Skip to Navigation

Perception Strategy: The Emotional Side of User Experience Part Two

In my previous post we explored how people respond to information and discussed the need for a good understanding of human psychology and behavior if we want our designs to be more effective. In part two, we’ll take a look at some of those underlying principles and provide a framework that can help guide your design decisions.

Psychological Principles

Without knowing what makes us tick as human beings, our designs run the risk of merely decorating rather than solving problems. Understanding human nature can have a major impact on the effectiveness of your designs.

In his card set, Mental Notes, Stephen P. Anderson has distilled a very helpful list of insights into human behavior that can be applied to design. Here are a few:

Limited Choice

We’re more likely to make a choice when there are fewer options. There’s often a tendency for our clients to want to throw everything up on their website (above the fold!), which can have a negative effect for users. Organizations have a lot of programmatic variety, and they want to be sure it’s all front and center for users to choose from and then consume. Paradoxically, showing everything can lead to users failing to see anything, or just getting overwhelmed. There’s an interesting book called, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz that delves into this phenomenon. If you’re not gonna read the book, you should definitely watch his TED talk.

Social Proof

We tend to follow the patterns of similar people in new or unfamiliar situations. We’re social creatures that tend to run in mental packs. It’s hard to break from the herd and comforting to belong to it. Showing the number of views or user ratings for a piece of content can serve as as this kind of social cue to users on your site.

Examples: testimonials, comments, number of views


We need small nudges placed on our regular paths to remind and motivate us to take action. Trying to change people’s motivations is one way to get someone to do something, but it’s difficult. Using triggers is an easier way to increase the likelihood that someone will act. A well-placed call-to-action button in a persistent header, for example, can serve as a nudge for users to, say, sign up for a mailing list or sign a petition.

Examples: advertising, call-to-action buttons, images of food


The way in which issues and data are stated can alter our judgement and affect decisions.

Example: Framing donations as costing, “less than a cup of coffee a day” encourages people to rationalize a monthly pledge.

These are just a handful of principles, but as you can see they’re handy shortcuts for considering what a page on your website should be doing. Should it be putting people at ease? Or should it be triggering some desired action? Keeping in mind these principles is a great way of helping guide your design decisions and making your website more effective.

Framework for creating better designs

So, all this emotional stuff sounds great, right? But the reality is that the basic requirements need to be met, often under budget and time constraints. It takes time, money and attention to create experiences that meet practical and rational concerns as well as these emotional factors. One framework that attempts to balance these competing factors is the Kano Model, which lays out three categories of user needs, described as:

Basic Needs

These are expected, unspoken needs that are only noticed if missing. They’re the practical things that need to get built (e.g. page templates, navigation, etc).

Performance needs

These are the features clients/users ask for (e.g. resource library with filters, etc).

Exciters or delighters

These are the unexpected, unspoken extras that aren’t required but bring value. You can think of these as latent needs that nobody has considered.

This all just goes to say that nuances are possible in a website or application. During the whirlwind of the the project lifecycle we often focus on just getting everything built and out the door, on time and under budget. It’s easy for us to lose focus on those elements that truly make our sites a valuable experience.


The further we move ahead into the future of user experience, the more things will become standardized, such as navigation patterns and layouts. So what value are we bringing to the industry as user experience designers? Well, it’s right there in our title, “experience.” And making that experience meaningful has a whole lot to do with understanding how people tick, how they perceive and are motivated by things. It’s about understanding not only the basic needs of our clients but also getting at the subtleties of a user’s emotions and the “exciters and delighters” of an online experience.