Psychology in Design. Principles Helping to Understand Users

The article giving insights into general principles of psychology which can help designers know users better and create user- friendly web and mobile interfaces.

Some people are used to thinking of design as a purely artistic job but there is much more standing behind it. The sense of beauty and inspiration are not enough to create the proficient design. That’s why designers should possess certain knowledge and skills of distinct sciences to do their job right. And it’s not only the art of design, but it’s also about various fields of knowledge and practice which help them work efficiently and productively. One of the basic studies helping designers to understand users is psychology. Today, we will figure out what a big part psychology plays in design and what psychological principles are essential to remember during the design process.

The Role of Psychology In Design

Today the tendency of user-centered design makes designers reconsider approach to their work and go deeper into the understanding of the target audience. Donald A. Norman in his book “The Design of Everyday Things” defines design as an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating. In order to get better insight into people’s needs, designers are recommended to bear in mind the psychological principles of human behavior, aspirations, and motivations. The outcome of the work can be even more positive if a designer applies psychology to the creative process since science gives a close understanding of the target audience. Psychology knowledge helps to create the design which will make users perform the actions they are expected to such as making a purchase or contacting the team.

Designers may see psychology as a complicated approach to improving the design and for that reason neglect this part of research and analysis. However, you don’t need to be a Ph.D. in psychology to use it at your work effectively. All you need to consider are the basic principles constantly presented in design.

Based on our experience and the conducted research, I’ve defined 5 effective psychological principles often applied in the design process.

Gestalt Principles

This psychological theory is almost 100-year-old but it hasn’t lost its actuality. The word “gestalt” means the “unified whole” so the theory explores users’ visual perception of elements in relation to each other. In other words, it shows how people tend to unify the visual elements into groups. The principles, on which users from the groups, include:

Similarity. If a user sees objects that look somehow similar, they may automatically perceive them as the individual elements of one group. The similarity between elements is usually defined with shape, color, size, texture or value. The similarity gives users the sense of coherence between the design elements.

Proximity. When objects are placed in close proximity, the eye perceives them as a group rather than seen individually even if they aren’t similar.

Continuation. It is the principle according to which the human eye moves naturally from one object to the other. This often happens through the creation of curved lines allowing the eye to flow with the line.

Closure. It is a technique based on the human eye’s tendency to see closed shapes. Closure works where an object is incomplete but the user perceives it as a full shape by filling in the missing parts.

The Gestalt principles confirm in practice that our brain tends to make tricks with us, so designers should consider that fact during the creation process to exclude the possibility of misunderstandings.

Visceral Reactions

Have you ever had that feeling when you fall in love with the website after the first second when you’ve opened it? Or maybe an application has made you sick only with the quick glance at it? If yes, then you’ve already known what’s a visceral reaction. This kind of reactions comes from the part of our head called “old brain” responsible for the instincts and it reacts much faster than our consciousness does. Visceral reactions are rooted in our DNA, so they can be easily predicted.

How do designers use this knowledge? They aim at creating a positive aesthetic impression with the design. It’s not that difficult to guess what looks nice to people and what doesn’t if you know your target audience and their needs. So, the tendency of using the high-resolution beautiful photos or the colorful pictures at landing pages, websites or any other web and mobile products is not accidental.

Psychology of Colors

A science studying the influence of colors on the human’s mind, behavior, and reactions is called the psychology of colors. Today we won’t go deep into the aspects of this study since it is complex so deserves to have a specialized talk devoted to it. In a few words, the main idea of the study is that the colors have a great impact on the users’ perception. That’s why designers should choose the colors knowingly to make sure their work presents the right message and tune.

Here is the list of the basic colors and the meanings which they are typically associated with: Red. The color usually associates with passionate, strong, or aggressive feelings. It symbolized both good and bad feelings including love, confidence, passion and anger.

Orange. An energetic and warm color bringing the feelings of excitement.

Yellow. This is the color of happiness. It symbolized the sunlight, joy and warmth.

Green. The color of nature. It brings calming and renewing feelings. Also, may signify inexperience.

