How To Use Psychology To Make Your Website More Effective

People often ask us what is the difference between the million dollar websites we would build for big brands and the ones built by the low-price website designers you see all over the web.

One factor is that big brands hire teams of psychologists to figure out how to get people to buy. You may not have those resources, but there are a bunch of tricks you can do on your own.

It’s all about cognitive bias. A cognitive bias refers to the systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical or controlled fashion.

Here are a few tricks we use, influenced by psychologist and brand consultant Stephen P. Anderson, creator of the popular card set Mental Notes and author of Seductive Interaction Design – Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences. Be sure to use responsibly:

Use Powerful Imagery.

The single biggest mistake we see is that people try to to explain their service or product in the main banner image of their site.

The MAIN PURPOSE of that image is not to explain but to engage. Once people are engaged with your site or ad, you will have all the time in the world to explain what you do.

Here are the key cognitive biases that come into play:

The Visual Imagery Bias

Vision trumps all other senses and is the most direct way to perception. Visuals create an emotional response and speed up response time. Gorgeous imagery is the single most important thing for your website. A good rue of thumb is to use simple text and graphics along with stunning images.

The Aesthetic-Usability Effect Bias

Aesthetically pleasing designs are often perceived as being easier to use. Attractive things work better—or at least we perceive them as being easier to use. A well-designed site is often a more usable site.

The Uniform Connectedness Bias

Elements that are connected by uniform visual properties are perceived as being more related than elements that are not connected. This is especially useful with form design, spreadsheets and other areas where you have many discrete pieces of information that may or may not relate to each other.

The Pattern Recognition Bias

Our brains seek ways to organize and simplify complex information, even when there is no pattern. Display information in a way that arouses curiosity and encourages pattern-seeking behavior. Make a design more powerful by creating patterns within a single page (a list of albums, for example) or spread across a site (a curious icon set or color coding that make sense once the pattern is discovered).

The Sensory Appeal Bias

We are engaged by and more likely to recall things that appeal to multiple senses. Appeal to more senses than just sight or touch. Look for opportunities to add images, audio—maybe even the suggestion of smell or taste through copy and visuals. While audio is an obvious choice for videos or music sites, find subtle ways you can add these same cues to hovers, clicks, log-outs and other routine actions. Look for places to augment text with visual imagery.

Tell A Great Story

The oldest marketing trick in the book is to tell a story. Why? Because people are hardwired for storytelling. Before language, people used to sit around campfires and tell stories to get people to remember valuable information or important events.

Here are the key cognitive biases that come into play:

The Story Bias

All our decisions are filtered through a story — real or imagined — that we believe. Creating a story that includes your users. Stories can be explicit — simple, episodic narratives. Or a story can be implied, using words that suggest conflict, a hero or other narrative elements. The most powerful stories are well-crafted visions that give significance to mundane tasks.

The Chunking Bias

Information grouped into familiar, manageable units is more easily understood and recalled. Breaking down long lists (actions, content items, menu items, bullet points) into smaller groups makes that information easier to understand and recall. In terms of learned behaviors, we mentally “chunk” the details of routine events such as getting ready in the morning or playing guitar. Understanding the mental routines people develop—on your site or elsewhere—to respond to specific situations may reveal areas for improvement.

The Conceptual Metaphor Bias

We make sense of a new idea or conceptual domain by likening it to another. Use visual imagery or evocative language to explain difficult concepts. Help people understand your message by drawing a literal or implied analogy. Use this association to help people understand a concept and to influence how it’s perceived.

The Affect Heuristic Bias

Our current emotions influence our judgement and decisions. Even at our most rational times, emotions still govern our behaviors. A really great first impression can make up for errors later on. And when we are in a more relaxed state, solutions and workarounds are more likely to be found. Use aesthetics and language to elicit feelings such as humor, fear or pleasure.

The Contrast Bias

When scanning new visual information, we are unconsciously drawn to things that stand out against their surroundings. Use colors, size, shapes and other design elements to create visual contrast and guide focus. Subtle movements on an otherwise static page catch people’s attention. Contrast can also be felt over time (an irregular e-mail notification vs. a daily notification) or through unusual and unexpected content.

