The Psychology of a website user

Jun 12, 2015

I've written about Psychology in website design before (Psychology in website design) but the application of my Psychology degree to the domain of website design is one of my passions.

Psychology is sometimes referred to as an art and indeed, when I completed my degree, two courses were available; a BA(Hons) and a BSc(Hons). The science version appealed to me more because of the experimental and empirical aspect of behaviour which can helps us to make behavioural predictions. Psychology is not the wishy-washy subject that some might think!

How to apply this in website design?

The value of psychology for website designers lies in its ability to predict how a visitor will interact with a website design. There are some well established rules based upon what has been learned from studies on human perception but it's also got an element of experience behind it and I've been involved in digital since 2000.

How the user interacts with a website

In my other article I described how perceptual grouping, layout and colour impact upon how we perceive what how to use a web page. There is a usability test called the five second test which can be applied to assess first impressions and how understandable a page is to a new user. Applied psychology should make it easy for the user to understand what the purpose of the page is and whether they can remember the critical information.

Mental models

A mental model, or a schema, is just a fancy way of describing a person's thought processes and how they understand the world. It is the user's understanding of reality which is not always the same as fact.

We understand the way a button works in the physical world. We know that if we press it then something will happen. This understanding has been mimicked in websites. But often the understanding we have of something doesn't match the reality.

You may be conditioned to think that if you make an error when you complete a form the web page will indicate where you have made a mistake. If it is a long form then this is good user feedback which you may become accustomed too. However, if a web page does not give you feedback and forces you to search for the error then this will give you a negative experience as it breaks your understanding of the online form filling world.

The key point as usual is to understand your user. Understand what they are looking for, perhaps understand how they use the internet and what their goal is. If you understand this you stand a good chance of providing them with the rich, engaging content that they seek and will be able to drive them to a goal that you may have. The best businesses understand their customer and the best businesses are able to align the real world understanding of their customer with their website.

Engender emotion

Our brains remember emotions and the behaviours associated with them. If you can give a positive experience to a user it is more likely that they will remember this and maybe tell a friend. Again, provide engaging website content that meets the need of the user.

Negative experiences such as a form that does not tell you what to do will generate a bad emotional response and be associated with frustration. Ryanair is an airline that is famous for generating a negative experience in its customers and for a long while its CEO didn't care. Even their website was infuriating as it added on lots of extra charges that sometimes doubled the price of the flight.

Defaulting the choice to buying their insurance was one more infuriating feature of their website as insurance could often be accidentally purchased. Ironically, this badly designed user interface showed good understanding of the mental models that people have in completing forms! Has this behaviour hurt Ryanair? Maybe. But unless you are as big as Ryanair then maybe you cannot afford to become the "most hated" brand.

The thinking brain

High quality, rich content - that's what we are to provide to our visitors. It also helps with Search Engine Optimisation (the process of increasing visibility of a web page in a search engine's unpaid results). People tend to analyse data before making a decision and this requires cognition.

Cognition is costly though, unlike just following a schema and we need to be careful that we don't overload our visitor. This does not mean that we can't provide information to our visitors; it means that as the website designer, I need to think of innovative ways of getting the balance right so that if the visitor wants more knowledge then they can obtain it.


The application of psychology in website design is a fascinating area of study. Perception, emotion and cognition are are all involved and I've only just scraped the surface of the subject. If you want to know more then have a look through this crash course in user experience psychology. Just to highlight one area, note the similarity between this and Ryanair's behaviour regarding the default insurance option:

In a nutshell: countries that made people choose to be an organ donor got very few people to do it. Countries that made people choose not to be an organ donor had more than 90% organ donors.

It’s easier for a user do nothing than to do something.

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