How Much Does Psychology Play a part in UX?

  • By
    Yonette de Ru
    October 15, 2018
    April 25, 2022

Take a quick moment and think about the last time you were on a social networking site like Instagram or Facebook. Does anything stick out about that experience? I bet you aren’t able to recall more than half of what you saw. These days, between catchy article headlines, product placements, advertisements and aesthetically pleasing images and designs, we have millions of different things fighting for our attention.

The digital space has changed dramatically and in order to grasp users’ attention, it takes a lot more than a pretty website with some cool features. It takes ease of use, intuitive navigation, easy task completion and most importantly, it takes understanding human cognition. There needs to be an understanding of how all competing sources of information influence attention, cognition and how to design digital spaces in a way that helps retain users.

For example, Shopify has teams dedicated to studying users needs and subconscious preferences. That’s one of the ways they’ve become one of the leading e-commerce platforms for large and small businesses alike. The online shopping experience is ever-shifting and becoming standard practice in various markets. A user’s experience is significantly enhanced when psychological factors are accounted for in the design process.

Some of these psychological factors and principles include:


Attention may be one of the most important concepts to grasp as a user experience designer. This is due to the overwhelming number of external sources fighting for users’ attention. This is on top of the other thousands of processes, such as regulating body temperature and breath, that are taking place. Take the psychology of notifications for example. Whether you use an iPhone, Android or any other mobile device, unless you’ve disabled notifications, you’re probably inundated with a constant stream of notifications. Each of these notifications require something valuable from you - your attention.

Why is this an issue? Attention is scarce. The human brain is constantly in overdrive trying to process information. The body sends roughly 11 million bits of information per second to the brain, yet the brain only processes about 50 bits per second. Understanding how human attention works can help ensure that a digital product experience is useful and pleasant. Circling back to our example of notifications, it has been proven that useful, well-timed notifications spark users’ intrigue, while poorly timed, uninteresting or repetitive notifications cause great frustration - enough to make a user delete an app.

The principle of least effort

The human brain is adaptive. Not only is it adaptive, it's lazy. We subconsciously tend to gravitate towards paths of least effort, whether that be for processing information or task completion. It is important to be aware of this tendency. Digital products should be designed in a way that allows users to easily and seamlessly complete tasks. How? Good user research, an integral part of the UX design process, should zero in on opportunities for simplification and efficiency.

One of the above-mentioned adaptation mechanisms is called inattentional blindness. If we’re focusing on one thing, we tend to not notice various other present cues. For example, look at the image below:

If you’re on the website looking for an apartment, your attention is likely to go straight to the search bar. You most likely won’t even notice the ads on the right-hand corner. This happens because your brain tries to get you to complete tasks as efficiently as possible. This includes scanning for and focusing on what’s necessary and blinding you to what’s unnecessary. Let’s say you’re the company paying to place the image on the right. If you understood this key principle, would you still place your ad where it is in the image? Probably not. Understanding attention allows for a more optimal design, while also greatly benefiting users.

The psychology of fonts and layouts

Do you ever feel frazzled when you’re on certain websites? Almost like your eyes don’t know what to focus on? Besides sub-par information architecture, this can also be attributed to the site’s font. Typography has a huge effect on conversion. Shocking, right? Well, not really when you understand the science behind how different fonts can make you feel. It’s no surprise that tech giants like Microsoft spend countless hours and dollars researching and developing fonts.

Not only do fonts have a huge effect on perception, so do page layouts. Psychologist Kevin Larson, from Microsoft, and Rosalind Picard, from MIT, studied the effects of font and layout on emotion. The results of the study were quite surprising. Readers displayed positive emotions and higher focus when reading content in the layout on the left of the image below (a “good” layout). Readers given the same content in the layout on the right (the “bad” layout) physically expressed dissatisfaction with a frown. It’s fascinating to see how much of an impact something like layout can have on a user’s mood.

The emotion of colour

Do you feel calm when you look at a bright blue ocean? Grounded when you’re on a beautiful green trail? That’s because colours have a serious effect on our emotions. What does this have to do with UX design? Choosing the right colours has a huge subconscious impact on users’ perceptions of a product which goes far beyond conscious colour preferences. Lots of research has gone into pinning down how colours influence the mind. For example, red is perceived as a bold colour which is “associated with fire, violence, and warfare. It’s also associated with love and passion. Red can actually have a physical effect on people, raising blood pressure and respiration rates. It’s been shown to enhance human metabolism, too.” Understanding and using colour theory to evoke emotion is a powerful tool for experience designers.

To summarise, understanding and using psychological principles and methods is one of the main ways user experience design is so drastically different from typical web design. User experience design focuses on users, which intuitively means psychology plays a huge role in this design process. Because there are so many different websites and products out there, an unpleasant user experience can quickly result in abandonment. Looking to learn more about the psychology, UX design connection? This an incredibly interesting article on the topic!


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