10 Psychology Concepts for Designers

Eleanor McKenna
Jun 11, 2018 · 9 min read

This post was originally published on onepixelout.com

Once designers were just asked to make something beautiful, but this is happily — mostly — no longer the case. The value of design is understood throughout the tech industry and it’s not because we make things look nice. It’s because designers understand the impact of psychology can have on product design, and use those techniques to make products intuitive, coherent and sometimes even addictive.

Originally published on OnePixelOut.com

Why Learn Psychology?

Psychology is a science. Having a basic understanding of psychology will not only let you know what people do, but also why people do it. While certain parts of UI design can be subjective — we all have a preferred colour or font — psychology cannot be disputed.

As a designer, there are a few ways to really get better:

  1. Know The Tools
  2. Improve Soft Skills
  3. Understand Human Psychology

After learning Photoshop or Sketch, the next thing you can do to make sure your products are delightful and easy to use is to know psychology. There are a few key reasons why knowing about psychology will improve your design process.

Inform Your Decisions

An experienced designer can defend their decisions confidently. The key to being able to defend your decisions is to know why you made them, and why they make sense. It can’t always just be ‘because it looks good’ — there should be a bigger reason. Today, we are going to look at 10 psychology concepts that can be translated into design.

We are designing for people, so having knowledge of human psychology is essential in design. By the end of this article, hopefully you’ll understand not only what works, but why it works.

Using Psychology Concepts to Improve Design

Get to know human behavior. Understand what makes users tick, what makes them feel frustrated, and what makes them feel at ease. I’ve rounded up 10 psychology concepts that you can use in your designs starting right now. If you’re interested in knowing more about this subject, I’ve also included a few book recommendations at the bottom of this article.

1. Visual Cues

Ever walked up to a door and tried to pull it, when you were supposed to push it? And then feel like a bit of an idiot? Me neither. But if that had happened, it would be because you were given a misleading cue about what to do. The door had a handle that made you want to push it even though the sign said “pull”.

Have you ever taken something new out of the box, and without reading the instructions, know how to use it? Things like new phones, remote controls or appliances have physical switches and buttons that let you know how to switch it on, how to access the menu — these are affordances. In the case of a remote control or the buttons on a stereo, there might also be be iconography (think of the play, pause and next icons). You know instantly how to operate most remote controls based on the iconography.

How To Use This In Design

Your goal as a designer is to make an app or website usable by clearly communicating functionality to the user. If something is actionable, make sure this is highlighted in a consistent way that also follows conventions.

Use visual affordances when you want a user to click something. Use clear icons when there is a control you want them to use.

2. Gestalt Principles

The Gestalt Principles, otherwise known as the laws of Proximity, Similarity, Symmetry and Closure. Humans are programmed to make connections with things that are visually similar or are closely grouped together.

How To Use This In Design

Group controls in close proximity to the content that they will affect. If you are designing a flight booking form, place the cities, dates and number of people in the same place, rather than having them scattered all over the screen. If you are designing a checkout, group the cost and the delivery information together. Think logically about sectioning off different pieces of content.

You can read more about the Gestalt Principles here.

3. People Have Limited Short Term Memory

We can only hold so much information at any one time. This is also represented as one of Jakob Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics, “recognition rather than recall”. Eliminate the need for people to remember information if possible by making relevant information visible or readily available.

How To Use This In Design

If a user has carried out a search, show the search term along with the results. If they have filtered something, show the items that have been filtered. If they have entered incorrect information, show them which field was incorrect and why. Users should not have to remember the previous state if it affects the present state. Inform them if their previous decisions affect their current state. This way, if they feel their current state is incorrect, they know what information to change.

4. People Have a Limited Scope of Awareness

So I’m sure you’re aware of the Awareness Test?

The Awareness Test is a useful way to show us that we are only able to focus on particular things at a particular time, whether we are aware of it or not. It is also worth knowing that the average attention span of a human is only about 10 minutes long. After that, we start to wander.

