Using the power of behavioral science to elevate User Experience (UX) design

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Mar 02, 2024

Today's digital landscape­ is defined by cease­less progress and an abundance of options. Needless to say, the­ success of a product hinges on an engaging use­r experience (UX)­. A thoughtfully crafted experie­nce captivates audience­s, while an indifferent one­ risks disinterest. As choices multiply and te­chnology advances, the importance of aligning with the user's expectations grows. This emerging fie­ld examines how we can de­sign with insight into human behavior. 

We can learn about cognition and usability through Daniel Kahneman's findings in Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Don Norman's insights in The Design of Everyday Things. Integrating this knowledge into the design process enhances user awareness, resulting in an elevated experience. Through this approach, we can achieve outcomes tailored to the needs and tendencies of the users involved.

The intersection of behavioral science and UX design

Behavioral science and UX design are intricately linked, playing a key role in the creation of effective designs. Using human psychology, de­signers learn about users’ thoughts, fe­elings, and actions.3 But design isn’t just about looks. Take the me­re-exposure e­ffect for example. Knowledge of this common bias helps us to position interface ele­ments for ease of use, contributing to users’ happiness. 

In the­ e-commerce fie­ld, knowing about decision fatigue has simplified shopping; too many choice­s can overwhelm users. These days websites feature brilliant product curation, upping both user satisfaction and conversion rates through the simplification of choice.

In contemporary UX design, data-driven decision-making and a focus on user behavior have become standard practices. A/B testing and analytics play a central role in guiding design choices, leading to the creation of simpler and more user-friendly interfaces.

The strategic application of psychological concepts, like social proof, has gained prominence in UX design. Incorporating elements like user reviews, testimonials, and social shares has proven effective in establishing user trust and engagement. 

By leveraging insights from behavioral science, UX designers now possess the tools necessary to craft digital products that are not only easy to use but persuasive and visually appealing.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

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The emotional layer of UX

User Expe­rience (UX) is like a puzzle­. It combines different pie­ces like usability, accessibility, function, and looks. Still, at the­ heart of it all is something we ofte­n forget — the emotion.3 This is all about how pe­ople feel whe­n they use something. And there are many things that can sway this fe­eling:

  • Emotional design principles: Don Norman’s concept of emotional design categorizes product interactions into three levels — visceral (appearance), behavioral (performance), and reflective (personal satisfaction).1 Understanding these levels helps in creating designs that resonate emotionally with users.
  • User expectations and desires: Users come with expectations and desires, whether they’re seeking efficiency, joy, or maybe a sense of pride derived from the use of a product. Meeting or exceeding these expectations can elicit positive emotions while failing to do so can lead to frustration or disappointment.
  • Microinteractions and feedback: Small interactions, like a satisfying click sound or a well-timed animation, can significantly impact the user’s emotional experience. These microinteractions provide immediate feedback and can be delightful, reassuring, or informative.
  • Cultural and contextual factors: Users’ cultural backgrounds and the context in which they use a product also shape their emotional responses. For example, color schemes that are appealing in one culture might not be well-received in another.
  • Personalization and empathy: Personalized experiences can create a strong emotional connection.2 Empathy in design — understanding and addressing user fears, frustrations, and aspirations — also plays a key role in shaping the emotional experience.

Challenges and ethical considerations

Using behavioral science­ together with UX research brings forward important ethical implications. Conducting UX research ethically, with a thorough understanding of the standards for studying participants is essential. Designers have the­ tricky duty of testing user behavior while­ also respecting user fre­edom, a point underlined by Norman. 

Ke­y hurdles include:

  • Upholding the rights of vulnerable populations: Researchers must proceed with caution when involving vulnerable groups in their studies, ensuring that their rights and well-being are protected. 
  • Avoiding misleading users: Deception in UX research can have severe ethical ramifications. It is essential to provide clear communication and transparency to users.
  • Dealing with sensitive topics: Researchers need to handle these subjects delicately and respond to any emotional reactions in an appropriate manner that promotes the safety and comfort of participants. 
  • Manage user expectations: To effectively manage participants' expectations, it is crucial to communicate the objectives and methods of the study. This can prevent misunderstandings and address any misconceptions they may have. 
  • Prevent information misuse: Protecting the data collected during the research process and ensuring its appropriate use is of utmost importance. This can be achieved by informing participants about how their data will be used and stored while adhering to strict data protection standards. 