Scanning Patterns

According to different studies, including the publications by Nielsen Norman Group, UXPin team and others, there are several popular scanning patterns for web pages, among which “F” and “Z” patterns.

F-pattern is referred to as the most common eye-scanning pattern, especially for web pages with the big amount of content. A user first scans a horizontal line on the top of the screen, then moves down the page a bit and reads along the horizontal line which usually covers a shorter area. And the last one is a vertical line down on the left side of the copy where they look for keywords in the initial sentences of the paragraphs. It usually occurs on text-heavy pages like blogs, news platforms, thematic editorials etc.

Z-pattern is applied to pages which are not so heavily concentrated on the copy. A user first scans across the top of the page starting from the top left corner, looking for important information, and then goes down to the opposite corner at a diagonal, finishing with the horizontal line at the bottom of the page, again from left to right. This is a typical model of scanning for landing pages or websites not loaded with copy and not requiring scrolling down the page, which means that all the core data is visible in the pre-scroll area.

Knowing these patterns, designers can place the elements in an effective way for users’ perception and help them perform expected actions.

Hick’s Law

The law states that the more options users are exposed to, the longer it takes them to make a decision. This means that the more options you give to users, be it products to choose or pictures to look at, the more time and energy it takes to make a decision about the next step of interaction. The possible result here is that the users make the choices but get unpleasant feelings after using the product, or in the worst case, they may not want to take such a significant effort and just leave.

That’s why designers are recommended to keep any options including buttons, pictures, pages to a minimum. Removing unnecessary choices, you make the usability of the product more effective.

Psychology is an effective tool in design which makes the creative process more productive while the result is going to be more user-centered. I’ve told you about six useful principles but they are only the tip of the iceberg because there is much more to learn on the topic.

Design Critique: Fabulous – Motivate Me! (iOS App)

Fabulous is a science-based app, incubated in Duke’s Behavioral Economics Lab, that will help you build healthy rituals into your life, just like an elite athlete. Users can start by picking one of four Journeys: Feel more energized, lose weight, sleep better, or focus and concentrate better. With your goal defined, Fabulous will break down users approach into simple daily steps. The app is free, but in order to have the full experience, users must pay a subscription to unlock and download all features.

Application’s Overall Design: Understanding the User And Its Motivations

Nowadays, people are facing extreme pressure and struggling to become a better version of themselves. Fabulous is specifically designed to motivate you to be more productive and have higher energy. Fabulous is more than just a habit tracker. It’s a personal coach and happiness trainer. The principle of the app follows one of Norman’s principles of design, which is to design for “human behavior the way it is, not the way we wish it to be” (Norman, Pg. 6). People are facing a lot of pressure at school or at work. Most other habit tracker apps usually make you compete with yourself to be “healthier”. Users often lose motivation almost immediately. Fabulous, however, is very intentional about creating new life changes by adjusting one habit at a time. It’s about holistic wellness and the easy/welcoming interface reflects that too. The user won’t feel as overwhelmed with change and they will appreciate the little tasks it gives for a happier man has become. It is nice that users have the option to add their own tasks to speed up the process as they’d like. Or it can be very go-at-your-own-pace. Besides, the app doesn’t just provide users with habit tracking. The app looks beyond simple tasks (e.g. exercising, cooking, calling parents, etc.) and offers meditations or yoga for different goals/situation. In the Make Me Fabulous feature, users select from a list of options on their current action/state, and the app provides them with filtered types of meditations that can suit their needs. For example, it can provide meditations for the speakers to focus or to help them prepare for a presentation. Hence, the app looks beyond why people are downloading the app, which is in this case to meditate and goes further by looking at the root cause of why they are trying to use the app.

