The primary way you achieve this is through user research, a topic I have written about extensively in the past. But, a basic understanding of psychology doesn’t hurt either.
In this post, I want to share with you just a few of the many interesting little quirks of human behaviour that can have a profound impact on how we make decisions online.
In this post we will look at how:
You see, we are not the rational, intellectual beings that we like to believe. In truth, our evolutionary roots still drive much of our decision making.
We have Brains Stuck in the Past
We share a lot more in common with our animal cousins than we like to think. The most ancient part of our brain, often known as the reptilian or primal brain, still drives much of our behaviour.
This primal brain has many fascinating features that impact our behaviour even in today’s modern world. Characteristics that we need to be aware of when designing websites intended to encourage action.
Jump back a few hundred thousand years, and you will find that the primal brain was crucial in our survival. It helped us assess danger and controlled our “fight or flight” response.
What is interesting is how it assesses danger. One of the techniques it uses is to judge whether something is familiar or unfamiliar.
We Fear the Unfamiliar
Everyday things tend to be safe and predictable, while strange things are potentially dangerous and so treated with suspicion.
That has ramifications as we create our websites. By ensuring our sites feel familiar, it feels safe.
Creating familiarity is a tricky balancing act. We could use it as an excuse to copy the competition or well-known sites like Amazon. However, that is an oversimplification.
Equally, we could use it to suggest that we should never redesign our site. It is true that a website redesign can create a sense of unfamiliarity, but that is sometimes needed to help shift users attitudes towards a company.
Instead, if we do a redesign, we need to do so with care, ensuring that there is a sense of familiarity with what went before and with other related sites.
We can also create a sense of familiarity with the experience itself. If your site behaves a certain way at one point, it should do so everywhere. Nothing is more disconcerting to the primal brain than shifts in layout or changes in navigational labelling.
But the way the primal brain assesses threats isn’t the only unusual characteristic it has. There is another aspect of its desire for self-preservation we should note. That is its desire to horde.
We have a desire to horde
The primal brain evolved in a world of scarcity and despite the fact we now live in a world of plenty hasn’t moved on. That is why we feel the discomfort of loss, twice as intently as the pleasure of gain. The primal brain fears losing something.
Unfortunately, when we ask people to act on our websites, we are almost always asking them to give up something. That might be something very apparent such as money, or something more abstract like personal data. In either case, the primal brain will be reluctant. We will have to work hard to demonstrate the overwhelming value they will get in return if we are going to avoid an adverse reaction from the primal brain.
One way of doing this is to focus on the benefits our products and services provide, not just the features. Listing features require us to think and make the leap to how that will help us. The primal brain doesn’t make connections like that. However, if we focus on listing the benefits a product has, then the primal brain feels less of a sense of loss.
For example, the Apple website doesn’t merely list the specs of its Macs. It talks about what those Macs allow people to do. That makes the value more evident to our lizard brains.
Fortunately, there is one aspect of the primal brain that works in our favour; it is abysmal at planning.
You can see this in toddlers who rely more heavily on their primal brains. Offer a toddler one candy bar now, or two in an hour and they will almost always take the immediate reward.
From our perspective, as those seeking to encourage action, we can use this lack of planning to our advantage by delaying the cost of acting. For example, if you allow pre-ordering on your site, do not take payment until the product is released. You could even delay payment on immediately available products through financing or some other payment scheme. The primal brain will be less concerned about a future fee.
We Fail to Consider the Future
A great example of this is the “save more tomorrow” campaign. Most people do not save enough for retirement, despite knowing they should. That is because the long-term gain of saving is too abstract for the primal brain when compared to the short term pain of losing the monthly payments.
The save more tomorrow campaign deals with this issue by encouraging people to sign up to start saving in the future. For example, people might commit to starting saving when they know they will next get a pay rise.
The results of this approach are dramatic, encouraging a considerable percentage of people to start saving. That is because the primal brain fails to respond to a possible future cost. It is just too abstract for it to process.
If you run a charity website, the potential of a “give more tomorrow” campaign is immediately apparent, as charitable giving is hard for the primal brain to swallow despite the fact the vast majority of us want to donate more.
But the primal brain is not the only aspect of our thinking we need to note. There is also the roles of system one and two.
We Have Two Approaches to Decision Making
In the superb book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” we are introduced to two modes of thinking called system one and two.
The Intuitive, Instinctive System One
Most of us associate system one with unconscious thinking. The kind of thinking that is fast and automatic. It is autonomous and efficient, requiring very little energy or attention.
At face value system one appears to have superpowers, but it is prone to error because it takes shortcuts to achieve its incredible results.
It tends to ignore any information that is not immediately available. Instead, it is more concerned with a believable story. For example, if I told you about a person called Jim and said he was quiet, studious and had fantastic attention to detail, you would almost certainly conclude he was more likely to be a librarian than a farmer.
That is understandable as the description fits our stereotype of a librarian. But what your system one is ignoring is the fact that there are 20 times more farmers than librarians. You made the assessment purely on what you knew and chose to ignore the fact you might not have all the information.
What this teaches us is that we do not need to overwhelm people with information to persuade them to act. The tendency to add more and more information to our sites in an attempt to convince does not help. Too much information is likely to overwhelm system one, and that will wake system two.
Deliberate, Analytical and Logical System Two
System two is what you would probably describe as your conscious mind. Although much slower than the system one, it is much less likely to make mistakes. It is more deliberate and analytical, enabling us to address more complex questions such as 28 times 6 or learning a new skill.
The drawbacks of system two are that it is slow and takes considerable energy when compared to system one. It is also much more details orientated and tends to be more suspicious.
That is a problem for us as we try to convince because people are more likely to over analyse the decision and ultimately fail to act. System two feels like too much effort for a task like using a website. It is also more hesitant, meaning it will be more reluctant to act.