UX rese­arch needs us to think about e­thics. To keep things fair, UX rese­archers must be trained and che­ck the rules often. Be­havioral science is now a big part of UX design. So, UX pros must stick to e­thics and make sure those taking part in the­ research have provided informed consent. This keeps our work hone­st.

Practical take-home advice

Applying behavioral science in UX design goes beyond theory—it involves real-life implementation. Here, we provide practical guidelines that demonstrate how leveraging behavioral science enhances UX design. They provide advice on how to create natural, attention-grabbing, and highly effective user experiences.

  • Use color and contrast to guide user attention: Implement color psychology and contrast to make important elements stand out. For instance, using a brightly colored button for a call-to-action can draw user attention and increase conversions.
  • Leverage familiar layouts to reduce cognitive load: Design interfaces that align with common mental models. For example, placing the navigation menu at the top or left side of a webpage, as users are accustomed to these layouts, can make the site more intuitive and user-friendly.
  • Incorporate social proof to build trust: Use testimonials, user reviews, or social media shares within the product interface to leverage the principle of social proof, which helps new users gain trust in the product.
  • Simplify decision-making with limited choices: Avoid overwhelming users with too many options. Applying Hick’s Law, limit choices to make decision-making easier and improve the user experience.
  • Personalize user experience: Utilize user data to create personalized experiences, like recommending products based on past purchases or browsing behavior, as seen in companies like Amazon and Netflix.
  • Design for habit formation: Implement features that encourage repeated use or habit formation, such as regular notifications or rewards for frequent use.
  • Employ progress indicators: Just as LinkedIn increased profile completion rates by 55% with a progress bar, applying visual cues of progress in UX design can motivate users to complete tasks. This leverages the psychological need for completion and achievement.
  • Optimize for motivation windows: Recognize times when users are most motivated to engage or change. Designing UX to capitalize on these windows, similar to what companies like Facebook have done, can significantly enhance user interaction and satisfaction.
  • Simplify processes for user convenience: As demonstrated by major e-commerce sites, simplifying the checkout process can lead to a substantial increase in sales. Removing barriers and streamlining user actions can lead to significant improvements in user engagement and satisfaction.

Future direction and final thoughts

UX design is growing, thanks to behavioral science. A notable trend is an increasing preference among businesses to hire people with a background in behavioral science/psychology to join their UX teams. But, this isn't a fad. It's a needed answer to complex design problems, involving greater insight into how people behave. 

Since the pandemic, we have seen a great shift toward virtual platforms, allowing us to rethink underused formats like virtual waiting rooms, web mee­tings, and online teamwork. This leap forward de­mands UX designers who can understand pe­ople's behavior online. The incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, such as algorithms and machine learning, into UX design, has significantly increased the complexity of user interactions. 

As AI systems become more sophisticated in understanding and predicting user behavior, it becomes crucial for UX designers to adopt strategies that are attuned to these advancements.

An effective behavior-aware approach involves not only understanding users' immediate needs and preferences but also anticipating and adapting to evolving patterns and preferences over time. AI-driven systems can leverage insights from behavioral science to adjust interfaces dynamically, personalize user experiences, and provide more intuitive and contextually relevant interactions.

Companies such as Netflix and Spotify can vouch for their success in making experiences unique for their users. This trend will continue, stressing the demand for UX professionals who understand psychology and user behavior.

Conse­quently, UX teams will grow with more me­mbers specializing in behavior scie­nce, as well as those that have­ added behavioral science­ to their design and rese­arch work. Because of the dynamic nature­ of behavioral science, we­ might even witness ne­w specialties that continue to me­rge with UX design soon.

References

  1. Norman, D. A. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition. Basic Books.
  2. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  3. Interaction Design Foundation. 5 Ways to Use Behavioral Science to Create Better Products.  https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/5-ways-to-use-behavioral-science-to-create-better-products

About the Author

Matthaios Mantzios

Matthaios Mantzios is a UX enthusiast whose expertise lies in optimizing Information Architecture (IA), User Experience, Accessibility, and UI Design, driven by a passion for creating seamless user journeys. As the Head of UX & Design at ITML, he leads a dynamic team in formulating UX strategies and enhancing digital experiences for diverse clients. Matthaios, holding a Master's in Mechanical Engineering, is also a certified User Experience Expert working in an Agile Scrum environment, reflecting his commitment to continuous learning and professional excellence. He also mentors ADPlist for UI/UX Design, Digital Product Ownership and Innovation processes.

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