User experience (UX) is what convinces someone to keep using a product beyond the functionalities. This may not seem like much of a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But when you consider the finicky nature of app users today, it’s easy to see why UX should always be at the top of your list as you prepare your product for its official debut to the masses.
The fact is that nearly 25 percent of users will abandon an app after a single use. This number jumped a full percentage point from 2016 to 2017, which may not seem major either. However, app abandonment rates are at an all-time high. And only 37 percent of users report returning to an app more than ten times.
That first visit is the one that’s important. But what constitutes a good user experience? There is no one-size-fits-all answer here. There have been plenty of products that were based on what was, in theory, a good idea that still ended up failing because they didn’t connect with users. Therefore, it’s not always the simplicity of a product’s design that matters to users.
It’s what goes on in the mind of a typical user that will ultimately determine if they have a good user experience. So, it only stands to reason that having a better idea of the psychology behind UX could help you understand what tends to keep users engaged as you design and develop your product.
1. Motivation Is Internal and External
In the world of psychology, this is referred to as extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic means what outside influence motivate someone to do something. Intrinsically refers to internal motivation. It’s like what happens with exercise apps that include rewards for users who achieve certain goals. The reward that’s offered is an external motivation.
However, the reward approach is only effective for people who don’t normally enjoy doing a certain activity. People who like the exercise, for example, won’t be motivated to keep using an app for that purpose once the reward is taken away. In psychological terms, this is the over-justification effect.
The website Freeletics gets around the over-justification thing by requiring users to achieve a basic level of fitness first. Users then get rewarded with stars based on performance as they advance through the challenges and achieve.
Typically, users of this site have a combination of internal motivation to exercise and do well for their satisfaction along with a desire to earn rewards based on achievements. So, a happy medium between internal and external motivation is achieved with this particular UX.
2. People Can Get Overwhelmed
When creating a product, you may have a list of all the wonderful things you want it to do. While it’s good to give people choices, there is such a thing is overkill here. The human mind is only capable of processing so much information at once.
In one experiment involving a gourmet market, customers were given a choice of 24 jams or just six jams. Sixty percent of consumers were attracted to the larger assortment while only 40 percent gravitated towards the smaller selection. However, 30 percent of customers with fewer choices bought jam, but only 3 percent of the people with more choices made a purchase.
Hick’s Law is a related psychological concept that says people will take a longer amount of time to decide if they have more choices. Therefore, it makes more sense only to present a limited number of choices at any given time as users advance through your interface.
Even though many people pride themselves on being efficient multi-taskers, research suggests most people can’t multi-task very well. Avoid overwhelming your intended users by limiting your app or product to either one main task or a handful of tasks that can be easily explained. Further enhance the UX with your product’s capabilities by:
• Creating a user-friendly onboarding process (to explain how everything works)
• Explaining product tasks with a mix of text (in short paragraphs) and relevant visuals
• Starting with basic choices and adding additional options later once users get used to your product’s basic features
3. People Make Mistakes, So Anticipate Them (When Possible)
Get out of the habit of thinking that every user will automatically use your product flawlessly. People are human, so mistakes will be made while performing certain functions and tasks. Account for the possibility of mistakes with user interface to allow users to undo things.
However, you want to limit the appearance of error messages as much as possible by building in steps to anticipate common mistakes. Too many error messages can become an instant source of stress for users. When error messages do appear on your product, they should be very specific about what was done wrong and offer a suggestion on how to correct the problem.
One way to anticipate mistakes is to go where users will likely be using your product if it makes sense to do so. If you have a running app, for example, you might hang out at marathons or other places where runners normally gather to get an idea of what possible mistakes might be made as they use your product.
With running apps, a common desire among users is to be able to pause it to allow for interruptions. Map My Run anticipates the possibility of users accidentally tapping “stop” instead of “pause” by requiring users to swipe if they want to stop a run. Since swiping requires more effort than tapping, it’s less likely users will accidentally stop their runs. Apply the same concept of anticipating expected user errors to your product by:
• Conducting small focus groups with users to find out what the most common mistakes happen to be (before doing a full launch of your product)
• Talking to likely to see what problems they typically encounter with similar apps
• Adding appropriate barriers to minimize mistake risks
• Immersing yourself in a typical user’s environment to see what might cause you to make mistakes while using your product
4. People Have a Preconceived Notion of What They Can Likely Do
In psychological terms, this is known as self-efficacy. It’s a term linked to cognitive behaviors that means how well an individual thinks they will be able to complete a task before they even try to do it.
If you have users, who are confident they can perform the intended tasks with your product are more likely to have a good UX if they can do what they figured they would be able to do. However, there are times when your users will have a low self-efficacy. In other words, they’re doubtful of their ability to use your product.
One study that tested the self-efficacy concept involved 1100 participants. The subjects used websites that allowed them to complete certain tasks such as scheduling a flight or booking a car rental. Individuals who had previous experience with a website were more likely to give the site a higher usability score.
UX researchers aren’t oblivious to the importance of the level of experience. Many UX researchers do regular testing to determine the capabilities of users. But how do you measure people’s self-efficacy? Surveys can be an effective way to do this as you gather research for your product. Keep your surveys short and ask very specific questions to get a better idea of the level of experience your users will likely have with your type of product.
