Reading Minds: The Psychology Behind UX Design

Most of us probably believe that we make a large portion of our day-to-day decisions based on logical and rational considerations. However, the opposite is the case: we predominantly follow the decisions of mental processes that lie in the subconscious. The website’s intuitive usability is never a coincidence but the result of the interplay of creation and psychological principles. So, this attitude towards freedom is only an illusion, and most of our actions are triggered by an unconscious mental process long before we become aware of our intention to act.

A basic understanding of psychology allows us to understand this mental process better and why users act in a certain way. It also allows us to confidently defend our decisions by knowing why we, as the UI/UX designers, made them and how they make sense. “Because it looks good” or “This is the trend now” is not a legitimate or professional reason for it.

There is a great deal of psychology behind each element of the user experience, but by knowing these elements, we can use them to create experiences that drive specific user behaviors.

Once you’ve internalized this, you can easily understand why it makes sense to familiarize yourself with psychological effects to approach the UI/UX design more effectively.

For designers, these days, creating something beautiful is not enough. Designers need to understand the implications of user psychology and how it can affect the product by using these concepts and techniques to make their design intuitive, coherent, and sometimes even addicting.

There are some psychological rules in design that will help improve the intuitiveness and trustworthiness of your product. You can use these rules to get your users to focus on the information in a specific order and steer them towards your end goal – turning visitors and by-passers to frequent users and to the customers that buy from you over and over again.

We want to guide you to SIX central principles from psychology that we apply to UX design when working on our projects. When you use them correctly, these “Psycho UX” concepts can noticeably optimize the user experience.

How psychology can help improve the design

1. The mental model: recognition instead of learning from scratch

Many apps that we know and use frequently have a similar appearance. Netflix, Apple Music, AirBnB, Spotify, Medium, or even Instagram. Are you having a hard time telling the differences between these apps? They may have different uses and brand appearances, but they are based on the same design pattern: clear, bold headings with minimalistic backgrounds and a lot of white space.

Is this a coincidence? Hardly likely, as there is a good reason for this phenomenon. People learn through repetition since mental models are created through frequent use of a system, and an understanding of how it works. App fatigue is a real problem. Users tend to transfer expectations of one familiar system that they are used to already to another that looks similar since they are tired of learning a new user interface every time.

Don’t reinvent the wheel if it’s working well. It might be exciting for creative people to invent new usage patterns, but it also carries enormous risks.

Designing something new is risky, as Snapchat showed us. As designers, we should observe how users interact with an existing system to understand their expectations of how it works. For example, when navigating an e-commerce platform, where would you expect the shopping cart to be? The answer is generally at the top right, as we are all used to being there. So, by using it frequently, we learn how an app works. It leads to the expectation that other apps have to work the same way. We subconsciously transfer our experience with one system to another. And: users don’t feel like having to learn how to use each new app. UX design must make use of this intuitive knowledge.

2. The cognitive load: the brain doesn’t like overload

In psychology, cognitive load is understood as the mental effort, that a person has to exert to complete a task or acquire new information. Our brains have limited capabilities when it comes to “computing power”.

If you bombard the users with a large amount of information, it affects their performance. It, respectively, makes the visit to your website puzzling for them. Users quickly feel overwhelmed or confused and give up. If they’re overloaded, they leave the site without making a purchase. When the user’s “patience quota” is overused, brands lose sales or valuable leads.

In psychology, a distinction is made among other things. Between the intrinsic and extrinsic cognitive load, which are also relevant for UX design.

Intrinsic stress relates to the complexity of a topic.

It describes the energy that users have to expend to understand information. That is why the text is always the most vital part of a web design. The text must be precise, simple, and understandable. If this is not the case, the content can confuse, reduce the usability and prevent users from carrying out the desired process. The intrinsic burden can never be eliminated as a hurdle. However, the aim must always be to keep them as simple as possible.

