the information better. So, if you want to use typography psychologically, use a high-quality font without major traits and set a slightly bigger font size. And read our article on the topic.

Principle #4: Use Rewards Strategically, or Not at All

Previously, small rewards increasing the engagement of potential users was an undisputed assumption. For instance, the free trial month is almost a staple in several different offers. However, there are cases where this approach may backfire.

When you’re having fun, you don’t need any additional motivation (Photo: Pixabay)

Before working with rewards, you should identify what your user’s primary motivation is. Why would your users want to use your website or app?

Does your visitor’s primary motivation come from the inside? If they use your product for fun, to lose weight, or to communicate, rewards may not affect at all or even negatively affect the involvement.

This result is supported by this study, which isn’t even brand new but may still explain several failures of the past years. The fundamental message is the fact that rewards undermine the intrinsic motivation system, levering it out in the process.

Principle #5: Work With Human Weaknesses Proactively

Humans make mistakes, and the human brain is not very reliable. These two problems have to be approached actively in your designs. It is essential to know all possible mistakes a potential visitor could make, in order to support them. Science has shown two things.

Mistakes alone are frustrating enough to result in users quitting the usage. This is accelerated by the fact that humans tend to blame themselves for failure. And this is where a fight-or-flight reaction kicks in, regarding your website, in this case.

Another factor that most of you have heard before is a result of the statement: “I don’t know anything about computers.” Often, people even take pride in this, as if the documented inability was setting them apart from others in a positive way. This form of learned helplessness is hard to fight, but important to know. After all, the designer is a human himself.

Supporting systems can be useful, although they shouldn’t be obnoxious. Modern apps often do an excellent job at that by providing support that is often labeled as a “tour” through the app. In fact, they are just guides that don’t feel like one. Reading the manual is still considered a sign of cowardice by many.

Conclusion: Make Things as Easy as Possible, But Not Easier

“What’s next, Einstein?”, is what you might think. In reality, this is the best advice you can give designers. Summarizing all mentioned principles under the keyword “user comfort.” Make the usage of your website as comfortable as possible. While doing so, look into the above-mentioned principles now and then.

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Dieter Petereit

Dieter Petereit is a veteran of the web with over 25 years of experience in the world of IT. As soon as Netscape became available he started to do what already at that time was called web design and has carried on ever since. Two decades ago he started writing for several online publications, some well, some lesser known. You can meet him over on Google+.

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