How To Use This In Design

People will pay very close attention to what you ask them to, and ignore everything else. Our brains are wired to selectively focus on specific things. Many shopping sites keep the cart information at the top corner of the screen, while the “add to cart” button is in the center. When a user adds something to their cart, you could make the user aware that a change has occurred in the top corner also, either by making an exaggerated visual change or animate the cart in some way. Don’t assume that while everything is visible, the user can see everything. Very often, they are focusing on something else.

5. People Learn From Examples

I don’t mean that you have to create a tutorial video for every new feature, but this is useful information particularly when it comes to designing forms.

How To Use This In Design

I’ve used this particular psychology concept with great effect in forms. By designing my forms to have a label, and using a placeholder with an example instead of a blank field, I’ve given the user 2 visual cues as to what content is expected. This is a great way to cover all your bases, particularly if the label font size is small (which sometimes it can be).

This is also particularly useful for telephone numbers. Show the user the format of the phone number, including the area codes that are needed etc. It’s very frustrating for users when their phone number isn’t accepted by a registration form simply because the designer hasn’t made it clear what information the system needs.

6. People Are Motivated By Other People’s Choices

It’s called Social Proof. It means that users can be encouraged to do something knowing that others have also followed this path.

How To Use This In Design

If you’re working with an ecommerce app or site, it can be a powerful thing to have a “Favourites” or “Top Items” section. Another idea is if you had a “Customers Also Bought…”. Another way is to include a reviews feature, or allowing people to filter by “most popular products”.

7. People Are Motivated By What Remains To Be Done

In research carried out by Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach in 2010 found that people are more likely to be motivated to finish a task if they see what remains to be done, rather than what they have done.

How To Use This In Design

It’s possible to use this concept in something like a checkout or an on-boarding process. When a user signs up for a service, say “Almost Done, Just Verify Your Email” to make the task feel like they are almost complete. Similarly, for a checkout, using a step-by-step process to show how many steps are left will motivate them to finishing the checkout.

8. People are Overwhelmed by Too Much Choice

I came across this one in a book about sales called The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, and I’ve written about how too much choice can kill conversions before. Users are more likely to feel overwhelmed when they have too much choice in front of them. Users will be more satisfied with their decisions if they have less options.

How To Use This In Design

This technique is very effective in pricing pages. Of course, that sort of decision would normally be up to the CEO, but having too many options will actually kill your conversions.

The other place that this is useful is with filters and sorting. I’ve worked on websites that have over 100 filter options for a single page, and our analytics showed customers did not use it. Reducing this number to a measured and managed number of possible options would infinitely improve the customer journey.

9. People are Overwhelmed by Too Much Information

Overwhelming a user with lots of large text and too many buttons is chaos for their cognitive load. Your goal as a designer is to guide the user to making the decision they want to make. The elements on the screen should have a coherence and balance about them. While it can be tempting to create lots of bright flashy price information to try to get their attention, from a psychology stand point this will have a negative impact on the users ability to make a choice they are happy with.

How To Use This In Design

Organise your content into a visual hierarchy to make things easy to scan for the user. Use the law of proximity to group like with like, and have a coherent structure of headings, images and buttons to guide the user through the process naturally.

10. Variable Awards Are Addictive

Maybe more for the product development side of things, but still something worth knowing. As explained in the book Hooked by Nir Eyal, using a random awards is what really makes things addictive. Think about the last time you check your Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Why did you do it? To see how many likes your last post got. This is the power of using unpredictable awards in your app or website.

The power of Variable Awards has also been used in gaming. If you’ve ever played Candy Crush, coming back each day to see what daily rewards you win is a reason to check in.

Variable Awards is also what makes gambling addictive.

How To Use This In Design

This depends a lot on the goals of your project. If you would like people to use your product every day, you could give the user a chance to win a different prize every day (like in Candy Crush).


So those my 10 psychology concepts and how to use them in your designs. Thanks so much for reading, I know this was a long one. As always — I’d love to hear if you have other psychology concepts that you use in your designs. The best place to reach me is over on twitter.


Recommended Books

If you’re interesting in learning more about human behaviors, I’ve put a short reading list together.

Hooked by Nir Eyal
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Eleanor McKenna

Written by

Designer, developer, and writer based in Munich. Interaction designer at @Google. Founder of www.onepixelout.com

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