The extrinsic burden includes everything that demands the mental resources of the user without actually contributing to the understanding of the actual content. These include distracting, animated elements or abundant font sizes, colors, or other heterogeneously used markings that have no specific meaning. It is precisely where the work in the digital design must start.

What does this mean in practice?

Visual clutter on a website or app due to irrelevant images, redundant links, meaningless graphic elements should always be avoided.

When used sensibly, links, image elements, and typography on a website always serve as an orientation to convey the necessary information. The indiscriminate and poorly thought out use of these elements, on the other hand, considerably impairs the user-friendliness of a digital offer.

3. The Restorff effect: the dosage has to be right

 The Restorff effect, discovered by the German psychologist Hedwig von Restorff, describes the principle that users can better remember the content as soon as it stands out from their surroundings.

The Restorff effect clearly shows why prime elements on a website have to be emphasized creatively. For example, call-to-action (CTA) should look different from the rest of the page. The one key click must always be intuitive and immediately recognizable.

In case of doubt or uncertainty, the user will leave the page.

In addition to the CTA button, other elements also should receive more attention by their striking appearance. Typical examples are subscription models, pricing models, or product comparisons. A slight deviation in the design is usually enough to draw the eye and thus the focus on prioritized content.

For example, the premium tariff should have a green outline, a green headline, and a green CTA button. This subtle adaptation does not have a disruptive effect and does not break out of a corporate design specification, but still works. The “best” choice should be suggested to the user through color and positioning. Netflix, therefore, uses specific elements to highlight top series or to point out new episodes.

4. Users learn from examples

The easiest way to interpret this principle is to create tutorial videos or walkthroughs for each new feature you can come up with. However, there are subtle and less intimidating ways you can incorporate this into your designs.

One such way of applying this particular principle is through shapes. When designing input fields, wildcards can indicate the expected input instead of just leaving it blank. It gives users a clear indication of what is expected of them, especially for fields that are in various formats such as date (DDMMYYYY, MMD YYY, DTM YYY, etc.). It can be frustrating for users if their form is rejected just because the designer hasn’t made it clear what information the system needs.

Wildcards are a great way to let users know what they should do on the website to fill in the form correctly from the first time.

5. Social proof

Monkey see – monkey do. Social proof is the concept that users are easily influenced by the actions of others – especially their peers. It refers to a person’s tendency to replicate the actions of others when they are provided with the “right” choice. For example, when we see a long line outside a restaurant, we automatically assume that the food in that place is delicious without even trying.

Designers can use social evidence in many ways:

Validation Logos: Build credibility by showing the company’s relationships with well-known organizations or people.

Reviews: Promote trustworthiness through word of mouth from the masses.

Customers Also Bought: Show your customers the other types of products that people with similar search histories have shown interest in.

6. Time and effort

When assigned a task, people will always do the least amount of work necessary to achieve their goals. When approaching simplicity in UX design, we should use progressive disclosure. It is the practice of giving users enough information to attract them and offer them the option of getting more.

The same goes for the details and characteristics of the product. Just show users what they need to see; otherwise, you risk overwhelming them with too much information at once. Also, you should always make your text easy to scan by using headings, bullets, and short paragraphs (3-4 lines) so that your content is easily digestible.

Also, don’t ask your users to multitask. Most people cannot drive and talk on the phone at the same time without risking getting in an accident, as research has defined. Don’t ask your users to do the equivalent on your website.

The key takeaway here is this: Don’t waste your users’ time or energy. Provide them with clear and concise routes through your website. It is one of the fundamental lessons from Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me

Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.

Driving user behavior through UX design

Simply put, UX design is about using human psychology to get inside users’ heads and figure out what motivates them. It provides us with information that we can use to drive and trigger behaviors that lead to our common goal.

With all the psychological information in mind, it’s time to put it into an actionable approach to UX design that drives the desired behaviors.

We in UXbee learned about these principles and apply them in every project of ours, gently and flawlessly guiding the visitors of your websites and apps to the desired behaviors.