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    The Role of Cognitive Psychology in Website Design

    By Roger Banks

    Simply put, cognitive psychology is the study of how people think. Information is all around us and cognitive psychology is the science that explains how humans assimilate and respond to the same. It explores various mental operations like processing and storing information, perceptiveness, and decision-making. 


    Learning how people think is key to understanding their behavioral patterns. Several industries take advantage of behavioral psychology, particularly the part that influences decision-making. Consequently, businesses may predict how their customers react to certain sales strategies. In addition, they can also streamline consumer behavior by influencing their psychology, thereby guiding their thinking to desired outcomes.


    cognitive psychology in mobile website design

    Effective web design is geared toward providing visitors with outstanding user experiences. Since cognitive psychology helps to create user interfaces that align with cognitive patterns, its role in web design cannot be ignored. Instead of aiming blindly and hoping for the best, it provides a much more precise way to work and improves all main functions of web design, such as accessibility, navigation, readability, and usability. 


    By understanding and leveraging the psychology of web design, websites are optimized for increased conversion rates. Although analyzing every online visitor is an impossible challenge, the following cognitive psychology examples help to better understand them:

    • Figure-ground: This deals with helping web users focus on the key elements of a website. By following this principle, online visitors can easily differentiate the background from the foreground. 
    • Proximity: This is an effective visual tool that helps users distinguish between separate web content and functions. Since grouped elements generally convey correlation, they appear more related to web users than others spaced farther apart. 
    • Similarity: Just like the concept of proximity, similarity deals with grouping design elements based on like characteristics. When objects share similar visual attributes like color and shape, visitors perceive them as related.
    • Closure: The human mind is wired to fill in the blanks. As long as enough information is available for the brain to work with, web users can make out recognizable patterns despite some missing details. This principle creates simplicity and minimalism in web design while the human brain works out the rest. However, one needs to provide adequate information for the brain to recognize and complete the patterns. 
    • Continuity: This principle also harnesses the ability of the mind to identify patterns. The tendency to follow smooth-flowing graphics can be leveraged to guide users along your design and ultimately toward important web features. 
    • Symmetry: A well-balanced website is an attractive one. A study on web-user behavior reveal that visitors abandon websites in a matter of seconds due to poor first impressions. Before online visitors settle in, they briefly scan pages and judge websites based on what they see. A nicely designed website is symmetrically composed with colors, text, and other design elements proportionately positioned.


    Apart from functionality, aesthetics are equally important to your web design. A website may be fully functional and yet remain an eyesore. It is imperative to create a website that balances performance and attractiveness because both matter to visitors. Think of web pages as physical landscapes and design them in a way that invites visitors to pleasant experiences. Additionally, make them easily navigable by creating clear-cut paths to important information and features. 

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    How to Apply Cognitive Psychology to Web Design

    Creating a product based solely on your own perspective and expecting users to get accustomed to it is like shooting in the dark. Cognitive psychology is key to user-centered web design and here are five ways to apply cognitive principles in UX design:


    1. Reduce Cognitive Load

    Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort required to process and understand new information. Consider the effects of running too many programs on a computer. As the load increases, it slows down the processor until it eventually freezes. Similarly, putting too much load on web users strains their processing capacity. 


    While websites are meant to offer exhaustive information to visitors, overloading them creates negative user experiences. Not only are they overwhelmed and confused by all there is to process, but they are dissuaded from returning to the website. Preventing this requires designing a user interface that is less strenuous and more comprehensible. Some methods of reducing cognitive load include:

    • Eliminating unnecessary actions: According to the Hicks Law of cognitive psychology, the more choices an individual is presented with, the longer it takes for him/her to decide. The implication of this in web design is that it often produces many indecisive web users and thereby prevents them from interacting with the website as expected. It is advisable to limit the number of actions per page. Consider one primary action supported by a few secondary ones. Additionally, make actions easy to complete. Highlight and magnify where necessary so users know precisely what to do.
    • Decluttering the design: Avoid oversaturated graphics. Using too many design elements often produces a congested website. Apart from the visual discomfort it creates, it also slows down the loading speed of web pages, thereby affecting user experience in a negative way.
    • Grouping related elements: By grouping design elements based on their related functionality, users can easily differentiate between web features. Instead of expecting them to figure things out on their own, provide as much assistance as possible. Effective web design guides navigation. Elements can either be grouped by proximity or similarity.
    • Improve content readability: All text contained on a website should be effortlessly readable. When choosing the font type and size, ensure that in addition to aesthetically fitting into the web design, they also contribute to legibility. You can highlight or magnify important text like calls to action. For more interactivity, consider making them clickable. 


    cognitive psychology in ux design

    2. Maximize Attention Span

    When multiple sources claim to offer the same solution, there is a tendency for web users to be impatient. Most web users are directed to various websites by entering search engine queries. With several search results to look through, they can hardly take their time exploring each one. The race for maximizing their attention span is on, and according to UI and UX experts at Nielsen Norman Group, you only have about 20 seconds to do so. 


