Using the Priming Effect to Improve UX
An overview on how to apply the mechanism of priming to enhance the user experience of your designs.
What is priming?
Priming is a nonconscious form of human memory concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects. It refers to activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task. For example, a person who sees the word “yellow” will be slightly faster to recognize the word “banana.” This happens because yellow and banana are closely associated in memory. (Psychology Today)
Where does it come from?
American psychologists David Meyer and Roger Schvaneveldt led the first experiments in the early 1970s, showing that people are faster in recognizing a string of letters as a word if they are previously exposed (or primed) to a semantically similar word (the prime).
Priming comes in different shapes: positive, negative, masked, associative, as well as response and repetition priming.
The effect also occurs after perceptual or conceptual stimuli. While perceptual priming takes place when a task matches the prime in form or shape, conceptual priming occurs when a task has a similar meaning to the prime (they are semantically related). We’ll focus on these two, which also apply the most to UX.
What elements can act as primes?
Applying the mechanism of priming to UX, we identify several elements that function as primes. Even though some may overlap because of their complexity, these elements can be split into either the perceptual and conceptual category.
Perceptual primes: buttons, links, colors, shapes, patterns, backgrounds, logos, sketches
Conceptual primes: notifications, titles, suggestions, icons, images, thumbnails, placeholders, tooltips
Let’s say you have a shopping mobile app with some onboarding walkthrough screens, describing the features of the app. In one of the screens, you show the users how to access the categories screen. Next to the text explaining how to do that, you also have a nice blue icon illustrating a sketched iPhone, whose apparent sole function is to accompany the text.
In reality, the icon acts as a prime, so that when the users get to the screen containing the categories, they will choose the blue Electronics category, as their first interaction.
You might want to direct the users there for various reasons: maybe the Electronics category is be the most populated, maybe the shopping app is specialized in electronics, maybe you want to increase the sales of electronics, et cetera. Whatever the motive, priming can give you a small nudge in some situations.
In the example, I actually used two primes: the icon and the color. Even if it is not aways possible, depending on your context, it’s better if you are able to combine more primes in the same unit.
How can priming improve UX?
If taken into account from the beginning of the UX process, priming can act as a hidden factor of influence in users’ decisions. It can guide them to take the best possible path inside a flow and help them save time and minimize frustration.
I am not suggesting using priming as a manipulative technique, just as I am not encouraging using any other UX technique in a deceptive manner. I am only arguing that priming can aid users in choosing the better option and increase the speed in which they make their decision.
Obviously, there are some drawbacks. It will not work every time and it is extremely difficult to measure, which actually caused a bit of a controversy between scientists regarding its real life efficiency.
Yet, the debate about the occurrence of priming is like buying a car with a heated seats option. Yes, the car will work without it and it is indeed hard to quantify the satisfaction this option alone brings, but there is no doubt small details similar to this one can ultimately concur to an overall more positive experience for the customer.
So, where can you use priming to improve UX?
Look for priming patterns whenever you carry out your research. Competitor benchmarking is one of the best ways to identify previous stimuli that made you act in a particular way, later in a task flow. Reverse engineer these patterns and try to understand their components. It’s likely that the designers didn’t even realized they were employing priming, so use this to your advantage and remember the primes and subsequent decisions they influenced, for your own design.
Same thing applies for heuristic analysis and expert reviews in case you are dealing with a redesign. Look for priming in the pages or screens that work well in their current form.
It is true, priming is sometimes so out of sight that it’s very difficult to pinpoint the exact elements, but if you do, you will be one step ahead.
2. Task flows
The step of developing task flows is the ideal moment when you can start to think about integrating primes in your design and the positive effects you want them to bring. Being “a nonconscious form of human memory”, priming effects are limited in time, but this depends directly on the user’s memory and the attention it received. And, generally, we are talking about sufficient periods of time.
Therefore, this is not a problem in the context of a task flow, when the necessary time to navigate from start to finish is a lot shorter than the memory itself. So, the distance between the prime and the action it influences, can go 4–5 levels deep into the flow (or even more).
Hardcore integration of priming can take the form of a funnel, where primes are applied on every step of the flow, until the user reaches the screen or page containing the desired action.
This is a step in which you only start to visualize the possible locations and situations in which you can integrate priming effects. Since it is still early in the process and other requirements are more important, you are not required to actually have a finished priming mechanism. But if you have ideas on how you could do it, note them down as specs for later integration.
Personas are elements to take into consideration when using primes. Different types of people respond to different types of stimuli. For example, it’s very likely that a tech-savvy person might connect the prime ANDROID to the term GOOGLE, while others could be indifferent to it since they are not familiar with the term. The same goes for younger vs older people, european vs asian people or women vs men.
For that reason, know your audiences and adapt the priming to them, because their characteristics play an important role.
4. Information architecture
As with task models, the way you organize information and define the taxonomy is also the way in which you can prepare for priming. Gather requirements, speak to stakeholders, understand the context, run a card sorting exercise with real users and look for categories, sections and navigation items that are a priority for them.
Then try to think about ways in which you can connect this elements with specific primes so that the users are more likely to go where you would like them to go.
Finding patterns while interacting with users is always a good starting point in understanding mental connections people usually make between terms or visual elements.
After going through the previous steps, you should have an idea on how you can integrate priming in your design, once you get to the prototyping step. This is where you polish the primes you want to use and the actions they should be enhancing.
Even if you are able to put them all in your prototype, list all the components you just used as specs for the visual designers, so that they understand their importance.
Also, talk to the designers. Explain them your rationale, how each of the components should look like or act and why you think this particular mechanism will help the product. Most of them will be curious to know more and happy to help you get the effect you desire.
Use priming for enhancing user experiences. Is is a small, yet sometimes powerful technique, if applied properly. However, as most of the methods and tools you use in your UX process, it also depends on the requirements of the job you need to do, as it will not be fit for every project.
It’s up to your trained and well-paid mind to figure out if priming is suitable for the job on hand, and if it is, in what ways can the user experience you design will benefit from using it.