User experience (UX) refers to the way a user interacts with a product or service, their thoughts and feelings throughout the interaction, and their overall satisfaction with it. UX encompasses every aspect of that interaction.

As such, in order to design a satisfying user experience, you need to understand your users and how they will use your product. Fortunately, psychology and knowledge of the human mind are great assets for building a successful user experience.

This article aims to take a closer look at some psychological principles and how a UX designer can use them for the benefit of their users.

1. The principle of least effort

This one is pretty self-explanatory: users are always searching for the quickest and simplest way to perform a task. This applies to humans, animals, and even machines that always pick the most efficient algorithm. For example, if you had two ways of reaching point B from point A, you would naturally choose the shorter path, providing it is as easy and comfortable as the longer one.

Here is how you can apply this principle to UX design:

  • use easily digestible examples when explaining something to your users rather than just blocks of text. For example, for first-time users of a piece of software, this could mean using interactive tutorials within the UI, teaching them to navigate and use your software as they are doing it.
  • when you do use text for explanations, ensure it is as concise and relevant as possible, without cluttering up space with unnecessary details.
  • use grouping when you have a lot of similar information. If the groups are large, implement sorting, filtering, and search capabilities. Imagine a blog where you can filter posts by category, tag, date, author, and can also perform searches for specific keywords.
  • ensure users have a clear understanding of what they can and cannot click. This means showing users indicators when something is clickable – for example, hovering a cursor over a link or a button will cause their appearance (and the cursor’s) to change in a way that suggests that they can be clicked.
  • using stylish fonts may seem appealing, but never favor attractiveness over legibility. Also keep in mind that font size and color are also essential for readability. If the text is too small for users to read without scaling the page, that is a problem. If there is not enough contrast between the color of the text and the color of the background, that is a problem. Typography is a huge part of the user experience.

2. The principle of perpetual habit

This principle refers to the fact that people rely on memory and habit when accomplishing a task.  This means that if there already is a well-established and widely used way of doing something, do not mess with it. Not meeting users’ expectations is hardly ever a good idea, so make sure everything is where users expect them to be and that they work in a way that already makes sense to them.

Here is how you can apply this principle to UX design:

  • while you do want your design to stand out, do not go overboard; “traditional” isn’t necessarily bad, especially when it also means “familiar.”
  • keep the layout and navigation simple, so if users are not immediately familiar with it, they will very quickly get used to it.

3. The principle of socialization

Humans are social beings, and this has also translated into our use of technology. Nowadays we rely on technology for social interactions more than ever before, and this aspect of life should be reflected in your design.

Here is how you can apply this principle to UX design:

  • social media icons have become a requirement. Users want more ways to interact with your brand and you get more social engagement out of it. Sharing icons are also great because they allow your users to share your content on their social accounts, leading to more exposure for your brand. If your website also has a blog or a forum, be sure to implement social sharing icons. This allows users who enjoy the content to easily share it with their online friends. They are happy to share interesting and engaging content with their community, and you should be happy that this allows you to reach a wider audience.
  • Implement ratings, reviews, and testimonials. Users look for validation from their peers and this allows them to see that other people appreciate your products and services.

4. The principle of emotional contagion

You know that saying about laughs being contagious, or how a sad movie scene with people crying can also make us cry? Humans have a tendency to mirror others’ emotions, especially if they are someone close to us or just someone we like.

You can apply this principle to UX design by targeting users’ emotional sides and showing them content which appeals to their emotions. For example, if you are a law firm which handles personal injury, you may choose to primarily show emotional testimonials from your clients, not just testimonials which describe what a good job you did. Potential clients will be familiar with those feelings of fear, gratitude, and relief your older clients may describe in their testimonials and they will form an emotional connection with your brand.

5. The principle of identity

Everyone needs a sense of identity and to feel like they belong. This is why we have wallpaper apps, so we can customize our phones based on who we are and what we like, and this is why we have awards, so we can feel appreciated and recognized by our peers, and this is why we make friends, so we can form bonds and associate with someone.

Something similar happens when people associate themselves with a particular brand because they feel it is a good match for who they are, and they find common traits in that brand’s identity. Brand loyalty is something every brand strives for and if you have a good strategy, you can really knock it out of the park – think about Apple and their iPhone users.

