11 Psychology Principles UX Designers Should Understand

It’s a fact of life — you spend five seconds figuring out that the pull handle on a door is actually a push mechanism, and those few moments of annoying inconvenience cast a pall over your day. 

There are millions of examples of similar quirks in consumer psychology. We pick a neutral blue sweater over an eye-popping yellow one, even if the yellow garment is cheaper. We click away from an otherwise-useful website when we realize that we have to scan dense paragraphs to find the information we’re looking for.

Whether we realize it or not in the moment, UX psychology matters. By understanding how users think, behave and interact with certain products and websites, UX designers are able to craft better experiences — which is why this is often one of the first principles covered in a UX boot camp.

Let’s take website traffic as an example. A few years ago, a UX researcher named Javier Bargas-Avila found that site visitors develop aesthetic reactions to a web page within 50 milliseconds after exposure — that’s one-sixteenth of an eye-blink — that can determine whether we keep exploring or click away.

UX psychology principles give structure to consumers’ buying decisions; they determine whether we’ll listen to the messaging that marketers, web designers and brands send our way. Or, to borrow phrasing from Hubspot’s Ginny Mineo: “It’s much harder to create compelling marketing […] if you don’t know why it would be compelling to your audience in the first place.”

In this article, we’ll cover the most important UX psychology principles that every professional in UX design and marketing should know. 

1. Reciprocity

What it’s used for: Inspiring consumer goodwill and positive feelings through giving.

The basis of the reciprocity principle is simple: humans naturally respond positively to gifts, even if they are unsolicited or partially unwanted, and feel somewhat indebted to the giver. Because of this, we may feel compelled to pay more attention to those who have already given us something.

In UX psychology and digital marketing, offering information can be a crucial part of triggering the reciprocity principle. For example, a website or signup may provide a white paper, database access or even digital coupons to potential consumers in the hopes of forging a connection.

Let’s consider the humble digital coupon as an example; a good UX designer may place a discount offer front and center on the page, maximizing its visibility. If the customer accepts the “gift” by signing up, they open the door to further contact with the brand, such as joining a mailing list or buying a product. Reciprocity can also be part of ongoing customer relationships — for example, a UX-savvy email marketing strategy could include regular free gifts, thank-you notes or repeat-customer specials.

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2. System One and Two Thinking

What it’s used for: Appealing to customers’ emotional and rational instincts.

Generally speaking, decision-making can be divided into two categories: System 1 thinking and System 2 thinking. The former refers to fast, almost knee-jerk, decision-making, while the latter involves a lengthy process of rational comparisons between available choices.

Most quick day-to-day choices — like last-minute purchasing decisions — fall into the System 1 category. This type of thinking is reactive, automatic, frequent and often subconscious. 

Many times, consumers decide to make a purchase because of their emotional responses and affectations for a product or brand rather than a careful weighing of their available buying options. One reason why minimalist web design is so popular, for example, is that its intuitive design can prompt customers’ fast thinking impulses to buy.

Visual appeal and feelings of brand loyalty contribute significantly to System 1 decision-making. Customers are drawn to brands that are well-known, spark good feelings via their design and appearance and maintain a good reputation. If a brand ticks these boxes and offers a decent product, customers will likely move to make a purchase. 

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3. The Halo Effect

What it’s used for: Building sales via strong brand development and consumer trust.

When consumers develop a positive opinion of a brand after having a good experience with a product or its reputation, their upbeat opinions can prompt a UX psychology principle called the halo effect

Consumers influenced by the halo effect are likely to have positive feelings toward other products and items from the same manufacturer, thus contributing to their feelings of brand loyalty and boosting the brand’s strength. Conversely, the opposing “horn effect” can lead consumers to view other products in a line poorly after having a negative experience with the overarching brand. 

These opposing psychological effects make establishing brand loyalty an imperative for marketers. Developing a website and other digital marketing materials with a strong brand identity can strengthen the halo effect, provided that the products are good. Make sure that customers can see and feel the connection between your products, so that they return when they have a relevant shopping need!

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4. Information Foraging

What it’s used for: Getting customers to choose your website.

When consumers visit a website, they are usually looking for information. Researchers have compared this behavior to animals looking for food (hence the term information foraging). Like animals who look for lush, resource-rich grazing fields, consumers who navigate the web seek out websites that will offer them the informational “sustenance” they need. 

This UX psychology principle can play a crucial role in getting consumers to both click on a website and trust it as a purveyor of information. Good, straightforward design reassures visitors that they can find the answers they want in minimal time. In contrast, a site with a confusing or unwieldy design warns visitors away by indicating that it may not be a good source of information. 

Want to encourage visitor foraging? Develop a clear navigation pathway on your brand’s site to help visitors find the information they need! 

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5. Negativity Bias

What it’s used for: Counteracting the weight of negative experiences.

When people have a negative experience — say, a bad dish at a restaurant, slow product delivery or even a service accident that isn’t really the brand’s fault — their poor perceptions can overshadow their memory of positive experiences, even if both have a similar weight and significance. 

A single negative memory or experience can taint an otherwise positive impression of a brand because negative emotions tend to stand out in memory. This UX psychology principle is often referred to as negativity bias.

You can try to deploy negativity bias in your favor by using negative marketing techniques — however, this strategy can easily backfire and leave your brand open to criticism. Instead, you might also consider deploying positive marketing techniques, well-run technical backup and top-notch customer service systems to bolster your consumer interactions and limit the potential for negative experiences.  