One upside of system two is that because of the effort involved it doesn’t like to work for long. We use it sparingly and quickly shift reoccurring tasks from system two to system one, which is why we often talk about muscle memory when referring to things like driving or riding a bike. It is also why sites like Facebook or Amazon feel so intuitive. We have used them so much we can use them without waking system two.
You might be wondering at this point why you should care about system one and two. The answer is that far more of our thinking and decision making happens in system one than we might like to think. We want to believe ourselves rational decision makers, but we are not, and that impacts how we need to build our websites. Often times, we simply take the path of least resistance.
We Are Lazy Decision Makers
We make thousands of decisions every day. Most of those decisions are easy. They are decisions like whether you want a drink, which pair of socks to put on or whether to respond to that notification on your phone.
These types of decisions are primarily automatic and unconscious. In most cases, we aren’t even aware we have made them. These are handled almost exclusively by
But more challenging decisions, such as which laptop to buy or where to eat out, are harder to answer and so have to be decided by conscious choice. These are decisions being made by system two.
The problem is that system two thinking is hard work and so we tend to avoid it. Instead of waking system two, system one will substitute a challenging decision with a simpler one.
For example, it regularly replaces a complicated question such as “is this person trustworthy” with a simpler one “does this person look like other trustworthy people I have met”.
That is why it is so hard to diet. Counting calories is hard and requires system two to be fully engaged. Instead system one simplifies the question of “which food would be most healthy to eat right now” to the simpler questions of “am I hungry” or “do I like this food”.
Of course, most of the choices we want people to make on our site are harder — decisions about making a purchase or signing up for a newsletter.
When faced with these kinds of decisions, if left to its own devices, system one will either substitute the choice of sign up for a newsletter with a question like “do I like getting spam?” or will give up entirely.
There are two things we can do to avoid this problem.
First, we can simplify the question for people by emphasising the positive benefits of signing up for the newsletter. For example, let’s say you sold sports equipment. If you ask people to “sign up for our newsletter”, they have to weigh the pros and cons of that decision. But if you say “sign up to start getting fitter”, system one can easily answer the question “would I like to be fitter”.
Second, if we cannot control how the question gets simplified, we can be sure to address that simplification or any other objections people might have. In other words, immediately alongside the call to action to signup for a newsletter, we should make it very clear how much the user can expect to hear from us. That way they will not be concerned about being spammed.
But there are other ways we can help people decide without having to think too hard. One of those ways is to make sure we consider their perceptions.
Our Preconceptions to Shape Our Decisions
Because we are inherently lazy, system one tends to ignore information not immediately at its disposal and instead creates a story that seems plausible based on what it knows. That means it can easily misinterpret what is going on as we jump to conclusions. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
I work a lot with universities. One of their goals is to encourage overseas student recruitment. In student interviews, we discovered that many of these students were discouraged from attending some institutions because they didn’t see any photos on the site containing students from their ethnic background. They, therefore, concluded that this wasn’t a place that ‘people like them’ went.
They didn’t stop to ask themselves whether they had all of the facts. They made a judgement based on what was in front of them.
We can counterbalance these kinds of misconceptions by priming users to help shape their perception.
We can use priming in all kinds of ways to influence behaviour. For example, in experiments, supermarkets have found that if they play French music in the store, they increase the sale of French wine and reduce the sale of wine from other countries.
The principle of priming has some interesting ramifications for us as web designers, not all of which are particularly ethical. But we can use priming for good too. We can use it to prepare people for their experience in our app or website.
We have already talked about how photography can be used to prime a students perception, but our imagery is not the only tool at our disposal. Colour is another powerful priming tool because we associate different colours with different emotions and behaviours.
For example, at the most basic level, users in western countries will be less likely to click a red button to a green one because we have been conditioned to associate red with danger.
We can also use layout to prime users expectations. More significant, more prominent elements will be seen as more meaningful and so given more attention.
There are all kinds of ways we can prime users, from the associations we make with our products, to the number of times the site features a product prominently.
For example, by associating your product with happy, smiling people you prime viewers on a subconscious level to expect the product to make them happy. Equally showing a product multiple times primes them to consider that product as significant.
Of course, this can be dangerous. Priming can set up false expectations too. If you prime people to think your product will deliver specific results and it fails to do so, then this can prove damaging to your reputation, and by extension, long term sales.
Before we wrap up this very long post, it would be remiss of me at this stage not to mention the influence of others on how we make decisions.
Others to influence our decisions
One of the substitutions we make all of the time when making complex decisions is to ask ourselves “what have other people done”. It is easier to rely on other people’s judgment than to make a considered, informed decision ourselves.
That is particularly true the more complex the choice is. For example, when faced with a series of very similar options, we tend to go with the decision we consider the most popular.
That is where ratings, reviews and testimonials become critical to our websites. These have a massive impact on our decisions and we can use that to give people confidence in the choice they make.
It is important to stress that the goal here is not to manipulate people into making a particular decision. As I have already said, that is ultimately damaging to business over the long term.
Instead, we are seeking to help somebody make a fast, informed decision that leaves them confident in their choice.
Time Undermines our Confidence in a Decision
We want people to make fast decisions, not because we want to rush them into buying, but because the longer they take to make that decision the less confidence they will have in it.
A lack of confidence will either lead users to abandon the decision entirely or to go into the decision primed to believe it is a wrong choice. That increases the likelihood of them being unhappy with the results of that decision.
Unhappy decisions are bad for business. They lead to more unsubscribes, more buyers remorse, more returns and more complaints. That is why it is so crucial to helping users make sound decisions they are confident in, and to do that we need to understand them much better. But, that is a subject for another post.
Stock Photos from TierneyMJ/Shutterstock
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