viewing Paris from above
Understanding the human need for control offers a powerful tool for enhancing customer experience PHOTO: Drew Coffman

Want to optimize your UX? Go see your shrink.  

I’m serious.

These days UX is the hottest game in town among product and service professionals. It’s hardly surprising, given the vital role it plays in improving the interaction between the product interface and its users. 

What is surprising, however, is that so little is known about the mechanics behind UX itself, which is yet to be a formal discipline backed up by in-depth studies and research. As such, aspiring UX professionals don’t always have the necessary toolkit needed to achieve optimal results. I’m not talking about statistical knowledge or technical know-how, but rather an in-depth understanding of the cognitive processes that underlie human behavior. 

'Best Practices' Aren't Always So Effective 

One example which clearly demonstrates the absence of basic psychological understanding is the popular term "UX best practices." This implies that some generic, universal rules can be applied to all websites regardless of industry or type of user in question.  

It’s not unusual to hear generalizations, such as a red Call-To-Action button will be more effective than a green one, that plenty of white space on a website is key to accomplishing a simple, elegant and effective design, or that including carousels is the best solution for showcasing products.

Such ‘best practices’ are contradicted by one of psychology’s most fundamental truths: we can’t understand people’s behavior without taking into account the external factors (the context in which the decision is made) and the internal factors (individual personality differences). 

Debunking 5 User Experience Myths

Yet in today’s fast-paced work environment, the need for speed and shortcuts sometimes comes at the expense of true understanding. And in the field of UX design, certain myths have come to prevail that have very little basis in reality. Let’s examine some of them: 

1. Color 

The myth about using colors on a website is that our reaction to them is absolute and universal: each color has its own meaning and we can classify consumer responses to different individual colors. For example, red communicates a sense of urgency, thus it’s effective to use red when designing a Call-To- Action button, and green has the potential to increase sales due to its association with dollars.

What your shrink would say: Color can communicate meaning to the user and influence their perception of other objects through its ‘priming effect.' In this way, exposure to a certain color can influence the visitor’s reaction towards the site in a positive or negative way. 

Yet our reactions to color are not absolute. Numerous attempts have been made to classify consumer responses according to different individual colors, but none have been successful. 

The findings also revealed that the reaction toward color is determined by personal experiences, so it can’t be universally translated into the same target feeling. There’s no set of rules that can guide you through the process of choosing the right color for your websites. Rather, the color should connect to the specific message you want to convey. The use of a specific color should take into account our past experiences and existing associations with it, and most importantly, be related to the product.

2. Product Description

The prevalent myth regarding product descriptions in the online marketplace is that the more reviews, details and technical specifications you have, the likelier it is that the customer will buy the product. Some go further, asserting that paragraphs of carefully written descriptions will secure you that all-elusive ‘confirm your purchase’ click.   

What your shrink would say: Although we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who absorb information, weigh it carefully and make thoughtful decisions, many of our most crucial choices are made by hunches, gut feelings and a somewhat automatic subconscious reaction. 

Though product information is considered to be a crucial factor in purchasing experience, analyses of e-commerce websites that we conducted for several of our retail clients revealed surprising behavior: visitors who were exposed to detailed information about the product were less likely to purchase it compared to visitors who were exposed only to the product image and general details like size and color. Why? 

When designing a product page, we have to distinguish between ‘functional products’ that trigger rational and careful thought processes, and ‘nice to have products’ that trigger emotional and sometimes impulsive thought processes. 

Exposure to too much information when engaging in experiential shopping (shopping for the ‘nice to have’ items), forces customers to invest cognitive resources that they weren’t planning on investing. The mere exposure to additional information will automatically trigger the rational process. Once the rational system is involved, the purchase process becomes far more complicated, longer and may not happen at all.

3. Horizontal Layout

When comparing today’s website designs with those prevalent only a few years ago, it’s hard not to notice the changes: we’ve moved from the vertical old fashioned column to trendy horizontal rows to showcase page content. 

We see this layout more and more as web designers strive to stay up-to-date with what they see as important changes in the industry. But this neat and elegant layout was adopted throughout cyberspace without anyone bothering to check its effectiveness on the one thing that matters most — how users interact with it. 

