How to use psychology to improve your design

Last checked and updated on 6 July 2022

Human psychology has long fascinated academics, as they seek to make greater sense of the mind and human behaviour and better understand how people think, act and feel. 

The practical application of this learning is extremely valuable and not least when it comes to design.

So how exactly can an understanding of human psychology help you optimise your digital platforms – and grow your business?    

In this post, we will take a look at: 

  • What exactly is human psychology
  • The psychological traits that drive human decision making
  • The benefits of a psychology design approach

What is human psychology?

In short, “Human Psychology is the science of mind and human behaviour” (Source). 

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It is a complex field and its experts can apply their knowledge in a wide range of applications, including “communication and interpersonal abilities, identification of the human factors in decision-making, academic writing, critical thinking, analysis, abstract reasoning, and presentation skills.” (Source)

But it is the application of the understanding of human psychology in the field of design that interests us most here. 

So how can we really know what goes on in the mind? Obviously, opening up the brain would reveal little other than grey matter. 

We therefore have to look more closely at how we behave, in order to better understand the mind: 

“Psychologists use human behaviour as a clue to the workings of the mind. Although we cannot observe the mind directly, everything we do, think, feel and say is determined by the functioning of the mind. So psychologists take human behaviour as the raw data for testing their theories about how the mind works.” (Source)

Similarly, when it comes to design, we cannot see inside each user’s mind. But we can examine their behaviours when engaging with a mobile app or website, in order to generalise about what all users want and how we can best meet their requirements. 

Psychological traits that drive human decision making 

In his article ‘How to Use Psychology the Right Way to Improve Conversion’ Paul Boag says “If we understand how people make decisions, we can improve both the user experience and conversion rate of our websites.”

So how do people make decisions? We know that a number of different factors influence decision making – and that many of them are common to us all:

Fear of change 

As humans, like animals, we feel most comfortable when we’re in control of our own environment, with little or no external threats. 

Very few of us embrace change as something positive and necessary. After all, as the saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’

Of course, when it comes to websites or mobile apps, for example, we would never suggest that you avoid redesigning for fear of alienating your audience. Not least because such development should be an ongoing process for any app or website. 

But what is important is how you introduce change. It’s also just as important to respect what works, for example, keeping some functionally that is common to all designs. 

Think, for example, of the ‘hamburger menu’ – the icon used in web design which, when clicked, opens up the navigation bar. We’re all well used to it now so it would make little sense to replace the stack of 3 horizontal lines with some other design – and somehow expect everyone to still know what it was.  

We are horders at heart

Paul Boag notes that “when we ask people to act on our websites, we are almost always asking them to give up something. That might be something very apparent such as money, or something more abstract like personal data. In either case, the primal brain will be reluctant. We will have to work hard to demonstrate the overwhelming value they will get in return if we are going to avoid an adverse reaction from the primal brain.”

He suggests that we feel the discomfort of loss, twice as intently as the pleasure of gain. And therefore, as designers, we have to consider not just the features of our product but also the benefits to the user, in order for that user to take preferred action, such as signing up to a mailing list. 

Consider for example the subtle yet marked differences between “sign up for our newsletter” and “be the first to hear our news” – important considerations when it comes to good conversation design

The first version can trigger an instinctive reaction that is concerned about spam, whereas the second version keys into a more logical part of our mind that can see a real benefit to completing the action. 

We jump to conclusions 

Human nature dictates that we are more likely to jump to conclusions based on the apparent ‘evidence’ we see, rather than actually interrogating that evidence in detail for facts, to see if it really stacks up.

For example, if we see a product advertised in a setting that resonates with us, we’re more likely to buy it. If the advert looks alien in any way, we are less likely to feel it is for us. 

But ‘priming’ an audience in advance can be hugely persuasive when it comes to getting them to take a preferred action. Consider supermarkets that pipe out the smell of freshly baked bread as you wander past the bakery.

When it comes to design, such priming might include the use of certain colours (green rather than red (which signals danger) for a button on a website). 

Discussing this in more detail in her article ‘The psychology of Web design: How colors, typefaces and spacing affect your mood’, Amber Leigh Turner notes that 

“the types of colors you use also play into the psychology of your Web design. Cooler colors (blues, greens, purples) often provide an inviting, professional and relaxed feeling. In contrast, it can be used to give a very cold and unfriendly feeling as well. Warmer colors (yellows, oranges, reds) are soothing, warm, and give a sense of creativity but can also give off negative feelings such as anger and stress.”

Photography showing smiling faces, suggestive of happy users, can also resonate well with the target audience. 

We prefer to follow the crowd

As much as we may like to think of ourselves as strong, decisive individuals, humans often exhibit sheep like tendencies. 

Consider, for example, the last time you visited a restaurant with a group of friends and wanted to know what everyone was ordering before you made your decision?! 

So how can this be employed to good effect when it comes to design? 

Options include showing users what actions other people have previously taken on a website – for example, Amazon presenting you with related products that other people have bought when they last looked at the same product you are currently viewing. 

Subliminally or not, this technique has been proven to significantly uplift sales – or you can be sure it wouldn’t still be employed. 

Another example is a third party review system. Especially if it can be verified as independent from the seller. Who doesn’t want to buy the product with 5 stars from a half a million reviewers, who have also left glowing comments? 

Google also loves independently verified reviews, as it ranks more and more websites on the basis of E.A.T. – expertise, authority and trust. 

The benefits of a psychology design approach

Taking the time to understand your users and work out exactly what they want and how they want to use it is one of the clear benefits of using human psychology in your approach to design.

Importantly, a psychology design approach is not intended to manipulate the user into making a choice they later regret. 

Rather, good design should encourage them to act fast and remain confident and happy with their choice, long after goal completion. 

Need help understanding how to use psychology to improve your design? Contact us to chat about your options.

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Important – The information provided in our articles is intended to be for general purpose use only, and not advice for you or your business. We strive to publish accurate information, but encourage you to fact-check and seek expert guidance. You should always speak to a qualified professional to get tailored advice about how to operate your business under your specific requirements and circumstances.