7 Principles of Design Psychology Every UX Designer Should Know

January 9, 2023

UX design is not just about making things look good. Yes, it’s important to attract users’ initial interest, and an attractive user interface can do wonders in creating engagement, but visual design only scratches the surface of what you need to consider when thinking about the user experience.

UX design is really about two core principles:

  1. Giving the user a fulfilling experience. While users are interacting with a Web site, they should feel that their time is well spent there. The result of a good user experience is customer satisfaction—so, whether you’re measuring customer-satisfaction (CSAT) or your net promoter score (NPS), your business score should benefit.
  2. Propelling the user down an appropriate path. If users are interested in what a site is selling, the site needs to move them to a position where they can do some buying.
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Providing help with both these aspects of UX design is invaluable to businesses seeking conversions. Toward these ends, the biggest help UX professionals can provide are insights into the behaviors of the user. Knowing what users are likely to enjoy and how they’re likely to respond is very valuable knowledge. Gaining such insights into users’ behaviors is part of the discipline of design psychology.

What Is Design Psychology?

In brief, design psychology is all about understanding human behavior and applying that understanding to the creation and fine-tuning of interaction designs. By taking what the field of behavioral psychology has unearthed about the ways in which people typically respond to certain visual stimuli and applying it to visual design, UX designers can be hopeful of eliciting the desired outcomes.

Let’s look at a really basic example: A site has a call-to-action (CTA) button, but not many people are clicking it—even though the site is getting a significant number of visits and the time visitors are spending during each visit is very respectable.

A design psychologist can immediately spot the problem. It’s not tricky. The button is too small, so is getting lost among the other design elements. The perspective of design psychology tells us that visibility is key. You can encourage and cajole people to do what you want them to do, but if they can’t readily find the CTA button, they won’t click it.

Design psychology easily spots these kinds of problem by focusing on the individual user experience and bringing the determinants of users’ behavior to the fore.

The Importance of Understanding the Principles of Design Psychology

Let’s consider four benefits of understanding the principles of design psychology.

1. Creating designs based on human behavior and satisfaction.

One of the scientific wonders of the world is that, although we may believe that the human brain is gloriously unpredictable and individuated, there are several psychological principles that tend to govern all human behavior.

An awareness of these principles can assist you in your site-design process. It’s important to make users feel happy when using your site and satisfied with their interactions. Any awkwardness would likely affect their willingness to take their relationship with your organization further.

2. Improving your analytical and research skills.

Once you have a grounding in the tenets of design psychology, you can apply this understanding to other related areas. Understanding human behavior is the key to unlocking the solutions to a wide variety of analytical challenges.

3. Helping to formulate design solutions for common to complex problems.

In our earlier example, you saw how you can bring the solution of simply enhancing visibility into play. However, the issues might not be that easy to discern every time. For instance, a CTA might be sufficiently visible, but because it doesn’t fit with the brand image, could appear jarring—resulting in users having a slight unwillingness to click the button, whether conscious or not.

4. Saving users’ time.

Saving people’s time is hugely important. We’ve all seen stats that tell us people are willing to wait for a page to load only a very short time. For any human-computer interaction (HCI) and regardless of where the customer is on your customer-lifecycle mapping, time is of the essence. You can take advantage of the need for speed by enabling users to quickly get where they want to go through design psychology.

7 Essential Principles of Design Psychology for UX Designers

Design psychology comprehends certain key principles. Let’s consider seven of them now.

1. Principle of Least Effort

This principle is fairly obvious. People usually prefer to expend as little effort as possible to achieve a given result. What significance does this have for UX design?

Let’s consider an example: user instructions. They can be a real drag, so the answer is to make them as interactive as possible. The sooner instructions can deliver real results to users, the more positively they’ll perceive the whole instructional experience. We can extend this interactive principle to tasks that are inherently difficult such as learning a new language.

2. Von Restorff Effect

When it comes to visual elements, important things should stand out. Yes, this is another obvious one, but it’s hugely important. If a group of similar objects contains one that is dissimilar, guess which one people will likely remember.