Let’s say you do some initial testing before a full product launch. If you find that users who feel highly capable of their abilities are finding your product difficult to use, take it as a sign that your user interface needs some adjustments.
5. Human Memory Is Complex (But Recall Is Limited)
People tend to reconstruct memories to recall something. It’s the reason why you can ask five people to give their account of the same event they witnessed and get five different versions of what happened. So, don’t make people remember too many steps every time they use your product. Because you will inevitably have users, who will forget one or two steps if there are too many things to remember.
When people have to exercise too much thought to complex a task (“cognitive load”), they will either purposely avoid doing that task again or forget some steps in the process to do it. Research shows that any given task should not involve more than 3–4 steps. If your tasks get more complex than this, the UX isn’t likely to be a good one, especially if users keep missing steps.
Serial positioning also helps with user memory because people often remember the first and last steps in a series of things. For this reason, many of the popular iOS apps put the “home” and “profile” items either way over on the right or over to the left.
6. Things That Are Different Often Grab Users’ Attention
The human mind is naturally interested in anything that stands out from the ordinary. The Von Restorff effect (isolation effect) is a related psychological concept stating that people are more likely to pay more attention to an object that’s different when shown a group of similar things. This is why call-to-action buttons on websites are often a different font size and color than surrounding text.
On the other hand, it can be a challenge to hold users’ attention. The average attention span today is just under 10 seconds. While people are attracted to things that stand out, they are also easily distracted. With UX, this means you’ll want an interface that’s designed to retain the user’s attention anytime they’re using your product to complete a task.
It’s the psychology of attention that explains why many of the most popular apps have welcome screens and onboarding processes that designed to grab attention right away. The working memory is what contains information about focus and attention. Unfortunately, working memory is relatively short, so people are naturally selective with what they pay attention to at any given moment.
Websites that are designed well keep user attention span in mind by displaying whatever it is somebody searched for on the results page (e.g., someone types in “men’s t-shirts” in the search bar on a website and the results page has “men’s t-shirts” at the top to remind users what they just typed). The same concept is applied to apps that constantly show what mode an user is in while they are working on a task.
7. The Human Brain Craves Information
We all have a biological need for information. It has to do with a chemical in the brain called dopamine, the same compound released by neurons (nerve cells) that causes people to seek rewards. Having access to information makes people feel like they have available choices while also making them feel in control. This concept can be applied to the user experience by giving users instant access to info throughout their use of your product. Some ways to do this include:
• Providing easy access to a help/info button or tab
• Letting users know how long it will take to complete a task (e.g., “just one more step and you’ll be done!”)
• Telling people when an app is loading (there is no logical reason to include this message, but the human mind wants to know what’s going on at any given moment)
8. People Naturally Group Things Visually
The human mind naturally forms visual patterns. Welcome to the law of proximity. This is why people find patterns in cloud formations. It’s also why an effective user interface will have things grouped where it makes sense to do so. People will naturally assume things that are close together are automatically related anyway. So, why not take advantage of the way the human mind groups things visually with your design?
People’s visual system isn’t just about grouping objects. It’s also about the choice of colors and font styles and sizes on your product. Studies on eye tracking suggest that just because something is right in front of someone doesn’t mean that’s where their eye will focus. The eye recognizes visuals better if they’re slightly angled or off-center (canonical perspective).
Studies on color combinations show that red and blue are hard colors for people to look at when they’re together. Colors can also enhance the UX by showing people what belongs together or highlighting what’s important on a screen. Just remember to differentiate key elements of your content and design in other ways since some people are colorblind.
9. People Like Patterns
People like to develop patterns. These patterns are known as mental models or learned habits that influence behaviors. Banking and payment apps are a perfect example of the pattern concept, also referred to in psychological terms as the germane cognitive load.
What happens is that people develop mental models with certain behaviors like using a remote control, paying monthly bills, or going to the grocery store when they need more food. In some cases, your task with your product is to create new mental models that will influence use. Apple did this effectively with its iPad and iPhone products.
This is also what happened with payment and banking apps. People eventually learned that the actions such apps can help them do were easy to complete and convenient, which is why many users of these apps habitually use them to pay for stuff and complete banking transactions that previously required an in-person interaction with a teller. In fact, roughly a third of consumers now check banking apps once a day and nearly 85 percent check them once a week or more. Apply this concept to UX by:
• Researching behaviors common among people who typically use your type of product
• Teaching users to develop a new mental model for the tasks your app will do (if it doesn’t easily fit into an existing model)
• Using common metaphors to explain what the UX will be like (e.g., “it’s just like reading a book”)
As you can see from this list, there are certain psychological behaviors that will affect the user experience. Then why are only 0.01 percent of apps considered a financial success by their creators? Part of the reason is the failure to fully understand what will likely motivate people to use a product before its official launch. And once people have a less-than-impressive UX, they’re less likely to give your product another shot, even if you do some tinkering with it.
Having a formal model in mind that you can center your user experience around can increase your odds of connecting with users beyond the first-time use. It’s equally essential to do your research and continuously solicit feedback at all stages of the development process, not just when your product launches. Doing so can help you get inside the heads of users to better understand what they expect from the user experience.