How psychological research can help web designers

Posted on February 10, 2016


Research into how the human brain works can lead to better websites

In 2012 Google researchers discovered that users took around 1/50th to 1/20th of a second to decide whether they liked the look of a website. Sites that were visually complex were rated lower than simpler sites for their aesthetic appeal.

The message of these researchers is that simpler is better when it comes to website design.

Cognitive Fluency and Familiarity

Cognitive Fluency is a phrase that cognitive scientists use. It means people consciously or subconsciously are affected by how easy it is to think about, then perform a task.

Researchers have discovered that connected to the process of cognitive fluency is familiarity. The more familiar we are with doing something, the easier it gets. Familiarity increases cognitive fluency.

People are familiar with the standard design of blog sites. On the right hand side is an opt-in form, social media icon links, category links, archive links and a search box.

Ecommerce sites tend to have high-resolution images near the top with attention grabbing headlines. The company logo is generally at the top left hand side. Examples of this are and

In fact you can look at hundreds of successful ecommerce websites and you’ll notice the same elements in all of them. This isn’t lazy designing, it’s done because it works and makes the websites easy to use – thus effective at selling.

Sites that win design awards at tend to have large images or videos and very little information on the screen before you need to scroll down. This is very much a fashion trend right now in web design.

There is no golden rule that websites need to follow these trends, but if web designers want to create something radically different, it helps to test out ideas on members of the target audience to make sure that unfamiliarity does not put them off.

Whatever design framework is being used, the visitor needs to quickly know what the site is about and they need to find it easy to navigate to the various sections.

Attention also needs to be made to fonts. Simple sans serif fonts are easier to read than stylised italic hand script fonts. Remember, you want the website to work and be used by as many people as possible. The more complicated and stylised you make it, the more people who will be put off.

Visual Information processing

Researchers at Harvard and Colorado University found that there are correlations between demographics and how people judge the aesthetic appeal of websites. For example, highly educated people with PhDs did not like websites with strong colours.

Their findings confirmed Google’s research.

The scientists wrote:

“Users make lasting judgments about a website’s appeal within a split second of seeing it for the first time. This first impression is influential enough to later affect their opinions of a site’s usability and trustworthiness.”

Users make lasting judgments about a website’s appeal within a split second Click To Tweet

The researchers found that there is no universal guideline as to what constitutes a good visual experience, but all groups that took part in the study rated visually over-complex websites lower than simpler ones.

Optimising a page for cognitive fluency and information processing is about communicating as much as possible in just a few elements.

The memory’s capacity

Psychologist George A Miller found that the average adult can keep between five and nine bits of information in their short term working memory. The working memory focuses attention, and guides decision making.

On an ecommerce site the five to nine information chunks include the product description, product image, price, offers and reviews. These bits of information are generally enough to make a purchase decision. More than nine information elements could lead to confusion.

Research into how the brain processes both visual and text information can influence the web designer, inspiring them to create simple websites that achieve a lot.

Technical Director at Engage Web
Darren is Technical Director at Engage Web, as well as being a co-founder of the company. He takes a hands-on approach to SEO and web design, helped by more than 20 years’ experience in these fields.

0345 621 4321

Call Now Button

Who Engage Web has helped:

Ice Lolly Minuteman Press BUNZLGS1 UK The Underfloor Heating Store West Cheshire Athletic Club Thomas Cook MWB Business ExchangeWeb Media 360 D2 Architects Beacon Financial Training Steely ProductsBurlydam Garden Centre Asentiv BodyHQ Clever Vine Endeavour Mortgages Pro Networks Comm-Tech Wickers World Ascot Mortgages Top Teks
TEL: 0345 621 4321