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Sep 2021 Web Design

The Psychology of web design – 5 principles to be aware of

Good web design encompasses a range of different factors in order to make the pages outstanding in both form and function. Form can be enhanced with skilful use of typography, colours and media, and a site with a well-crafted appearance can certainly help you stand out from your competition.  But once your visitor starts using your website, it is function that counts. You need to ensure that they have the best experience possible, and this is where an understanding of how people’s minds work can be super helpful.  Here are five principles based on psychology and cognitive science that will help steer your design in the direction of a site that performs well for your visitors, and so by extension for you…

1 Jakob’s Law – familiarity breeds contentment

Coined by Jakob Nielsen, the pioneer of web usability, Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience, to give its full and proper title, is not an edict so much as a natural law of the internet. Simply put, it states that

People spend most of their time on other websites than yours.

It’s something that may seem quite obvious, but it’s the implications of this that make Jacob’s law so important.

It is because users have had so much experience of other sites, that when they come to yours they already have a mental model of how to use a website. If your site follows the same conventions then they can get straight to using it. If, on the other hand, your site goes against what the user has learned elsewhere, they will have to spend effort learning how to use your site before they can do anything meaningful.

People like familiarity. That’s not to say that humans don’t like learning new things. What they don’t like is having to learn how to do the same thing again for no discernibly good reason. Take Facebook for example – if you’ve been using it for long enough then you will no doubt remember a number of times when the interface had been changed only to have an outcry from many users who wanted it to go back to “the old way”. This is because those users just wanted to get on with using Facebook, they did not want to spend time getting used to a new interface when the old one seemed to work for them.  Even though the newer interface contained design improvements, and once people got used to it nobody complained anymore, there was still always an initial resistance to the change. Fortunately for Facebook, it was in the position of not having significant competition, (if you were using Facebook, so were all the people you interact with).  But if there had been reasonable competition to the platform at the time, then imposing unfamiliar changes may have resulted in a loss of users such as  Snapchat experienced in 2018 when the company introduced sudden and drastic changes to their interface. The result was a migration of users to the company’s competitor Instagram.

This might all seem counter-intuitive to anyone who wants their site to stand out from the crowd, after all, how can you stand out if you’re supposed to do it the same way as everyone else?

The answer is that it’s not about how your site looks or what content you have on your site, but how your site works. The styling, colour scheme, typeface choices and imagery are all things you can use to give a site its own unique look and feel. But conventions such as the navigation being at the top of the page somewhere, links in text being highlighted somehow, the main logo always appearing at the top of all pages and providing a route to the home page – these are all things that your users have learned to expect when using any site. Confound their expectations at your peril.

2 Principle of Least Effort – make things easy

Humans tend to like things easy. Given a choice of different ways to accomplish something we will invariably choose the one that costs the least effort, hence the name of the principle. It’s not that people are inherently lazy, it’s actually an evolutionary imperative.

Being a functioning human being takes energy, both to run the body and the brain.  Anything you can do to minimise the amount of energy expended on relatively unimportant tasks, like choosing which fruit to eat,  will give you an advantage when that energy is needed for critical tasks, like hunting for food or escaping something that thinks you’re food.

That may be an oversimplified example from far too long ago, but evolution kept the idea with us: saving energy is a good thing.  And it happens in all forms of our modern life. People not looking past the first page of Google results, or choosing to buy something on Amazon via their phone rather than making the journey to the shops, are prime (no pun) examples of the Principle of Least Effort. If you’re looking for a visual example, look no further than desire paths  where a walkway has been made by people choosing the easier route rather than the prescribed one.

An example of a desire path cutting across a walkway corner
image by Jake Krohn

The principle is just as true in the virtual world as the physical.  The easier you make something to do, the more likely your visitors are to do it.  Or, if you prefer, the more steps you put between a user and completion of their desired task, the less likely they are to complete it, especially if they know they can go somewhere else that will cost them less effort for the desired result.  This applies whether the task is making a purchase, downloading a resource or even just finding information.  Like the desire path, always endeavour to give your visitors the shortest route to whatever they wish to find or do.

3 Pareto Principle – favour the minority

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 principle, generally states that the majority of effects come from the minority of causes.  It was coined by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who discovered in his garden that 20% of the pea pods were producing 80% of his peas. Being an economist, he noticed the same ratio applied to land ownership in Italy – 80% of it was in the hands of the wealthiest 20% of the population. Since then it has been seen to apply in all aspects of life.

