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Applying the Psychology

An extraordinary amount of brain stuff is working with and against you as a designer.

This fact probably explains why it’s always so difficult for other people to understand why no one ever nails a design on the first try, and why it’s never really “done.” It also probably explains why you have such trouble in the attempt to nail it.


If I’ve made this clear, I’ve made my point. It’s time for more designers to dig deep into psychology and apply it to design work.

Over the years, it’s become more and more obvious to me how much it affects every decision a user makes. How much is at play when a user approaches a site, tries to make sense of it, decides whether or not it has value to them, or attempts to use it? Do all the user research you want. Until you embrace the effects of psychology on a user’s experience and design for it, you’ll get nowhere.

And yet once again, the articles and books and courses on design ignore this. It’s incredibly rare to see one that connects the dots between psychology and design best practices.

So let me try.

Imagine you’re designing a web application that aims to help people who work on contract to create and manage invoices. Basically, the site will be task-based, and will require users to sign up to gain access to their own user home page, which gives them ways to create a new invoice, send one, see the payment status of open invoices, and otherwise manage them (delete, resend, edit, comment, send reminders, and so on). Somehow, you want to make it different and better than all the other sites doing the same thing. Different is a selling point. It means instead of competing one-for-one, you’re competing by standing out. It’s Business 101: You win by being different.

Take a look around at a few sites that with similar structures—project management sites, to-do list sites, accounting sites, whatever—and you’ll see a few commonalities. As I mentioned in the “They Come With Questions” section, each site will make a pitch on the home page. Each one will offer a way to sign up through a big button with a strong call to action (CTA). Each one will attempt to explain the benefits of using this app over that other one. Each one will tell you about its pricing plans. Just by looking around at a few sites, you can see that these things seem to be considered best practice, and that you should probably do them as well. Years of usability tests have told the designer world that these elements are effective at convincing users to sign up.

Rarely does anyone explain why. You can find a million articles about what makes an effective home page for a subscription web app, but have you ever seen one that explains the rationale behind the decisions?

Home page design used to be completely erratic and nonsensical. Bad pages were far more common than good ones. Over time, the good ones have won out. These days, for subscriptions sites like this invoicing app, it’s extremely common for home pages to feature all the elements I’ve just described, used in the same way, frequently laid out in the same order.

Is it because everyone’s thinking about the psychology and coming to the same conclusions?

No. They’re mostly just copying each other. I almost never come across a designer who points to psychology as the reason for anything. Mostly, it’s just that they’ve read the articles and followed them to the letter. They’ve copied the other sites. They did the same thing. So much for being different.

Here’s the thing.

Understanding the psychology behind the design is the only way to design for it differently than everyone else does.

You know why these elements are effective. It’s not because that’s what everyone else does. It’s because people come to a website with questions, and these elements answer those questions.

Are they the only way to answer these questions? No. Not even close.

And here comes the obligatory Apple reference.

Remember when Apple released the iPhone? Remember the television commercials? They weren’t about lifestyle. They didn’t show a montage of cool twenty-somethings climbing mountains and dancing at clubs and hanging out by the pool, enjoying the insta-connectivity of their phones, which blend seamlessly into their lives. That first round of commercials showed a hand. A hand holding an iPhone. A thumb reaching over the screen and tapping things. A thumb tapping the screen, a screen responding. A thumb pulling up a map. A thumb taking a photo. A thumb sending a photo.

In 30-second bursts of televised brilliance, Apple was teaching people how to use the phone. And answering all kinds of questions in the process.

How do I use this thing? What does it do? Does it take pictures? What can I do with the photo afterwards? Oh, it has a map application? Is it a major pain in the neck to use like it is on my current phone?

Apple didn’t say the iPhone would make you young again. It wouldn’t make you a better tennis player. Or teach you how to cook. It didn’t show a list of benefits. It showed a series of uses, all of which you could then inject your benefit into. When its so easy to use the web on this phone, maybe you could use it to settle bar bets on the fly.

Apple didn’t answer the potential user’s questions in the same way everyone else does. It dug into the psychology and came up with a new way to do it. It was different before it was even a real thing that people could hold in their hands. The company created significant competition before you could even buy the product.

As a major bonus, these commercials ensured that buyers knew how to use the phone on the very first day. This was the first touchscreen phone to exist in all of human history, and yet most people could pick it up and start using it on the first try. Apple completely nullified the learning curve.

Imagine taking the same approach with your invoicing app—answering those questions without using the same tricks. Putting out something different enough and great enough to make other companies compete with it rather than the other way around.

Psychology is what gets you there.

There isn’t just one way to answer a user’s questions. There isn’t just one way to make a task flow clear, because people are distracted by other things competing for their attention. There isn’t just one way to get people excited about your app, to help them enjoy using it.

The ways you come up with will entirely depend on your situation, your app, your users, your goals. But no matter what approaches you take, psychology is your best tool. The more you understand it, the better you’ll be able to apply it to do something truly unique, truly great, and truly exciting.

I have been saying these things for years now. I’ve cited psychological studies and case studies and personal studies on every project I’ve worked on for a decade. And still, so few designers take this subject seriously enough.

Be one of them. Besides the insights it will give you, the strategic abilities you could never achieve otherwise, an ongoing pursuit of psychological understanding will make you stand out in a massive sea of designers. You will be the one designer in the crowd who can explain user behavior. Who can learn from it. Who can apply those lessons to do great design work.

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