The Role of Psychology in UXD – Part 1

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A popular belief about design is that it is purely an artistic job, but the truth is, there is much more to design than what meets the eye. To create a truly valuable design that users love, we must understand the person using it. We should visualize their goals and objectives and empathize with their expectations.

How do we do this? With the help of psychology.

Design Psychology is an amalgam of cognitive psychology, social psychology, neuroscience, and human-computer interaction. But we don’t need a degree in psychology to be a good designer. We just need to have a good understanding of a few psychological principles that relate to interface design to influence user behaviour and thereby increase the conversion rates.

In this article, we’ll discuss five of the most common psychology principles in design. 

  1. Classical Conditioning

Classical (Pavlovian) Conditioning is a famous concept in Behaviorism. It all started with a physiologist named Ivan Pavlov, who researched dog salivation rates. As he conducted his research, he noticed that dogs would begin to salivate every time he entered the room, even if he had no food. The dogs were associating his entrance into the room with being fed. This led Pavlov to conduct a series of experiments in which he used various audio objects, such as a buzzer, to condition the salivation response in dogs.

He started by sounding a buzzer every time the dogs were fed and found that they would start salivating immediately after hearing the buzzer—even before seeing the food. After a while, Pavlov began sounding the buzzer without giving any food at all and found that the dogs continued to salivate at the sound of the buzzer even in the absence of food. They had learned to associate the sound of the buzzer with being fed. (Source)

If you make a connection between a stimulus and an event, the user will subconsciously link the two. In the same way that you can train a dog by giving it treats, you can train a user with classical conditioning.

Illustration by Joshua Seong, Verywell

As designers, we have the responsibility to create cues for tasks and offer rewards to create routines. 

Google Pay (one of the most used UPI apps) applies classical conditioning efficiently to achieve improved customer experience. They provide monetary benefits for referrals and transactions. Initially, they offered large amounts as scratch card gifts and the chances of winning were high. The excitement of winning (and of course, its’ usable and intuitive design), increased the frequency of usage and they referred more and more people. Today, even though the chances of winning is less, people are still using it as it has become a habit in their life. 

2. Isolation Effect

Also known as the Von Restorff Effect, predicts that people are more likely to remember an object that stands out from the rest. The theory was coined by German psychiatrist and paediatrician Hedwig von Restorff (1906–1962), who, in her 1933 study, found that when participants were presented with a list of categorically similar items with one distinctive, isolated item on the list, memory for that item improved (Source).

Amazon uses a label to highlight their best sellers which make products stand out from the rest.
Coursera emphasizes 7 days of free trial by including a blue button. The paid plan by Coursera plus uses a ghost button, isolating and making the trial plan the anchor point of the user’s attention.

3. Serial Position Effect

Have you heard about ‘Middle child syndrome’, a psychological condition that exists in children who are born after and before a child i.e. the middle ones? Children with this syndrome often feel left out from their families.

A very similar psychological effect can be observed when it comes to memorability, called the Serial-Position Effect. This term demonstrates that people tend to remember the first few and last few words of a series they saw or read and are more likely to forget those in the middle of the list. The tendency to recall initial words is called the primacy effect; the tendency to recall the later words is called the recency effect (Source)

When it comes to design, placing the least important items in the middle of a list can be helpful because these items tend to be stored less frequently in long-term and working memory. 

In Myntra, an Indian fashion e-commerce website, the most important information at the top and bottom of a product detail page. The product name, a small description, discounted price and the call to action buttons are placed at the top. Offers & product details are given in the middle. They even hide most of the information in the middle section within a ‘see more’ allowing the user to focus on the information that matters most. And at the bottom the delivery options and other important information. 

4. Placebo Effect

Placebo effect says when patients are given a substance with no intended therapeutic value, the patient may feel they are receiving a clinical benefit and even believe they are getting better. However, some studies found no evidence in this placebo effect and this way of treating patients are often regarded as dishonest and misleading. Regardless of all the controversies, this psychological phenomenon is still very much real in many daily scenarios.

For instance, a pedestrian crossing signal and a lift may work according to their pre-programmed cycles, but there will be a ‘walk’ button in a pedestrian crossing and ‘close doors’ & ‘pass’ button in a lift, which makes users feel more in control, but have no effect in the actual working of lift and traffic signals.

Placebo offers a means to handle and control a user’s experience, without making alterations to the system. This sense of control has strong connections to what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” or the belief that our actions have the power to impact and change a given situation. This often makes users feel empowered, giving them the tools to find their internal locus of control.

An apt example of this is the “Pull-to- Refresh” animation. Technically, users have almost no control over the pace at which the screen loads, as the app gets automatically updated irrespective of whether the user takes that action or not. But this animation lets users believe that a page refresh is happening and the screen will load in almost no time. To ensure that the user always remains in control of the interface, it is alright to provide fake interactions.

5. Compassionate Empathy

According to Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation.  Psychology Today says that scientists have discovered preliminary evidence of “mirror neurons” that fire when humans observe and experience emotion. There are also parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex that show an overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments. (Source)

Sometimes when you’re listening to someone talk, you may subconsciously nod your head in agreement. This is a way of showing affiliation with others. We do this to show them that we are paying attention to them, that we are being empathic. As a designer, to form deeper connections with users require deeper empathy and understanding, such as the ability to see and feel things from their perspective, not just our own.  

Like we empathise with users, we can make them empathise with our design as well. In a social context, empathy is often what urges us to take action. When we see people suffering or struggling, we empathise with their situation and are compelled to help relieve them in some way, which is Compassionate Empathy.

By creating a popover design with the image of a crying lady, Flaticon is trying to emulate that emotion into their users. With the help of emotional interactions, designers can change our emotions based on how the product wants us to feel. 

To reduce cognitive load for you, let’s take a break here. In the next article, we will look at five more psychological terms that help designers better their designs for users.

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