This principle is extremely useful if the designer wants to direct the user’s attention toward something. Make that thing pop from its background, and you’ve instantly given it more significance in the eye of the user.

Getting back to that CTA button, the Von Restorff effect, or isolation effect, tells us that making something contrast with its background gives it the best chance of being noticed. Another application of this principle would be highlighting the best-selling products when creating a digital brochure. You can apply this principle to any design element on a Web site whether in text logos or menus.

3. Principle of Perpetual Habit

People like familiarity. Sure, we also crave novelty and excitement, but fundamentally, we need to be able to rely on our acquired knowledge to successfully navigate a situation. Therefore, we depend a great deal on our habituated behaviors. In a given situation, what’s worked for us before should doubtless work again.

However, change the rules of the situation—for instance, so pages on a site are not where the user expects them to be—and confusion, frustration, and negativity are the results. Users expect to be able to use their perpetual habits.

What does this mean for UX designers? First, even when you’re striving to create new experiences, keep certain constants in place. For instance, it’s common to place a Contact Us link and company details at the bottom of a page. Stick with this pattern.

Second, where you’ve made new changes to a page layout, flag them. Basically, you’re extending users the courtesy of letting them know that they may need to be a bit more on their toes as they enter the site, which is quite exciting in itself.

4. Hick’s Law and Hick-Hyman Law

The more choices you give users, the longer it takes them to decide. Thus, sometimes, less is more. Think of a child having to choose just one candy from a line of twenty different types. Then imagine that same child choosing between just two. You can easily see which scenario would result in a quicker decision.

What this means for site design: you should not confront the user with a stupendous list of innumerable options. It’s much better, for all concerned, to structure a long list of options into a series of restricted choices.

5. Emotional Contagion

Happiness is catching. So are other emotions. We’re emulative creatures, which means, in certain situations, we mirror the emotions and behaviors we see in others.

Design psychology tells us that, if we want to elicit a behavior in the user, we should depict that behavior on the screen. A simple instance of this would be site designers’ showing a photo of some conservation protesters shouting because they want users to demonstrate passion about saving the rainforests.

6. Serial Position Effect

In a list of similar-looking options, whether a lineup of dog breeds or a list of Web-site design-proposal templates, a user is most likely to remember the first and last items. So, if you want to inspire a particular course of action, make that action the first or the last choice in the list.

7. Identity Principle

We do not build our sense of self in isolation, but in relation to others around us—for example, considering nationality, ethnicity, and, not least, brands.

To take advantage of this phenomenon, a UX designer should use brand references wherever they can—whether in instances of a Monogram logo or illustrating positive brand associations such as an active lifestyle. Making an effort to highlight the brand makes it more likely that the user will identify with that brand. This, of course, makes purchases more likely as well.

How Understanding Design Psychology Benefits UX Designers and Users

An understanding of design psychology provides benefits all around. The UX designer has a solid set of objective design principles on which to base a site’s construction. For instance, a design decision is no longer just about using the designer’s favorite font. It’s about what design psychology can tell us about using that font in that setting and its effect on the user.

For users, it’s about making their interactions with a site as pleasurable as possible. With the insights that design psychology gives UX designers, they’ll be in a good position to know what users will perceive positively, which can help speed up the average sales cycle.


UX designers sometimes struggle to see a way forward. They know how to make a site look great, but might be coming up with nothing that can shape the user experience to elicit certain user behaviors.

This is where design psychology can be very helpful. Through the application of scientific principles of design, UX designers can work elements that shape behavior into the customer journeys they create. Most users are completely unaware of this—unless they happen to be human-psychology majors. They’ll only be aware that they’re having a great experience on a Web site. 

Senior Manager, Content Marketing, at Dialpad

San Francisco, California, USA

Jenna BunnellJenna is Senior Manager for Content Marketing at Dialpad, whose cloud-hosted VoIP and PBX systems incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) to create a unified communications system that provides valuable call details to business owners and sales representatives. She is driven and passionate about communicating the brand’s design sensibility and visualizing how to present content in creative and comprehensive ways. Jenna has also written for other domains such as TRAFFIT and Codemotion.  Read More

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