The Surprise Bias

Our brains are aroused by new and unexpected discoveries (within our normal routines). Create small surprises in the experience you’ve designed. “Surprise” can be a new addition or a variation on something routine, such as stating a confirmation message differently or changing an image on a familiar page. Also consider how you can get people’s attention by deviating from expected patterns set by other sites or experiences external to your site.

The Framing Bias

The way in which issues and data are stated can alter our judgement and affect decisions. An implied story makes the most desirable choice more obvious, especially for new or difficult concepts. For example, framing donations as costing “less than a cup of coffee a day” encourages people to rationalize a monthly pledge.

The Curiosity Bias

When teased with a small bit of interesting information, people will want to know more. Hold back as much information as you can get away with. Reveal just enough to arouse interest, then tease someone into taking the next step. You can also arouse interest by doing something unusual and unexpected—people will stick around long enough to determine what’s going on. Puzzles are similarly intriguing.

The Humor Bias

Humorous items are more easily remembered—and enjoyed. Almost any text is an opportunity to add humor. But don’t stop there; think about interactions and how they can be made humorous. Just as humor is injected into conversation, we can easily add humor to hover actions, button clicks, three-step processes and other user actions. In learning contexts, use humor to ease new knowledge acquisition and retention.

The Serial Position Effect Bias

We have much better recall of the first and last items within a list. If recall of specific items is critical, list the most important items at the beginning and end of a list. This could be applied to a list of checkbox items, a list of product features, the company bios—any page with a long list of items.

The Proximity Bias

Things that are close to one another are perceived to be more related than things that are spaced farther apart. Use proximity to create logical groupings. If an image goes with a piece of text, then those two elements should be close together and distanced from other pairings. Similarly, related elements on a form page or dashboard should be clustered together. Examine your content to see which items should be grouped for more clarity.

The Shaping Bias

To teach something new, start with the simplest form of the behavior; reinforce increasingly accurate approximations of the behavior. Video games use shaping to help players succeed at increasing challenges. Rather than immerse someone in your application, start with a small set of features and reveal more with use. Or, you could offer rewards for mastery of a subject or increasing proficiency. Identify the desired behavior, list the steps necessary to reach that behavior, reward completion of a step until mastered, then add in the next step as a prerequisite for receiving the reward.

The Juxtaposition Bias

Our brains will force a connection between any two items shown together or in sequence. Be careful of things displayed in close proximity to each other: our brains will force a connection. This can be used intentionally, as with films or comics where two or more images shown together or in sequence create a third idea not present in the individual images. In this way, juxtaposition may be used to communicate an idea or suggest a motion than isn’t actually shown.

Ask For What You Want.

If you don’t ask. you don’t get. The agent who brokered the deal for our film Kindness Is Contagious used to say this and I think it’s one of the most valuable lessons one can learn. Another big mistake I see people make all the time is to not tell people what they want them to do. Buy Now, Donate, Read More…

Here are the key cognitive biases that come into play:

The Trigger (call to action) Bias

We need small nudges placed on our regular paths to remind and motivate us to take action. Effective, encouraging nudges need to catch people where they are. On the Web this may be a tweet, advertising, a link or other distraction; offline triggers may be used as well. Also think about triggers someone can set (SMS alerts, IM reminders) or take with them (a printed sheet) as a reminder to do something.

The Variable Rewards Bias

“Random“ rewards make powerful motivators; they seem scarce and unpredictable (and they’re less likely to conflict with intrinsic motivation). Whether to encourage positive behaviors or to reward someone for simply logging in, what can you give out at random intervals? Rewards can be praise, virtual goods, redeemable points and so on—but without a predictable pattern. When many people are gathered in a highly social context for a short period of time (such as a fundraiser), motivate people to contribute by rewarding randomly selected individuals within the larger group.

The Limited Choice Bias

We’re more likely to make a choice when there are fewer options. For each page or state of your site, reduce how many choices do you offer to the bare minimum. Also, consider the sequence of decision points people encounter“ and simplify this decision path, presenting the more pressing choices first.

