Designing for unconscious bias: 5 psych tricks every designer should know

 

Designing for unconscious bias: 5 psych tricks every designer should know

01 Jun Designing for unconscious bias: 5 psych tricks every designer should know

Story ByCarine A.
Illustration ByZach J.

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, humans are incredibly biased creatures; and understanding these biases can help a designer predict and provoke responses. As Joe Sparano, graphic designer for Oxide Design Co. once said: ”Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.”

Nothing makes for better design than knowing what makes your users tick. But before we can predict how a user will interact with a design, it’s important to understand cognitive biases and the shortcuts our brains take when processing information. Some of the most important psych tricks for designers deal with capitalizing off of these biases to direct attention in subtle ways.

Psych tricks that every designer should know

Salience

Salience refers to when one object stands out from the others around it. Of course, there are some pretty standard ways to make something salient, like color contrast;  but one of the best ways to make something salient is to make sure it’s relevant to your user. Our attention is drawn to whatever seems most relevant at the moment, so being able to identify and design for these moments is crucial.

Think With Google defined these as micro-moments, and each one is an opportunity to influence a user’s actions. Great design takes context into consideration and makes sure to simplify everything that could get in the way during those want-to-do moments, want-to-buy or show-me-how moments.

Mental Models

Mental models are psychological representations of real situations. We make sense of the world through experience, then use these experiences as models to anticipate and interpret each new scenario we’re exposed to. Organizing files on a computer seems intuitive because it mimics the process of putting tangible documents into folders: a digital process that plays off of a mental model we have for organization. Our mental models affect everything from decision-making to reasoning.

Mapping out a mental model is basically the process of discovering what your users are familiar with and respond to intuitively. Designers can map out what a person understands about the real world and replicate those models while designing.

Positioning

When it comes to memory, placement tends to have the biggest impact. Serial positioning has two effects: people tend to remember the first few words in a sequence, called primacy, and the last few words, called recency. When it comes to reading lists, the primacy and recency effects both play a significant role in what a person remembers.

Readers scan text instead of reading word-for-word, and serial positioning can help you figure out the best places to grab attention. On web pages, viewers tend to scan pages in a ‘Z’ formation, making the top left, middle and bottom right of your pages great spots for your eye-catching graphics and relevant information. Once you understand how someone views a web page and what draws their focus, you can guide it toward what you want them to focus on.

Anchoring

More often than not, users like default settings because they’re often the easiest option. No one wants friction to get in the way when they’re trying to buy a product or browsing a page. What users don’t realize is that the elimination of friction drastically changes how they behave. How often do we settle for the first result when we’re on a search engine, even when it’s not the most relevant option? Or signed up for a free service we didn’t care about just because it was set as a default opt-out instead of an opt-in? People tend to prefer the path of least resistance. Psychologist Daniel Ariely said it best: “eliminating small frictions can radically alter one’s decisions”.

Whenever a person uses a default setting or follows those prompts to ‘buy with one click’, they’re accepting those predetermined paths as an anchor. Whatever they’re exposed to becomes a basis for a cognitive bias that can lead the user to selectively ignore other choices. You can actually make your user happy and serve your own interests, just by using the discrete power of your default.

Visceral reactions

Design for reactions means much more than making something pretty, and learning how to design for visceral reactions has the power to turn your users into engaged fans. Users typically have a hard time communicating what evokes their visceral responses, but psych says that visceral reactions are unconscious thoughts that are triggered whenever we see a representation of food, shelter, or danger. Airbnb does this all of the time with their ads. By selecting visuals that invoke your visceral reactions to shelter and belonging, they make sure to capture your attention and create an emotional response to their brand.

Things can’t just look good, they have to look good while resonating with someone’s emotions. Visceral design can be the difference between an app that’s just pretty and the app that you check over and over throughout the day, even when you don’t have a notification. Capitalizing off of the most simple human responses can help you create satisfying experiences people can’t get enough of.

Making the most of biases

Once you understand these psych shortcuts, you’ll have an easier time making sure your designs grab (and keep) the attention of your users. Now that you have these awesome tricks up your sleeve, be sure to use your powers for good.

 

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