4 UX design concepts based on psychological theories

By UserTesting | December 28, 2023
ux designers collaborating on a project

The study of psychology is useful for people in practically any industry, but few roles have as clear an application as UX designers. Products live or die by their intuitiveness and usability. And to create something that resonates with people, designers must foster empathy and a deep understanding of human behavior. 

While most of us may have some awareness of behavioral trends due to our own experience, understanding psychological theories gives those behaviors a name and can provide designers with ideas on how to improve a user’s experience. In this article, we’ll look at four theories that can help UX designers create more intuitive products and experiences.

Von Restorff effect

Coined by Hedwig Von Restorff in 1933, the Von Restorff effect speaks to the incredible ability of the human brain to recognize and recall pattern interruptions or differences. It describes the tendency of the brain to notice different objects in a set of similar elements, and shows that individuals are more likely to recall those unique elements rather than those that blend in with the rest.

This applies to elements of UX design that are intended to grab a user’s attention. Important actions or key information should be made to be more visually distinctive. However, design is an art and the Von Restorff effect should be used with restraint. If too many design elements are unique and attention-grabbing, they’ll compete with one another and become visually overwhelming for the user.  

Hick’s law 

If you’ve ever scrolled your favorite streaming service for hours on end with decision paralysis, you’re already acquainted with Hick’s Law. This psychological theory states that decisions take longer as the number of options increase. Hick’s Law is directly applicable for UX designers working on digital experiences that require numerous options or multiple user journeys.  

One common strategy is to break up options into related categories to reduce the cognitive load on users. This is why streaming services use genres and delivery apps allow users to filter by cuisine. The easier and quicker it is for people to make a decision, the lower the chance of drop-off and the higher the chance of them returning to the experience.  

The serial-position effect

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, a pioneer in the study of memory, coined the “Serial-Position Effect” which describes the tendency of people to recall the first and last items in a series most accurately. The middle items in a series are typically the most difficult for people to remember, even moments after reviewing a list.

UX designers can make use of the Serial-Position Effect by placing their most important design elements or information first and last in a list, saving the middle for items of less importance. Applying the theory to page position means that important actions should generally be located on the far right or left of a screen for easiest navigation.

Jakob’s law of internet user experience

Jakob’s Law is a modern theory that comes from Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. The theory highlights the fact that most modern internet users spend the majority of their time on websites and digital products that aren’t yours—meaning they’ll be somewhat confused if your design breaks all conventional UX norms.

This poses a challenge for UX designers. As tempting as it may be to come up with unique and extravagant experiences or features, designers run the risk of alienating newcomers. It’s important that users feel comfortable and at-home with a product. Following conventions that people already understand is the best way to trim the learning curve of new products so that the experience feels more natural. Good UX creatively pushes the envelope while paying homage to well-established UX standards. 

Adapting to user standards

For most products, the user experience constantly evolves from iteration to subsequent iteration. As technology progresses, user standards follow suit. Experiences that once worked will need to adapt to retain users and meet their evolving needs. 

By keeping these psychological theories in mind, staying up-to-date with modern UX advancements, and speaking with their audiences, designers can adapt to market changes and build customer-centric products from a foundation of human insight.

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About the author(s)

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