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Hacking Web Design To Improve The Usability

by Lola M.

There are a few things you should know about design and psychology that will help you create better design and improve usability. Learn more about human perception and science behind the design. Also, find out how to hack attention and decision making processes to improve your website performance.

When we talk to our clients about the process of building custom apps or software, we spend quite a lot of time discussing usability. By usability, we mean the ease of use but also visual appeal and user experience. Working on usability is considered “behind the scenes” work, but it’s something that you need to work on before the development stage.

Psychology in design is everywhere. It’s in between the paragraphs, on your CTA button, below the first scroll on your homepage. Every element on the page has a purpose and has been placed at that exact spot on purpose.

Remember the latest app that you’ve downloaded on your phone. What made you fall in love with it?

The answer is – its usability.

What Is Design For Usability?

Usability is the ease of use, efficiency, and satisfaction. In web and app development, usability also refers to user experience (UX) and visual design. UX and user interface (UI) design are a mix of psychology, computer science, and product design.

Design for usability focuses on human behavior. To improve user experience, design, and conversion stats, we study how people think, how they feel, and what ticks them.

We have been studying psychology and cognitive science to learn more about human behavior.

Cognitive science is a study of the human mind and psychology, but it’s also a study of artificial intelligence and neuroscience. We can also refer to it as an interdisciplinary study of human perception and how we learn about the outside world.

So how exactly do we use cognitive science to improve website design?

We start by studying something common to all of us – human perception. We design and build apps for our users. It’s their perception that we want to study, it’s their experience that we want to improve, and it’s their satisfaction that motivates us to create a better design.

Perception And Design

Neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology study human perception. Did you know that web and app designers study it too?

Hacking Web Design To Improve The Usability

Philosophy teaches us that perception is the process of identifying and understanding sensory information. It’s a process in which we recognize the outside stimuli and categorize it into groups. In philosophy, mind categories are preset concepts in which we place new and existing sensory information. Psychology and neuroscience have a slightly different view on perception, but it all focuses on how we perceive simple and complex stimuli.

How Understanding Cognitive Science Helps With Design?

Imagine opening a website. The first thing you see on the homepage is a video of two people working on the computer. Process of perception categorizes the image of people, the fact that they are working and their computers into mind categories. Now in your short term memory, you have information about people, work and computers.

That information is now stored in short-term memory. Your perception places information into categories, but it’s your logic that uses that information to make conclusions.

Your brain says, “Hey, I landed on this website, and I just saw two people working at their computers, so this must be a software company!”

What’s in your short-term memory will either transition to your long-term memory (unlikely in this case), or it will lead to decision making. What will you do next? It’s time to make a decision.

What we want you to do is to scroll down and learn more about the company or service. We want you to find the answers that you need. You came to the website to find a solution to your problem.

We don’t want you to leave, and we don’t want you to leave disappointed. That’s why we tried hard only to put a few elements that will lead you to the answers. What would happen if we added more than a few?

Imagine a bad designer who insisted on adding a video, process infographic, and a few sign-up forms. The bad designer wanted to add a few charts, latest portfolio projects, and the most popular blog articles.

By looking at a dozen different elements on your search to find the answers, you feel confused.

If there are more than a few visual elements, website visitors suffer from cognitive overload. Cognitive overload happens when we are presented with too much information simultaneously. Therefore, the website visitor is unable to focus and process information, resulting in finding the website useless.

As visual perception is multifaceted and complicated, understanding how people perceive visual elements helps you create a high-quality design. One of the best practices is to choose:

  • Simple design
  • Familiar patterns
  • Straightforward information architecture
  • Symmetry and simplicity
  • Uniform color palette

Attention And Design

Attention is a cognitive process of deliberately focusing on specific information while putting everything else aside.

web design

When we open a website, the first thing that gets our attention is a headline or a cover image. That’s why we want our captions to be informative and memorable. Also, that’s why we choose beautiful cover images that represent our brand.

Since attention is a conscious shift on a piece of information, it’s important not to throw too much information at one place (cognitive overload!). When something gets our attention, we stop to observe it (perception) and then make a decision based on the information we gathered.

Conscious And Unconscious Attention Shifts

To improve usability, we aim to have only the most essential elements on the web page, so we can decrease the number of attention shifts a user has to make. Why? Because shifting back and forth takes energy and effort and can be very tiresome.

Conscious Attention Shifts

Imagine landing on a page and reading, when suddenly the screen goes black, and there’s a huge pop-up window that you don’t care about. You need to make a conscious decision to close it. Its disruptive nature interfered with your reading flow. In other words, it’s annoying.

However, it’s natural that we react to something different by design. If the pop-up window showed an exciting offer or pointed to the shortcut to the solution, you will likely click on it. It’s only okay to interrupt if you are offering a great deal. That is design for usability in a nutshell.

Conscious Attention Shifts

Unconscious Attention Shifts

Good user interface design helps you to decrease the number of unconscious attention shifts. Our mind is goal-oriented. We know what we need, and we know how to find it.

Good user interface design helps you to decrease the number of unconscious attention shifts. Our mind is goal-oriented. We know what we need, and we know how to find it.

Now, imagine that someone is continuously interrupting our search for answers? We would lose sight of what we are looking for and give up our search.

Moreover, we would be very annoyed with that someone. So annoyed that we would never see that person again. Well, this can happen with your website too.

When users land on a website, we try to give them a seamless user experience. We want them to scroll down, to learn more, to click on a button and find answers, but we want them to enjoy the experience. If they find the answers with ease, we did our job well and designed a website that’s usable and functional.

To create such an experience, we eliminate the obstacles that cause unconscious attention shifts. Paula Droege, in her book Caging the Beast: A theory of sensory consciousness states that sensory consciousness is a matter of degree. We may never be able to determine when the actual shift from unconscious to conscious happened.

However, what we know is that the shift requires effort. And putting too much effort to focus on a goal is the opposite of usability.

Hacking Web Design To Improve The Usability

User-centered Design

There are some brilliant designs for design sake, which we have nothing against if you want a web design that looks good and doesn’t have to answer problems or address issues. Sometimes you just need brand representation, and that type of website only requires good graphic design services.

However, more often, you need to design for usability. Ease of use and functionality are more important than cutting edge design, so if you think you need to plaster that neon CTA in the center of your page, then do it.

If you only focus on good looks, you might end with bad user experience. It’s best to design a website your users will love to use and then to find ways to improve the aesthetics. Otherwise, you created a website with an award-winning design that no one in the real world finds useful, and that’s not what brilliant web design is about.

If you want to take another look at your design, start by avoiding cognitive overload. Remember the key is to:

  • Have simple design
  • Use familiar patterns
  • And to choose one color palette and simple graphics