The importance of psychology in web design

The online landscape is crowded. Competition to stand out, get recognised and engage an audience - and keep them coming back - is stronger than ever. But without the bottomless pockets of mega brands who can continually experiment with the latest web design technologies to make their sites sing and dance, is there a way of having a similarly dramatic effect simply by applying some basic psychological principles?

Why adopt psychology-based design? When designing for the web, considering the psychological drives of a target audience hasn't traditionally been a high priority. However, it can have a surprisingly positive influence on how users will utilise a website, how positively they'll engage and how frequently they'll respond to calls-to-action.

By paying attention to how visitors naturally assimilate information, and offering them a conducive experience that appeals to their conscious (and sometimes unconscious) inclinations, they'll be far more receptive and likely to perform the actions you want them to.

Building trust

In order for website visitors to do what you want them to do, they first, on some level, have to trust you. Trust doesn't come easily, especially with constant news of identity theft and digital scams.

Without stifling creativity, by offering familiar and recognisable patterns, a website will instantly put visitors at ease... or do the opposite. The site's purpose must be immediately clear. Is the site providing information or selling a product or service? Users must be able to easily move between pages of interest. Steering too far away from basic user expectations in an effort to differentiate, can actually be counterproductive.

Psychological triggers

Psychological and emotional triggers can help influence site visitors to take certain actions. Triggers include things like guilt and fear, but also a sense of belonging and appealing to commonly held values.

Well-worded text can be full of emotional triggers and with other design features (ie fonts, colours, images etc), reinforcing the desired communication, user engagement and interaction can be dramatically increased.

Images are useful for reinforcing concepts. With many well-priced, professional online image libraries available, there's no excuse for poor or misleading images on a website. Great image choices make your intent clear and professionalism obvious.

The psychology of colour is one of the more complex subjects in design. Needless to say, colours used in a website can have a significant impact on how visitors react and engage. For example, red is fiery and represents both love and anger while white signifies purity and innocence.

The majority of sites have logos in the top left corner due to people commonly reading a website in a 'Z' pattern. It's wise to place the most important content within this pattern. In addition, every page on a site should have an obvious focus, whether it's to sell a product or to inform a visitor about a particular subject. Each page design needs to emphasise this focal point, ensuring visitors are clearly made aware of what they're doing there.

Allowing areas of white or negative space can be a powerful aid with this and when combined with properly styled and proportioned elements, can far more successfully direct visitors' attention and encourage a desired action.

Using the (psychological) force

For every designer, whether brand new or long established, understanding the basic principles behind human behaviour and incorporating them into a website design will bring rewards. Whether creating a website aimed at hardened agile consumers or fact-seeking groupies, by doing all you can to ensure users have a rich, engaging and seamless experience, not only will you maximise the potential of users returning, but you also ensure they'll tell their friends.

Words: Henry Lewington

This article first appeared in issue 241 of net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

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