    Since cognitive psychology helps you peek into the minds of web users, you can invest your 20 seconds wisely and expect impressive results. Offer them what they’re looking for in bold and bright text. At first glance, users can immediately see if websites have what they need and this catches their attention. However, to maximize the effect, don’t offer them everything all at once. Instead, make it an invitation for them to further explore the website. 


    Another effective way of maximizing the attention of web users is by adding interactive features to your web design. Remember you only have around 20 seconds to make an impression, so make it a memorable one by adding intelligent and interactable features. A user experience like that registers in the minds of online visitors long after they’ve left a website. A brilliant example is Clippy (officially Clippit), Microsoft’s defunct Office assistant. Although the feature was discontinued as far back as 2007, memories of it have lingered as a source of nostalgia. 


    Interactive web design is a great way to optimize user attention and maintain engagement. Consider using simple animations for loading pages and clickable actions as well as other interactive features that make the website relatable. In addition to an exciting user experience, interactive web design can also guide users through otherwise complicated and tedious tasks like filling out forms and applications. 


    3. Design for User Retention

    While effective web design aims to attract online visitors, it also needs to retain them. Otherwise, websites would suffer from increased bounce rates. It’s in a website’s interest that visitors take their time to explore web pages, discovering what a business has to offer. The longer they spend perusing web pages, the higher the chances of converting them into customers.

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    The retention theory is one of five cognitive psychology principles that help you understand how best to engage visitors and keep them on your website for longer periods. Retention principles expose elements within the web design that could sabotage website traffic and conversion. By helping you identify the pitfalls of web design and how they compromise the user experience, you can incorporate countermeasures into your design. 


    For instance, according to the retention theory, one such pitfall is offering the wrong aesthetic. Web design aesthetics are composed of related themes that communicate the purpose of a website. A website for dogs isn’t expected to carry aquatic themes. To do so would be a blunder in communicating the site’s purpose and would also confuse visitors. 


    Another counter-retention example is grammatical incoherence. If the goal is to keep visitors hooked, the content has to captivate them. Poorly structured content conveys subpar workmanship and it leaves no room for credibility. 


    4. Create Compelling Content 

    Content that converts transcends offering information; it has to provoke certain emotions that stimulate a visitor’s mental faculties. You’re not just trying to help them process facts, you’re also looking to influence their choices. The Chameleon Effect or emotional contagion is a cognitive principle stating how humans tend to subconsciously mimic or empathize with the behaviors and feelings of others. 


    Web designers use this theory to create certain types of content intended to provoke specific emotions in users. By strategically placing some information in their content, a variety of feelings can be incited to simulate user behavior and achieve defined goals.


    The use of emotional triggers and personality-oriented content assists web designers in provoking certain emotions that arrest the cognitive biases of web users. By successfully stimulating emotional responses in users, it’s easier to win them over. Consider how anti-animal trafficking websites display images of loveable animals in deplorable conditions. This is designed to initiate an emotional response that motivates visitors to join their cause. 


    Another good example is the Duolingo Owl. The green mascot excitedly cheers users on as they complete language courses on the platform. This creates a sense of achievement that motivates users to complete more courses. 


    Emotional contagion can also be used to soothe negative emotions like the frustration from encountering an error page. An example is how instead of the traditional 404 error text, defective pages now read something like “oops, you seem lost, let’s get you back to safety”. These often have quirky graphics attached to them to further placate the frustration.


    psychology of interaction design

    5. Strategically Position Design Elements

    People typically look for the quickest ways to find information and this affects how they conduct searches, both, offline and online. Since most web users are used to certain web design practices, they hardly go through 100% of web pages. For example, anyone looking for the options tab knows to look for three dots or dashes at the top corners of web pages. Anything else is likely to cause some degree of confusion or frustration.


    Additionally, in a list, most web users tend to pay more attention to the first and last items while they glance through everything else in between. Taking note of these cognitive patterns improves the efficiency of web design by helping you position certain elements in strategic places. While innovation may be welcome, a radical departure from established patterns will prompt navigation issues. Design changes should be gradually introduced so users can grow accustomed to them.


    By leveraging this principle, you can choose the right progression of items in your design. Knowing where web users will look also helps you decide what they see and predict how they are likely to respond. You’re essentially providing a better user experience by taking advantage of their online habits.



    The role of cognitive psychology in website design is indispensable. A basic understanding of human thought processes can significantly improve the creative process. When digital professionals identify the patterns of human cognition, web users can have their needs met through a seamless user experience. 


    Instead of taking creative liberties that have little or no effect on user behavior, cognitive principles are guidelines for web designers to display their creativity in ways that drive user engagement. In a nutshell, they help even the best web designers give the people what they want.

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