The Sequencing Bias

We are more likely to take action when complex activities are broken down into smaller tasks. It’s difficult to complete a complex task such as “set up your bank account,“ “complete your profile“ or “write to a member of Congress“ Instead, break down these complex tasks into small, easily completed actions. These can be steps in a sequence or simply a list of items that need to be completed to advance through the system.

The Priming Bias

Subtle visual or verbal suggestions help us recall specific information, influencing how we respond. Choose images or words suggesting a specific concept you’d like associated with an interaction. This can include everything from an autofilled price on a form, subtle text beneath the form field to the style of photography used on a page. You can set expectations and direct what is brought into short-term memory by choosing predictable associations. Also examine what is suggested by the imagery and language already on your site.

Leverage Herding Behavior.

We often forget (or ignore) the people are a social creatures. We are hardwired to take cues from other people in our “tribe”. This is why we are the dominant species on the planet. Think about it, skyscrapers, the moon landing, even a pice of paper is the result of one single person working in a vaccume. Hearding behavior is a powerful tool to have in your marketing arsonal.

Here are the key cognitive biases that come into play:

The Social Proof Bias

We tend to follow the patterns of similar others in new or unfamiliar situations. To put people at ease or guide a decision find creative ways to show social activity. This can be in the form of stats (favorited by, number of views, comments), client logos, good positive reviews/testimonials, or by providing visibility into the actions or outcomes of other users’ behaviors.

The Familiarity Bias

We tend to develop a preference for things merely because we are familiar with them. If introducing a radically new project, use characteristics of something already familiar to people. For example, use visual aspects similar to other popular services or the likeness of a familiar physical equivalent. You can also establish formal partnerships with already familiar brands to help make your new idea seem safer.

The Gifting Bias

We feel the need to reciprocate when we receive a gift. Want to capture a few email addresses, create a pop-up. Want to capture a LOT of email addresses, offer a free gift. Give away a free account or an upgrade. Maybe a free report—or example, personal informatics are interesting. Perhaps a gift card. Make it something unexpected. And if other similar services are giving away the same thing, it’s not a gift—it’s expected.

The Status Bias

We constantly assess how interactions either enhance or diminish our standing relative to others and our personal best. Provide feedback loops and measures to let people know how they are doing. Status is personal—an assessment of our standing relative to others (income, performance). Status can also be public (scoring, recognition, etc.). However, studies show that a threat response kicks in when our status seems jeopardized; take care to measure only those things linked to desired behaviors. Also use status to reinforce new skills.

The Mimicry Bias

We learn by modeling our behavior after others. Give examples to let people know what is the normal (or intended) behavior. In social contexts, find and reward people who model “good” behavior. In other cases, provide examples to demonstrate positive interactions. Simply observing how we should conduct ourselves can encourage positive behaviors.

The Authority Bias

We want to follow the lead and advice of a legitimate authority. To some extent, we all look for guidance and direction. Lead people through an experience. Communicate confidence and assurance. In an uncertain or new space, use the presence of a formal authority figure (or brand) to reassure people.

The Periodic Events Bias

Recurring events create sustained interest, anticipation and a sense of belonging. Create events your users can look forward to or reminisce about. Regular, recurring events enjoyed by all. Many kids’ games use a narrative structure to create events—why not try the same in our business applications and public websites? Consider ways that all users or groups within a system could enjoy shared recurring experiences.

The Reputation Bias

We care more deeply about personal behaviors when they may affect how peers or the public perceive us. Create actions that are tied back to a profile or an identifying piece of information. In online social contexts, sharing actions (or a subset of actions) with others helps encourage good conduct. People build reputation through things like sharing information, connecting people, and keeping a record of their personal activities. While identity is often site-specific, consider ways to use the external identities people have built.

The Achievement Bias

We are more likely to engage in activities in which meaningful achievements are recognized. Achieving something of personal or social significance is gratifying and even motivating, but more so when recognized in some way. In gaming environments, achievement is shown through points, badges, levels and other kinds of recognition. In other contexts, achievement is signaled by things like promotion, membership, privileges, and acquisitions.

