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Published

January 14, 2016

Written by

Brady Rebhuhn

3 Psychology Principles to Improve Your User Experience

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Great UX is a major step to moving your website up in search results. After all, Google likes sites that give the user what they want. But where do you start?

These three psychology principles play a huge role in determining the usability of your website. By understanding human cognition (how we think), you can start to predict user behavior and create the best possible experience for your users!

1. The Principle of Least Effort

Our brains are capable of processing complex information, but we don’t want to think too hard if we don’t have to. It’s human nature to choose the course of action that will use the least amount of energy and brainpower.

According to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, there are two systems to how our brains work:

  • System 1 allows us to make quick, intuitive decisions with little effort. 
  • System 2 requires conscious, deliberate thought and is much slower. 

People will choose the easiest path to avoid activating System 2.

What does it mean for UX?

Users want their task to be simple. They want to scan a news article with headings and bullet points, they want to find the product they’re looking for, and so on.

If their task seems too difficult to complete on your website, users will move on to the next Google search result. It’s that simple. It’s easier for users to do this than to activate System 2.

How to Apply The Principle of Least Effort

  • Use surveys and other methods to find out why your users are coming to your website. Don’t just guess.
  • Once you figure out the most common actions people are taking on your site, make sure there is a simple click path for your users to complete their task. 
  • Test, test, test! Implement user testing and watch users interact with your website and gauge their reaction. Find out where they’re getting stuck and frustrated. ESPN.com revenues increased 35% after they listened to their users and implemented suggestions to their UX design.

The user experience on your website should be seamless. Keep your users in System 1.

2. The Gestalt Law of Proximity

The Gestalt Law of Proximity tells us that our brains assume things are more related if they are close together and there is whitespace surrounding them.

If your website includes elements that are near each other with a lot of whitespace around them, users will think they are connected.

What does this mean for UX?

It’s important to be aware of how people perceive relationships among groupings of elements on a page as you develop the UX design. The Law of Proximity can be an excellent tool for designers to create associations between items.

On the other hand, it can be frustrating for a user to believe that something is related to their task, spend time on it, and then realize it’s not.

How to Apply the Gestalt Law of Proximity

  • Use heat mapping to study eye gaze patterns and learn where people are looking and clicking on a page. Develop the UX design around this.
  • Find out where people are clicking after finishing a task. Are they going to a related page, or are you unintentionally leading them to an unrelated topic?

3. The User’s Mental Model

Imagine I told you to book a flight on the American Airlines website, and you’ve never booked a flight on the site. Before you go to the website, you have a model in your head of what the process will be like. If you have booked flights on other websites, you have ideas about what the website will look like and where the form to book a flight will be. You have a mental model of booking a flight on the American Airlines website, even if you’ve never done it.

A user’s mental model is built on prior experiences with similar software or websites, and they help determine the user’s actions and behavior.

The importance of following the user’s mental model is huge. You can imagine it would be confusing to go to an airline’s website and find the form to book a flight hidden under a sub navigation.

According to a recent study, 88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a site after a bad experience. Going against your user’s mental model is a quick way to make them leave your site and head straight for your competitor’s.

Think Twice about New Design Trends

This principle may seem like common sense, and it should. Your brain works this way every day! But it’s critical to keep this in mind as new design trends emerge.

It’s tempting to think the latest web designs are the best for users. However, just because a web developer can create cool, flashy features, doesn’t mean they will work for your business.

Many people think Microsoft made this mistake with their design of Windows 8. The user interface design was clean and modern, but for the most part, it did not match users’ mental models of how Windows operating systems work. Users no longer knew how to do what they wanted. Standard features they were used to using, like the start menu, control panel and file search, were moved to non-instinctual places.

Always align your website navigation and page content with your user's intent. By straying so far from the user’s mental models, it can hurt usability.

What does this mean for UX?

Forcing the user to re-learn how to complete tasks on your website will drain their energy. This can cause the user to decide the cost of time and energy is not worth the benefit of completing the task, and they’ll move on to another website.

Remember, no one wants to activate System 2.

How to Apply the User’s Mental Model

  • Use surveys or A/B testing to figure out the most common action your users want to take. Why do users come to your website?
  • If you’re doing A/B testing, you’ll find out which version of your page converted better. But, more importantly, you must find out why the other version failed.
  • Ask yourself: where else are you using the failed version on your website?

If you want to improve the user experience on your website, find out what your users’ mental models are, and stick to them.

Don’t Make Your Users Think

At the end of the day, your users want their task to be simple. By following these three psychology principles, you can create a user experience that will keep visitors coming back. Create a great user experience, and the search traffic will follow.

If you’re not sure where you’re losing users, we can help. Our team of web designers, developers and SEO experts use the latest research-driven techniques to improve user experience, leading to more search traffic and conversions for you.

Author Thumbnail for Brady Rebhuhn at Blue Compass
Brady Rebhuhn

Brady Rebhuhn is a Digital Marketing Analyst at Blue Compass. She enjoys implementing search engine optimization techniques and creating engaging content while keeping the users in mind. Brady is excited to continue to learn about the always-changing world of digital marketing.