In our everyday lives we make decisions. Often times these decisions are made so fast that we are not aware of the processes that go on inside our minds that influence them. We tend to think of ourselves as conscious free thinking individuals, but our sub conscious plays an important role in decision making. While we rely on our sub conscious to help us make rational decisions it can also lead us to make snap judgments. These sometimes illogical judgments are referred to cognitive biases. Cognitive bias is a general term that describes many distortions in the human mind that effect our decision making. What does this have to do with us as web designers? Well, many of these quick decisions that are made are predictable and if understood can help us become better architects of persuasion
Every good designer already uses techniques that play to our cognitive biases. When designing websites we apply the rule of thirds or the ‘golden rule’. Why? It is appealing to the eye and makes for a flow that is coherent and balanced. We use colors that complement each other and invite the user to read or linger on a page. These techniques are applied because if they weren’t the end result would make your user uncomfortable and would promote a feeling of uneasiness.

Our cognitive bias often comes out when we encounter a situation that our sub conscious feels as incomplete or somehow off. If a design doesn’t have the flow mentioned above than the mind rejects it as not right and compels us to move on. This idea should be considered in every aspect of your design. Someone may be going to your website to purchase a product you offer. If when they read the description they find it to be short and lacking pertinent information they may be less inclined to go to the next level because their cognitive bias will send up warning flags.

Another cognitive bias we share is what is known as the ‘band wagon’ principle. We like to know that other people are just like us. It is the same reason we search for products that are already popular. In your design it is a good idea to show people what there peers are doing. Facebook implemented their ‘like’ button a while back for the same reason. If we know that we are not alone in our decision process are more likely to be more easy-going about it.

A bias that is used quite often to stir up interest in products is known as the ‘going out of style’ principle. People are more likely to want something if they think it will no longer be available to them. Words like ‘limited time only’ and ‘while supplies last’ have a strong influence on how people see things. Scarcity makes stuff appear as if it is more valuable. If there are only a handful left in stock people will certainly feel the urge to not miss out.

An additional bias is known as the ‘credibility’ principle. We want to hear from experts and trust the opinion of people if they seem qualified to give it. This is why ‘9 out of 10’ dentists want you to buy this tooth paste and mechanics only use this oil. Name dropping may seem like a self indulgent practice but it is actually an effective way to portray trustworthiness to your users.

Human beings make irrational decisions in predictable ways. We all have our cognitive biases that influence us one way or the other. To understand how these biases work is to become better designers, sales people, and persuaders. It is our job to make sure that the biases work in our favor.

Ryan Shuhart
Senior Web Developer, Tranquilblue

September 30, 2012

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