Obviously, not every application of the principle is exactly 80:20, but it is invariably majority:minority. For example,

  • four countries account for the majority of CO2 emissions across the globe
  • more than 80% of all the music you listen to is likely to be from just your ten favourite artists (check your Spotify stats),
  • a company with a range of products will make most sales from a small subsection – take Apple which has a large portfolio of products including various hardware, accessories, software and subscription services, yet more than half of its revenue comes from the iPhone.

When it comes to your website, the Pareto Principle is an important consideration. Who is the subsection of users that are most likely to engage with your site in the way you hope? What is the majority *effect* you expect to come from your visitors?  Being able to recognise these things, as well as an awareness of the Principle of Least Effort, means you can tailor your site to give the clearest path to the most desirable outcome for your most engaging visitors.

4 Hick’s Law – simplify decisions

Hick’s law seems so blatantly obvious that it’s a sometimes a wonder how many websites ignore it.  Simply put, it states that the more there is to consider, the longer a decision takes. This could mean more options to decide between or more complexity in those options. Either way, increasing the amount of cognitive load needed for a user to make a decision risks the decision being abandoned.

many bottles of shampoo on a supermarket shelf, presenting a difficult choice
The burden of choice

Imagine you want to buy a bottle of shampoo from an online supermarket.  If the supermarket simply listed absolutely everything it sold, and so you were faced with having to choose a single product out of the thousands on offer, the likely outcome would be you leaving and trying a different retailer.

Instead, you are initially presented with a range of different categories that covers everything they sell, which in turn have another one or two subcategories to narrow your choice down to a much more manageable list of options. This equates to being able to easily find the appropriate aisle in the supermarket for the type of product you want.  And even when you get to that list, there are still ways to further whittle the number of options down using various filters such as manufacturer, what’s on special offer, what type of hair it’s for and even whether it’s tested on animals.  The ultimate aim is to actually provide you with as limited a choice as possible as that will make it easier for you to decide. And even though it has taken a little longer to get to making that decision, every step has felt productive because it was patently getting you closer to what you want.

The above example, clumsy as it may be, illustrates the point that Hick’s Law doesn’t mean you cannot offer many choices, just that you shouldn’t offer them all at once and you should strive to make your user’s decision as easy to make as possible.

  • Limit the number of choices to the minimum necessary
  • Subdivide large numbers of choices into more manageable collections
  • Use Progressive Disclosure to make complex procedures easier to move through

5 Social Proof

“Nothing sells you like other people”. It’s a maxim I’ve known and repeated for many years now. I can’t even remember where I heard it first, but it is a perfect example of the principle of Social Proof.  People are generally influenced by other people – that’s why the reviews of a product on Amazon are more likely to influence a purchasing decision than the product description and specification, or a personal recommendation will have more impact than a slick advertising campaign.

The phenomenon of Social Proof was first described by psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book The Psychology of Persuasion, where he observed that people tend to think that actions taken by others are worth following. Or to put it another way, if we see other people doing it we’re more likely to do it ourselves.

You can leverage the Social Proof effect in your web design a number of ways. The most popular is the use of testimonials. Let your visitors know what other people think of you. If other people have nice things to say about you, you must be doing something right, right?  This extends to reviews, especially in e-commerce situations. As with the Amazon example above, buyers will place a lot of importance on what someone other than you has to say about the product you’re selling.

Some platforms, like TripAdvisor, are built almost exclusively on reviews.

Another way is to say what is popular. As Dr Cialdini explains in the video above, just indicating that something is popular removes a level of uncertainty, reassuring the viewer that many others were happy with this choice.

Lastly, always provide the ability to share content on social platforms wherever appropriate.  If someone comes to you because of a social share by someone they trust (be it a personal contact or influencer) then they come to you already somewhat invested and more likely to engage with your site.

Is that all?

In a word, no. Not by a long shot. But it’s an excellent start.  There are a good number of other topics worthy of exploration: The Gestalt Principles of Visual Perception, if observed, can greatly enhance both the aesthetic and usability of a website, as can the psychology of colours. Understanding Selective Disregard and Change Blindness can make all the difference to the placement of critical elements on a page, and Memory Limitations should always be taken into account on sites where the user journey relies on continuity, because (most) users are only human*.

We’ll look at some of these in further articles, but for now, here is some extra reading for anyone whose interest has been piqued by these five topics.

Nielsen Norman Group – Web Usability

Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort

Applying the Pareto Principle to the User Experience

Hick’s Law: Making the choice easier for users

The Psychology of Persuasion


*the ones that aren’t will have trouble seeing which pictures have traffic lights in them, supposedly.

Posted by: Chris Hands

Sep 24, 2021

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