Here is how you can apply this principle to UX design:

  • develop your brand. Use unique characteristics – typography, colors, graphics, messages, etc. – to show off your unique brand identity. Use photos of the actual people behind your brand, send out newsletters, run promotions, engage with your audience on social media, and position yourself as one-of-a-kind by reminding people what unique value you are offering them.
  • show users you care about them. Keep them in the loop with valuable feedback at every step of their journey – e.g. “Photo successfully uploaded,” “Request submitted, expect a response within the next 24 hours,” etc.
  • ask your users for feedback. Show interest in their opinions and actually make changes based on their feedback. However, make sure you are not too insistent and that the feedback form isn’t annoying your users. Make it quick to fill out, have as many optional fields as possible, and maybe even offer them an incentive to give you feedback.

6. The principle of beauty

It is a well-established fact that beautiful people or objects are always more attractive. Even if we tell ourselves not to judge a book by its cover, we do it very often, whether it is with actual books or everything else. Beauty is often associated with expensiveness, success, and high quality.

Beauty in design is all about the user interface, and while it is subjective, there are some general tendencies you can keep in mind when doing design work.

Here is how you can apply this principle to UX design:

  • create a design system. Use a style guide to keep track of all your elements and how you use fonts, colors, icons, button styles, and more.
  • stay up to date on market trends. Design principles and styles used 10 years ago are unlikely to be a good choice nowadays. Design practices are constantly evolving and if you do not keep up, all your users will see is an outdated design which they are less likely to trust. Remember to keep your designs relevant and topical, satisfying the expectations that your users have.
  • look for inspiration. It is always a good idea to look at what others are doing and draw inspiration from the choices they make and even improve upon their work.

7. Miller’s rule

“The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is a psychological article written by George A. Miller, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University. According to him, we can only hold from five to nine things at once in our short-term memory. This is also called Miller’s rule.

Here is how you can apply this principle to UX design:

  • do not force people to remember more than they can. Try to group elements and reduce the number of things users need to focus on at a time. For example, if you are running an ecommerce website, try to feature from five to nine products on a single page. If you are developing a game, ensure players do not need to focus on too many things at once. If you do have to include many similar elements, the best thing to do would be to group them.
  • if you have to present the user with a lot of information, do it progressively. Split long processes into several phases with a limited amount of information each. For example, when onboarding new users, do not throw all the relevant information they need on a single screen; instead, split it across several steps.

8. The psychology of mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, and mistakes spark many emotions in a person’s mind, mostly negative ones, such as sadness, anxiety, and apathy. Regardless of how serious it is, a mistake is still annoying.

Mistakes relative to UX design psychology include scenarios which are counterintuitive, unclear, and potentially misleading, thus preventing people from accomplishing the goals they set out to do.

Here is how you can apply this principle to UX design:

  • attempt to predict where a user may make mistakes and which function may seem unclear and confusing. The best way to detect such problems is through user testing.
  • implement action confirmation. In certain high-stakes scenarios, such as booking plane tickets or transferring money, add an extra step so users can definitively confirm that what they are doing will have the desired effect.
  • provide the ability to undo an action. This is simple enough and self-explanatory; always give users the ability to easily and quickly correct a mistake.
  • inform users about mistakes. For example, it they are filling out a form and they input the wrong type of data into a field, simply inform them about the expected type of data for that field.

9. Focus, attention, concentration

The average attention span for an adult ranges from 10 to 20 minutes, after which they may get distracted and lose focus. A UX designer needs to reduce distractions and break a monotonous routine by grabbing users’ attention for as long as possible.

Here is how you can apply this principle to UX design:

  • do not distract users with random pop-ups or sounds. People get annoyed when they open a website, for example, and get bombarded with pop-ups, sounds, chat windows, and so on.
  • make your product or service stand out. Remember the principle of beauty and work on making your offering more attractive.
  • for users to stay concentrated, they need to know where they are in the process they are engaging in. To do this, you can use a visual aid such as a simple step counter.

Final thoughts

Psychology plays a huge part in UI/UX design. Ultimately you are not designing a product, but an interaction with its user, which is why you need to know your users as well as possible – their human nature, fears, weaknesses, and strong points.

Keep everything we have discussed above in mind when designing UIs or UXs, test thoroughly, and never lose sight of the fact that you are not the end-user.