What your shrink would say: Our recognition of objects relies mainly on their shapes — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Take a look at the picture below: 

three angles, which our brain fills in as a triangle

We automatically interpret it as a triangle, and not three individual angles. This indicates that our brain first sees the overall form of an object, and only afterwards begins picking out the details.

Based on Gestalt’s “Law of Closure,” our mind tends to complete incomplete shapes and create mental objects even if only a small part of the shape is displayed. 

What does this mean for the horizontal web page layout?

The horizontal box construction implies closure and a pattern more typical of the bottom of a page. When we see the closed horizontal structure, Gestalt’s Law of Closure kicks in and we experience a complete closed shape. As a result, we do not look for more information and end up overlooking the remainder of the page.

In fact, by reviewing heatmaps of customer activity for several clients before and after their transitions to a horizontal layout, we discovered that visitors were far less engaged with the new layout than they’d been with the original vertical one. The heatmaps below showing users’ mouse moves and scroll reaches reveal that visitors scrolled 34 percent further down on the original homepage than on the new horizontal one, and also hovered, interacted and clicked on more articles in the original layout than in the new one. 

By contrast, visitors received almost no exposure to the articles that were laid out horizontally.

heatmaps for horizontal view vs. columns

Screenshots of the “Average Fold” for each version, showing us what visitors to the website see on their screen upon landing on the page, before scrolling down:

screenshots of the "average fold"

4. Creativity and Innovation

When designing websites, there seems to be an unwritten commandment urging us to ‘think outside the box’ to create a unique and innovative online experience. This may actually be the least effective and most alienating approach you could possibly take.

What your shrink would say: Our minds create stored representations or mental models that organize the way we perceive the world. We have a mental model for every aspect of our life: how to behave in a job interview, the 'format' of a first date, what a hotel vacation feels like, etc. 

Mental models are important because they help us process new information by providing an organized structure for it. 

Without realizing it, we have also developed a rich conceptualization of how things work in the online world. We have a mental model of what a homepage should look like, where the ‘Contact us’ link should be located and what a clickable button looks like. If users from different countries are asked to close their eyes and describe an e-commerce, news or singles' dating site, chances are they will agree on the set of features they expect.

What this means is that if, for example, you are planning to launch a new retail site, you must keep in mind that your potential customers will subconsciously compare it to that category’s prototype — eBay or Amazon. As such, the greater the similarity between your site and that of the market leaders, the more comfortable — and less likely to bounce — your customers will be. 

If you set up a new, wildly inventive site with lots of unfamiliar bells and whistles, your customers, alas, will not be praising its uniqueness, but will rather be wondering why things are not where they are supposed to be. If you want people to feel good about interacting with your products or brand, you have to ensure that the surface elements match their online mental models and expectations so that they can be quickly and accurately interpreted.

5. Autoplay Video

There’s a prevailing myth that loading videos automatically as visitors enter a web page is an effective way of promoting content and ensuring exposure of the users to the desired content. 

What your shrink would say: All day long, humans are trapped in an endless tussle for control of their surroundings, from the big things to minutiae. Since our days of cave dwelling, we crave control because it offers comfort. When things feel out of our control, our bodies immediately respond, with our deep subconscious flooding us with tension until we can remedy things. 

This neurological response is the same regardless of the loss-of-control trigger. Visitors like to think they are in charge of their actions. If a visitor feels that a website is trying to “sell” them something, or push them into viewing certain content without permission, they will resist by trying to redo the interaction and intentionally avoid that content. Doing so puts the control of their experience back into their own hands.

What we found when we analyzed the pages of one of the world’s largest and most influential news organizations was that visitors tended to always click on the “pause” button as soon as they encountered an auto-play video. The extensive efforts to push the content using on-load video had instead created the opposite reaction: it increased the chances that visitors would not watch the video at all. 

Read Your Customers' Digital Body Language

Understanding the human need for control offers a powerful tool for enhancing customer experience. 

The way you design your website and interaction experiences must take into account the limitations — and assets — of our cognitive systems. To succeed in the digital climate, smart businesses are adapting and realizing the necessity of reading and responding to the “digital body language” of their customers. 

Don’t be afraid to put ‘best practices’ aside. Designing web pages according to users’ mental models accelerates orientation, enhances customer satisfaction and even affects user interactions — all of which translates into a more successful business for you and your company.