The fewer technical problems and glitches consumers experience, the more likely they are to have a positive feeling about your brand and products. It’s that simple!

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6. Priming

What it’s used for: Stimulating customers’ subconscious reactions to try products.

Priming is a technique that UX-savvy professionals can use to shape consumers’ subconscious reactions. This UX psychology principle uses associations that already exist in the customer’s mind to encourage them to make a purchase. 

A graphic showing the UX psychology principle called priming

Einstein Marketer’s Josh Barney uses the color blue to explain this concept in an article, noting that because people associate blue with the summer sky and sea, destination vacation providers may choose to use the color in their marketing materials. 

“Priming you with blue (and you making subconscious associations to sea and sky) will probably make you more receptive to the idea of a holiday,” Barney writes. “By using tiny, unnoticeable stimuli, you can make a big impression on your prospect’s conscious decisions and their receptiveness to your offers.”

Of course, priming isn’t a sure bet; its effects can be both positive and negative. For example, if a consumer tends to associate a particular shade of blue with sadness or has a negative opinion of the ocean, they may not be tempted by a blue-centric vacation ad. 

That said, a few outliers shouldn’t stop you from deploying the images, design techniques and words that can positively influence customer perceptions of your product or service. Ensure the design, structure and visuals on your site emphasize your most vital selling points and prime consumers for a positive experience! 

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7. Anchoring

What it’s used for: Focusing customers’ attention on key points.

The UX psychology principle of anchoring states that people tend to latch onto one primary piece of information when viewing a product. This initial point then shapes their perceptions of the product’s value and any subsequent purchasing decisions. Like priming, responses to anchoring are often automatic; consumers usually home in on this first piece of information without consciously vetting its importance. 

Anchoring is primarily used in UX to establish expectations and feelings. For example, a discounted price sticker on a new car’s window can give a consumer the sense that they’re getting a bargain on the vehicle even if the final price, with fees, is significantly higher than a similar car in the used lot.

There are several ways that you can make use of anchoring in UX design, starting with how you present and emphasize information. If you have calculators and other interactive features, you want to make sure you are using reasonable and realistic default values. Default values, whether for the size of a donation or the amount of a car payment or mortgage, will shape how consumers think about a product — so make sure that yours are useful and reasonable!

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8. Change Blindness

What it’s used for: Bringing new information to customers’ attention.

Change blindness is the human tendency to ignore small changes in otherwise familiar scenes or spaces. Because you interact with your website content often, you see the changes right away. However, it is difficult for most people to spot the changes that may have taken place, especially if they are not already aware of and looking for them. 

Change blindness has a significant effect on how people perceive your content and marketing materials. If you write something new, would your regular customers scroll by, assuming there’s nothing new on your webpage? The answer is probably yes

By using techniques that specifically highlight changes you want to bring to customers’ attention, good UX design can help to overcome change blindness. You can use cues like animation to draw customers’ eyes to a change, or group changes together in a prominent area of the screen to highlight them for your site visitors. 

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9. Color Theory

What it’s used for: Exciting customers or putting them at ease.

Color theory offers a psychological perspective of how people perceive specific colors and combinations, as well as the messages that those colors convey. Colors have an emotional context; some excite customers (red, yellow or orange) while others create a calmer effect (light blue, dark purple, green). The color you deploy will depend on the feelings you hope to evoke in your advertising or marketing materials. 

Differentiating colors can also draw customers’ eyes, thereby combating issues like change blindness and creating a point of focus on a website. You want to choose colors that fit in with your brand image; for example, muted colors may be suited for a relaxation program, while intense colors are often suited to energy drinks and athletic brands. Understanding the social and cultural meanings of color can ensure that your site sends the right message to your target customers.

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10. The False-Consensus Effect

What it’s used for: Making sure sites reflect customer interests instead of our own.

The False-Consensus Effect was first discovered in 1977 when social researchers found that most people vastly overestimate the extent to which other people share their perspectives, common likes, dislikes, interests and behaviors. This quirk of UX psychology can lead marketers to create sites designed for people like themselves rather than for their target audience. 

Worried about the false consensus effect impacting your marketing strategy? Try amplifying your user testing initiatives. User testing is an important mechanism to counter the false consensus effect. By investing in testing, you ensure that your intended customer base is truly interested in the services you want to sell.

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11. The Decoy Effect

What it’s used for: Guiding customers to make a decision.

The decoy effect can nudge customers to make a certain decision based on the range of presented options. Simply putting some options into the checkout process, showing them as defaults or making them easy to add on may inspire customers to make a particular purchase.

A graphic showing the UX psychology principle called the decoy effect

Similarly, marketers may add mid-tier options between a more expensive choice and a lower-priced item with fewer features. Rather than inspiring customers to opt for the middle-price item, more consumers are likely to view the most costly option as a better deal

The decoy effect induces comparisons with other items and subtly encourages customers to make a specific — if not immediately evident — choice.

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The Takeaway:

UX design and marketing is about technology, but it is also about human psychology. These UX psychology principles are an essential part of any practical design approach in the digital age. Understanding these principles — and others — is an integral part of growing your knowledge base and skills. 

Those in the digital marketing world can increase their career prospects by embarking on further education — so why not explore your academic options? Whether you enter a college program, opt for a UX boot camp or delve into self-directed learning, the opportunities for growth and advancement are near-endless. 

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