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How psychology in user research can improve your overall experience

Portrait Maximilien Joannides
Maximilien Joannides
8 min read

When you’re developing any product or platform, chances are you believe that “if you build it, they will come.” That’s only natural, and it might even be true. However, when you build anything new, the real trick is not to get people to come. It’s to get them to stay.

The concept of any product or platform is often enough to get people curious, and curious people try new things. However, it’s the user experience they get while they are there that will keep them around. So, you need to increase usability if you want to turn visitors into long time users.

Fortunately, we have plenty of tools available to figure out what people want so we can give it to them. User psychology and behavioral psychology can help to decipher what people want, like and don’t like, so you can build better, more popular products.

How to work around familiarity for success

Some people say that familiarity breeds contempt, but when it comes to product design, it could not be further from the truth. In fact, at least according to Jakob Nielsen, of the well known Nielsen Norman Group, the more familiar a product is, the more popular and well-liked it is likely to be.

We’ve all seen products that are advertised with a “Windows-like” interface. This immediately appeals to most people, because we’ve all been using Windows for twenty years or more. We understand the tools and toolbars, and we know what to expect. So, when someone tells you their product is Windows-like, it means that it is likely to offer a better user experience.

Generally, the closer your product design can be to something people are already familiar with, the better it will be received. It’s why most successful websites have their main navigation at the top and the left-hand side.

Humans are creatures of habit. If you’re planning to use psychology in design, make sure that is part of the process. The closer you can get to something that’s already well known and widely used, the better and more successful your user experience is likely to be.

The Golden Rule: Why less choice can be more valuable

Another important law of psychology in product design is what is known as the Hicks-Hyman Law. This law states that the more choices someone is presented with, the longer it will take them to make their choice. Of course, that could make it seem like your platform is slow or that they can’t save time by using it!

Another good example of this in the tech world is in web design. When you are designing a site for increased usability, it’s usually best to give people the smallest number of places to click. Clever web design doesn’t allow people to get distracted or wander off-topic too much. Menus are limited to only the main options you want people to choose between, so there’s less risk that they will get lost on your site.

Good product design should do the same. Make sure that your users only have the choices that are absolutely necessary, and that each choice they make only presents the next level of options. You might think that giving people more options makes your product better, but the opposite is usually true.

If you think you might have too many options, conduct a user interview or poll, and ask people if they found it easy to find the right tools and to navigate where they needed to be. If most people say no, you might need to rethink your product design.

No More Multitasking!

We’ve been told, over the years, that multitasking makes us more efficient. That’s not true though.

In fact, George A. Miller, a psychology professor at Princeton said that most people can only hold 7 things in their minds at any one time. This refers to our short term memory – not long term memory, which of course has a lot more room!

So, if your users are only able to quickly access seven things, it stands to reason that the fewer things you make them remember, the more you will increase the usability of your product.

In simpler terms, if your users have more than seven things to process on each page or screen of your product, your users will have to forget the excess items when they move on. To use this in the psychology of design, you simply need to keep everything as simple as possible. Again, limit options, funnel users where they need to go based on the fewest number of choices, and you will increase usability naturally.

Group Information

The next law of psychology in design was given to us by a German psychologist named Gestalt, who discovered that the human brain is hardwired to find patterns – even in seeming chaos.

We like to group things that are the same or similar together, and we start doing it very early in life.

Naturally, when you are building a product or platform, you will group similar topics and tools together. But you can also “trick” your users into seeing things as part of the same group by using similar shapes or colours to represent them. You can use this to your advantage by using similar buttons or icons to represent things you want your users to see as similar in your design.

If people can see what “group” something belongs to at a glance, you have automatically increased the usability of your product.

Why being different is the key to success

While we’re on the topic of similarity, there’s another good psychological “trick” you can use while developing a product. It’s called the Von Restoff Effect, and the basic premise is that the more similar things look, the more something that is different will stand out.

For a very long time, web designers have known that when you want something to do something, the best way to make it happen is to put a big red call to action button somewhere on the page. This button is so different and so jarring that visitors have almost no choice but to click it to see what it does and where it takes them. While this doesn’t mean you have to have giant red buttons built into your product, it does highlight the fact that you want the most important information, tools and options to stand out.

When you choose to highlight anything on any page of your product or platform, make sure you limit what you put in the spotlight to two or three things at most. The whole point of this trick to increase usability is to make the highlighted items stand out, and if everything stands out, then nothing does! So again, keep it simple, and only make the things that really need to stand out pop out at your user.

Mental models: A method of leaders and innovators

We like to think that humans are unique and different, but the truth is, we’re very much creatures of habit.

Another example of this is the “mental models.” In a nutshell, this means that if we see something often enough, and it’s been true before, we will assume it to be true the next time we see it. The more often we see something, the less proof we will need to have that it is true when we see it again.

Another way to think of this is that we develop habits, and because something has worked before, we will always tend to do it the same way. For instance, we know that if we click a cog setting on most websites, we will find settings for that site. So, when we’re trying to change settings, we look for a cog on the website we are on.

Some things are already so entrenched in the human mass psyche, that it’s almost impossible to change them. So, you might as well work with them when you are working on a product design. Keep the cog for settings. Use familiar icons and words the way they are used everywhere else. It will make your product seem that much more intuitive and easier to use.


Our final word on psychology in product design is about the concept of groupthink.

This is based on the idea that when you put any group of people together, they will try to reach a consensus, even if it means some might have to alter their opinions to reach that consensus.

Groupthink can be very useful when it comes to marketing any new product, as well as in user experience design.

User interviews are a great way to find out what most of your users like and don’t like about your product. When you start to see patterns, it’s a good bet that by making related changes to your product, it will appeal to more people.

When your product appeals to more people, they’re likely to tell people they know, and because those people trust their opinions, they’re more likely to try (and like) your product. It’s the principle behind word of mouth and referrals, and it can not only help you to increase usability, but also to grow your user base.

After seeing the role of psychology in UX, discover Empathy: the key ingredient for successful UX design