Are You the Expert in User Thinking You Should Be?

Paul Boag

An understanding of psychology is crucial to designing interfaces, especially when it comes to how users make decisions.

As designers, we are seeking to persuade, empower and delight our users. We want them to take specific actions, find our interfaces effortless, and engage users along the way. But to do all of those things we need to understand how they think.

Qualitative and quantitive testing will help us test different approaches, but to come up with those approaches in the first place, we need to understand the psychology behind user's behaviour. In particular, we need to understand how users make decisions such as whether to buy, which option to click on or where to look on a site.

Unfortunately, most designers I meet seem to believe that users make rational, considered decisions. You can see that in the way we structure and organise our websites. Designers go to great lengths to create information architectures that are logical. But, people are not anywhere near as rational as we like to think.

Good design understands that we are not always logical. That is why tomatoes appear in the salad aisle of a supermarket, despite being a fruit. It is there because that is where people expect it to be, logical or not.

Good design understands that we are not always logical. That is why tomatoes appear in the salad aisle of a supermarket, despite being a fruit.

Thanks to Ewa Studio from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

Decision Making It Not Logical

The misconception that we make logical decisions occurs because we are mostly unaware of the other influencing factors. That is because most of our conscious decision making takes place in our Cerebrum. However, this is only one part of our brain. We also have the Limbic System and the Brain Stem.

While the cerebrum is mainly responsible for conscious thought, it does not make decisions independently. Although the Limbic system is known as the emotional centre of the brain, it plays an enormous role in decision making. In fact, in studies of patients who have received damage to the Limbic system, it is shown that they cannot make even the most simple decisions.

Even the Brain Stem plays a role. This most primitive part of our brain (sometimes referred to as the lizard brain) influences our survival instincts, and believe it or not these instincts profoundly influence our decision making.

Our ability to make decisions is not just dictated by the rational parts of our brain.

Thanks to vectortatu from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

Our Survival Instincts

The Brain Stem in conjunction with the Limbic System control some of our most fundamental reactions such as the flight or fight response, and it is surprising just how much our decision making is influenced by this kind of animalistic reaction.

For example, when surveyed, the vast majority of people say they want to give more to charity. Why then is the conversion rate on charity websites dismally low? Why are charities not inundated with donations?

Although the answer to this question is complicated, our survival instincts play a significant role. Our survival insights drive us to horde resources for fear we may not have enough tomorrow. We fear to make donations because we don’t like to lose what we have. We are loss averse.

In fact, Daniel Kahneman demonstrated with Amos Tversky that the negative emotional impact of losses is twice as intense as the positive effect of gains.

If we want to design a charity website or even an ecommerce site we need to address this problem.

One charity solved the problem by starting a ‘give more tomorrow’ campaign. The idea is that you signup to give in the future so lessening the feeling of loss today. That is not dissimilar to buying a TV on hire purchase, rather than paying outright.

Ecommerce sites have to address the issue by demonstrating that the gains of purchase significantly outweigh the cost. Proving that is in itself easier once you understand what exactly it is that people desire.

What People Desire

Most of us are aware of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow proposed that there were specific human needs that we require to fulfil. These needs build upon one another. In other words, until we meet our basic physiological needs, we are less concerned with higher requirements such as a sense of belonging or self-actualisation.

Maslow’s hierarchy challenges us as designers to consider what need the products we are selling fulfils.

In truth, there is not a massive amount of evidence behind Maslow’s hierarchy. However, it does challenge us as designers to consider what need the products we are selling fulfils.

When we sell products online, we tend to focus on the products features rather than the underlying need it fulfils.

Take for example your typical Volvo ad on television. The adverts do not focus on engine power, fuel efficiency or cubic interior space. Instead, they talk about safety because that is one of our primary human needs.

Volvo focus on safety because they understand that is a basic human need.

Other car brands focus on different parts of Maslow’s hierarchy. Sports cars and luxury brands focus on self-esteem, while four-wheel drive cars promise adventure and self-improvement.

Taking the time to consider the underlying need your product provides will increase its perceived value. But other factors influence how we see value as well.

How We Perceive Value

Nothing has an inherent value. Instead, we establish value through many different criteria. Criteria that we need to take into account when designing ecommerce websites.

For example, we all know that price is dictated by supply and demand. Therefore the perceived value of something is influenced by the perceived demand and available supply. In other words, if people consider something to be rare or much in demand, they will often pay more for it.

Then there is the fact that we view something as more valuable if we have a connection to it or were in some way invested in its creation. For example, a parent may well favour a low-quality mug made by their child over a professionally manufactured cup that was considerably more expensive to produce.

Finally, there is also the fact that we establish the worth of something by comparing it to something else. Does the product you are selling compare favourably to other similar products regarding price and benefits.

A pricing table is a common technique for helping to influence our perception of value.

Thanks to Irina Strelnikova from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

At this point, it is also worth talking about the influence of others on our thinking. That is because these opinions have a significant impact on our willingness to buy.

Social Influences

Humans are inherently social animals, and that will influence how we buy online in much the same way it affects all of our behaviours.

Probably the most prominent example of this is our tendency to adopt the path of the majority. All things being equal, we tend to make the same choice that others have made. There is safety in numbers.

However, this principle goes even further. Sometimes we can be influenced to choose the majority view despite being unsure about that choice ourselves. That is the power of social influence.

We are even more heavily influenced by the choices of those we respect. The preferences of friends, family, experts or even celebrities will all sway our decision making for better or worse.

Another significant aspect of our social tendencies is our desire to associate with a tribe. Harking back to our primaeval ancestors, we feel the need to belong to a social group and perceive those from another social group negatively.

In today's capitalist society, the products we buy is often a signal of the type of social group of which we want to be a part. We use them to shape our identity, a fact that Apple used to its advantage in its “Mac vs PC” ads in which they emphasised that Mac users were creative, cool people who think differently.

Apple used our desire to associate with a tribe to encourage the sales of Macintosh.

All of this goes to show that we rely far less on rational, conscious thought than we think. The reason for this is that we are not that good at it.

We Are Not Good Rational Thinkers

The book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” perfectly demonstrates the fact that we struggle to think things through in an entirely rational way. It introduces a fictional character called Steve and follows up with a question:

“Steve is shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or the world of reality. A neat and tidy soul, he needs order and structure, and a passion for detail." Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or farmer?

Inevitably you will have answered a librarian. But in truth, he is more likely to be a farmer. That is because there are 20 times more farmers in western countries than there are librarians. Yet, most of us won’t even consider that fact. Instead, we instinctively conclude he would be a librarian based on our archetype of what we believe a librarian should be.

That is because it is easier to call to mind a mental picture of what a librarian is like than it is to work out the probability. It is the same reason why you will instantly be able to answer the question “What is the capital of France?” but would need to put considerable thought into answering “what is 14 x 21?

Knowing this is important to designers because it demonstrates the need to understand the user's mental models and conform to conventions. For example, if I asked where one would expect to find the shopping cart on an ecommerce site, you would instinctively say “top right”. When the shopping cart isn’t in that position, we are then forced to think. That is what is known as cognitive load, and it matters. In fact, many cite it as one of the main reasons for site abandonment.

As you can see, understanding how users think is a critical component in our role as designers. Whether seeking to persuade, empower or delight, we need to have a deep understanding of how people think.