Strength: “Flow” With A Task

As we all know, keeping a habit can be pretty tough. The app aims to immerse users in the task step by step. From easier takes to harder tasks. And for each task, there are explanations to introduce to the user why they should do this way instead of others. The wording is logical and we can see the editor really put himself/herself in other’s shoes. As cited in Norman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that for people to enter a state of emersion or “flow” with a task, the task can’t be too difficult or too easy. If it’s not challenging enough, it can be boring, and if it’s too hard, it can put users off. Moreover, when it’s difficult, it can lead to Learned Helplessness. I for once believed that I couldn’t get up at 9 am every morning and finish a glass of water. However, the application provides only 3 tasks a week in order to achieve the challenge. Fabulous tracks your completion rate and makes fancy charts – calendar view, success rate view, timeline view and shows you where you are in your journey with percentages completed. Once you complete the set amount of rituals on your first journey, you will unlock the second journey. It depends on the challenge you have first accepted how many days you have to complete the ritual before you can unlock the new journey. The app also allowed users to match their desired level of difficulties. You can remove or edit your habits, reorder them and adjust their duration. It is easy to add too many routines when you set up the app initially, but it does not mean you are stuck with the bad list forever. Just tap at things and see how easily the app is customizable. Long-press the icon on the left of each habit to move it up or down the list, tap the three dots menu to edit or delete a habit.

Strength: Abandon Forcing Function

When users first download the app, many of them have a forcing function that makes users register before entering. Norman defines forcing functions as “situations in which the actions are constrained so that failure at one stage prevents the next step from happening” (Norman, Pg. 141). This function may be a failure prevention. But in many cases, the user has no idea about what the app does and what personal data it would collect when signing up. In this case, a sense of insecurity occurs when asking private questions like age or address. However, this situation does not happen when users first download Fabulous. All you need to provide is only your name. After some exploration, users can find the sign in access by clicking the little “person” icon on the top right of the screen whenever they are ready to. The app’s purpose of delaying sign up is to secure users trust and confidence.

The Gulf of Evaluation: Feedback

When using products, users face two main Gulfs, the Gulf of Execution and the Gulf of Evaluation. The Gulf of Evaluation is when users try to understand what state they are in and whether their actions were successful. The app addresses the Gulf of Evaluation by providing feedback and letting users know their actions were successful. For example, Fabulous estimates the approximate time needed to complete each routine, and once you tap that rocket button, it will offer one routine after another complete with the countdown timer, a dedicated image, and a neat soundtrack. Take a glass of water, 1 minute, graphic image of water drops, sound of the pouring water. Meditate, 12 minutes, landscape with a moon, drum as the soundtrack. Be grateful, 10 minutes, some inspirational music and a neat image. And so on. Moreover, the app has a voice to go with the UI, so certain crucial parts of it are voice-enabled. The app guides you through the completion of the ritual and calls you by name.

The Gulf of Execution: Signifiers

Users are only human, as Norman’s book states, people can get so distracted that it can cause errors and mistakes. In Fabulous, some scientific terms and reasons can be confusing and difficult to understand. When clicking unwanted bottoms for example “uncheck a habit”Fabulous will simply pop up signifiers to guide you and provide you with logical reasons lead to your right action without annoying the user. Within the app, there also are cases where the app has successfully bridged the Gulf of Execution by using signifiers. For example, Fabulous prompts users with a proposed filling term in the setting bar. This provides users with a better understanding of how the feature can be used and thus bridges the Gulf of Execution.




Motivation: Alarm and Reminder Settings

Another nifty feature is Motivation – Fabulous provides users with the tools to add reminders and set an alarm. By putting reminders on their phone or putting short, snackable quotes from famous people and sources that encourage or explain the goodness behind your routine, users are less likely to forget to finish the task. Norman states electronic reminders are invisible and thus need to be constantly on the screen to remind users. If the notification disappears immediately, users will simply rely on knowledge in the head to remind them of the reminder. The notifications by Fabulous’s reminders do not disappear from the home screen/notifications center until the user swipes it.

Weakness: Letters and Communications

Shorter letters and communications. The introduction letter seems like reading a book and no one has time for that. People would value the insights, but mostly they will lose interest due to the lengthy scientific supports. Even though the long passage also provided with the audio version, its still time consuming and somehow annoying (I just couldn’t finish it!).



Overall Fabulous provides a strong product for users to enjoy. The application has a wealth of healthy, functional routines that will help the user stick to their goal little by little. Also, it tried its best to not make users feel as overwhelmed with changes. However, its wordy explanation and sound preference could be improved in the next upcoming edition.