The Commitment & Consistency Bias

We desire to act in a manner consistent with our stated beliefs and prior actions. People have a general desire to be (and appear) consistent in their behavior. Ask someone to state a position, declare their intentions, or show a small gesture of support. Generally, people will act in a manner consistent with these small requests, even if later asked to make a much larger (but consistent) commitment. Be careful: done poorly, these will be viewed as compliance tactics.

Manufacture Additional Value

Wikipedia defines value as how much a desired object or service is worth relative to other objects or services. Or in a nutshell, value is determined by how much someone is willing to pay for your product or service. The good news is there are plenty of trick that can be used to increase value.

Here are the key cognitive biases that come into play:

The Scarcity Bias

We infer value in something that has limited availability or is promoted as being scarce. While scarcity is typically invoked to encourage purchasing behaviors, it can also be used to increase quality by giving people a limited resource—such as tokens—with which to vote up, purchase or upload items. This introduction of a limited resource encourages people to be more judicious with the actions they take.

The Limited Duration Bias

Given a choice between action and inaction, a limited time to respond increases the likelihood that people will participate. While commonly used to promote purchasing behaviors, limited durations can also be used to shape day-to-day behaviors. Set limited times when certain actions can be taken. Make rewards available at specific times or have options that disappear if no action is taken within a specific period of time.

The Limited Access Bias

We naturally desire things that are perceived as exclusive or belonging to a select few. “Private beta” was once a powerful tool for creating interest— and still can be when there is enough commotion. But don’t stop there: Games use levels to create exclusivity and reward proficiency. Some sites or areas of a site can be for members only (or for those who have “earned” access). “Access” can also refer to acquiring the use of features or tools that aren’t available by default.

The Value Attribution Bias

We value things when they cost more. “Cost” may be monetary or an investment of time. What items can you withhold until they are earned—perhaps a new feature or privileges? On pricing pages, offer a range of packages and highlight—or at least offer—a more expensive one than you think most customers would choose.

The Anchoring & Adjustment Bias

When making decisions, we rely too heavily—or anchor—on one trait or piece of information. In unfamiliar situations, we tend to assess things based on a single known anchor from which we make relative adjustments. These anchors are often a numeric value, such as an original price (anchor) and sale price (adjustment) or a single attribute such as megapixels on a digital camera. Oddly enough, even the suggestion of a completely irrelevant number can influence subsequent numeric predictions.

The Competition Bias

When sharing the same environment, we’ll strive to attain things that are unique or cannot be shared. Create ways for people to compete for attention and/or resources within your system. While easily abused, competition remains a great mechanism to provide incentives for self-improvement. Depending on your objectives, competition can be among individuals or among groups. If used among individuals, be careful about recognizing one person at the expense of the group.

The Collecting Bias

Where there is interest, people like to amass units that add to or complete a set. Create an opportunity to collect something on your site. Coupons, badges, words, pieces of a larger whole—the options are limitless. It’s best if these items link to one’s reputation and reinforce the content of your service. Business applications may benefit from performance-based collectibles that correlate with speed, frequency, quantity, effectiveness and other desirable metrics.

The Loss Aversion Bias

We hate losing or letting go of what we have (even if more could be had). Give the impression that something is lost by leaving your site. If sign-up is your goal, let people play with your service (creating personal content they might want to save) before you ask for personal information. For ongoing accounts, offer things of perceived value that are lost by closing an account. Frame your value proposition to highlight what people already lose or miss out on by not using
your service.

The Ownership Bias

We more highly value goods or services once we feel like we own them. Create ways that people can “take ownership” on your site. In competitive environments, people are more likely to take actions to protect things already in their possession. In some contexts, you can encourage people to provide personal data by associating default values with a person’s online identity. If switching systems is your goal, beware that people may value their current choice more than they should.

Alleviate Fear.

