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How Can Psychology Principles Help You Make a Better Website?

By Valerie DiCarlo on Oct 26, 2017

The goal of your website is not complicated: You want someone to make a purchase or be equipped to make a purchase.

Achieving that goal is slightly more complicated. Why? Because it involves people. And getting those people to do what you want them to do. (In other words: herding cats.)

But one way to increase the likelihood that cats… er… humans will do what you want them to do on your website is to start to understand how people think, behave, and respond to information. Then, build your website (the content and the organizing principles) based on that. 

In other words, knowing the psychology of your website user will increase the effectiveness of your website. Instead of trying to drag a cat toward a dish of tuna, you can make sure you put the tuna where the cat will look, get the cat excited about eating the tuna, and provide context to the cat so that she knows how/where/when she can get this tasty treat.

All right. Enough with the tuna. Let’s look at two parts: Why thinking about psychology can benefit your website and some specific things to think about that will actually help you.

Two Reasons Why Creating a Website Based on User Psychology Can Help Your Company’s Bottom Line

Getting people to click around on your website isn’t the goal in and of itself. How does a user-focused website actually help performance?

  • When people engage with your content, they are more likely to convert in the short-term and long-term (whether that’s subscribing to an email list or making a purchase).
  • SEO is based on people behaving positively to your content. So when you construct an environment that is optimized to elicit a positive response from a user, search engines will send more people to have that positive experience. More people, means more conversions on your website.

Pretty simple, right? Now on to the practical stuff.

Three Things to Think About When Building a Website Based on Psychology (How People Think and Behave)

1. Understand habits.

  • Use Pattern recognition. People respond to stimuli that they have responded to before because they know what they’re getting. So set up your website in a way that follows a pattern a visitor would understand. Then even new website visitors will easily be able to slip into habits (such as the habit of putting something in a virtual “cart” or “bag” when they want to buy something, clicking the red “subscribe” button to get updates in the future) that further both your customer’s goals and your goals.
  • Avoid Cognitive Overload. Once something is a habit, there is less cognitive overload (when your brain gets tired because it’s trying to figure out a new task). So if you set up your website in a way that caters to the habits people use on other websites, they will spend less time thinking about how to navigate the site and more time actually interacting with the content. 
  • Practical tip: What are YOUR audience's current behaviors and habits that you can capitalize on? (These may be different from the general public.) How can you use this to guide both:
    • What content you create? For example, if you are a high end restaurant that specializes in unique cocktails, you may discover that your Saturday night customers all made plans to come to your restaurant earlier in the week. Few made the decision at the last minute. So create content on your website that addresses the needs and habits of someone planning for a special night out (they want to make a reservation, get an understanding of the ambience, read lots of reviews), rather than searching in the moment for a fun place to pop in on a whim.
    • What media you use for content? For example, if you are a property management group for apartments in a major city, you may find that although videos could communicate your message well, many customers look at your website while riding public transportation. Your customers are reluctant to disturb their fellow commuters with an audio component. So you might find images as more effective for you than video. 

 2. Understand fears.

  • What are your customers trying to avoid? Weight gain? Planning what to make for dinner every night? If so, use your website to show how your product can help them avoid it. You can communicate that clearly in your website through elements such as content and navigation. 
  • What do your customers fear about your website? For example, if they sign up for your email, will they be trapped in a never-ending barrage of communication? If that’s your customer’s fear, alter your website (and email plan) to make sure that doesn’t happen and that customers understand that it won’t happen.  
  • What makes someone become alert? When faced with an unknown stimulus, people respond by becoming alert (they have to be ready for fight or flight). When people are alert, they are going to pay more particular attention to their surroundings, including their website surroundings. So triggering people to become alert can increase their engagement in your website. These things can be color (red), communicating urgency or scarcity through copy (“two days left” or “must act now”). 

 3. Understand motivation/rewards

  • Remember Pavlov’s dog. In the classic psychology experiment, Pavlov’s dogs associated the sound of a bell with food (a reward). Soon, when they heard a bell, they would salivate even if there was no sign of the food.
  • People are curious. When people are curious, they pay more attention. So use the element of curiosity and surprise to your advantage in piquing the interest of your audience. 

How can you build your website (the structure, copy, etc.) to trigger positive associations and rewards? This is especially helpful with calls to action. If people have positive associations with responding to certain types of calls to actions, they follow those formulas so that they will enjoy the process of taking action. For example, a small pizza restaurant could set up their online ordering pages in the same way as a larger pizza restaurant because people associate following those steps to a delicious reward at the end. 

Thinking about, and understanding the psychology of your website user doesn’t require dusty textbooks or listening to long lectures. Just observe, through a deep dive into analytics and eye tracking, to learn the way your audience thinks and behaves. When you factor in those elements, you get a stronger converting website.