Fear is a powerful emotion that is rooted in our evolutionary success and the passing of genes on to the next generation. In a nutshell those who survived to create us were very good at avoiding being eaten by predators. Likewise, products and services that survive are those that help people aleviate fear in their environment.

Example – FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).

Here are the key cognitive biases that come into play:

The Status Quo Bias

We tend not to change an established behavior (unless the incentive to change is compelling). People are inclined to keep things as they are. We adopt what is recommended—simply stating the most popular options is often enough to influence a decision—and tend to stick with that choice. If you’re asking people to switch systems, consider how you might represent sticking with the status quo as a loss (and pitch the new system as an “alternative” rather than a replacement).

The Need for Certainty Bias

We crave certainty and are more likely to take action if specific information is available. Ambiguity can trigger a threat response resulting in anxiety. Used in small doses — such as a curious challenge — mild uncertainty can focus attention (especially where people have developed routines). But ambiguity may also lead to inaction: people are less likely to act on vague information. Provide enough information to help people make decisions and avoid creating an environment of uncertainty.

The Duration Effects Bias

Perception of time is subjective. If people must wait for your system to return content or run a routine, create the perception that things are moving faster than they are. Use slower preloaders—we tend to count cycles, not milliseconds. Reveal content as parts are loaded rather than waiting to load everything at once. Or, offer a fun distraction: people who are mentally engaged in a task don’t notice how long it takes.

Make People Feel Smart Or Important.

All of us enjoy feeling smart or important. It is one of our deepest and most universal human desires. We all want that feeling and will gravitate towards people, places and things that make us feel important.

Here are the key cognitive biases that come into play:

The Autonomy Bias

We seek out situations where we can exert influence or control over something. Research shows that a perception of greater autonomy increases the feeling of certainty and reduces stress. Especially within larger groups, we want the freedom to make our own choices. Offer options to create a feeling of control. Introduce choices — even trivial ones — into your system to make people feel empowered.

The Self-Expression Bias

People seek opportunities to express their personality, feelings or ideas. Allow people to express themselves on your site. Selecting widgets, choosing content to follow or share, using emoticons, and customizing the aesthetics of a page are all ways to enable self-expression. At the simplest level, allowing comments can be a good start, but make sure these efforts are linked back to a person’s profile. Look for ways to surface and celebrate these unique customizations.

The Challenges Bias

We delight in challenges, especially ones that strike a balance between overwhelming and boring. Easy is overrated. Turn some tasks into challenges. Research shows we are happiest when faced with something challenging (but not too overwhelming). The “challenge” can be designed into a system or created by reflecting someone’s personal best (or average) performance in an area. A designed challenge can be heavily constructed (game design) or merely suggest an intriguing, unsolved problem.

The Feedback Loops Bias

We are engaged by situations in which we see our actions modify subsequent results. Make sure your system responds immediately to user input. Allow people to play with the information, turn a static message into an interactive one. Use numeric data to show people how they are doing, or translate data into analogous visual information. Feedback can be immediate, in the form of a quick challenge, or delivered at a later date as a monthly report.

The Recognition over Recall Bias

It’s easier to recognize things we have previously experienced than it is to recall them from memory. Multiple-choice or one-click options are easy ways for people to interact with a site. If you’re considering asking people to list things from memory, try complementing (or replacing) empty form fields with defined, random or intelligent choices that people can click on or rate.

The Peak-End Rule Bias

We judge our past experiences almost entirely by their peaks (pleasant and unpleasant) and how they ended. Create peaks and endings in the customer experience. Peaks may be the core value you provide or a small surprise thrown into the user journey. Endpoints can be obvious (order fulfillment from an e-commerce site) or more subtle (such as a friendly or funny registration confirmation page). Identify and improve these.

The Delight Bias

We remember and respond favorably to small, unexpected and playful pleasures. Add surprise and delight. Maybe it’s fun text, a link to an amusing video or a compliment. Perhaps it’s an “Easter Egg” such as a coupon, virtual gift or humorous image that’s hidden within your site. Even the satisfaction of discovering a connection or solving a mental puzzle can help form a favorable and memorable impression.