You may have been told that psychological trickery and manipulative design can make websites more effective. However, UX experts reveal to Craig Grannell that honesty is by far the best policy should you want any gains to be long-term.

"Don’t be evil." Popularised by Google, this mantra is nonetheless ignored by many in the web industry. In his book Psychology for Designers, cxpartners’ director of user experience Joe Leech laments: “Over the last few years there has been a trend of using psychology to influence, nudge, coerce and sometimes trick people into doing something they may not otherwise do.”

Sites prey on negative emotions and deceive users, while articles masquerading as magic bullets list tips espousing terms like ‘manipulate’ and ‘control’. They claim users will then do what you want them to, regardless of whether they originally wanted to.

Leading user experience experts assert this is precisely the wrong approach. “The reason psychology is so important is to understand the people we’re designing for and people in general – it’s not about manipulating anyone,” argues experience designer Aral Balkan

“People don’t like being manipulated when online, because it comes across as devious and is not associated with a positive experience,” adds Simon Norris, CEO of user experience design agency Nomensa. He believes designers should strive to only use psychological techniques that provide positive experiences which “feel transparent and give greater choice and control,” thereby “creating a strong feeling of engagement with an audience and building a greater sense of loyalty to a brand”.

Aarron Walter, director of user experience at MailChimp and author of Designing for Emotion, says this basic psychological principle, ‘priming’, can change a user’s frame of mind; through creating a positive emotional experience, someone actually will be more likely to do what you want them to.


Both Clearleft and cxpartners have photos of their staff online, thereby making their sites (and by extension their agencies) more personable to newcomers

Managing expectations

Three important themes stand out: expectations, honesty and personality.

“It’s essential to match people’s mental models – by mapping the way a user expects your website to work, they’ll feel comfortable and happy going about doing things,” Joe explains. He provides the example of an email newsletter sign-up. Often, so-called ‘dark UX’ techniques are utilised – convoluted language and confusing checkbox rules that trick people into signing up.

“This might get a high subscribe rate, but many will then unsubscribe,” he reckons. Instead, focus on the benefits of signing up by speaking to the ego, and provide expectations regarding email frequency. The result will be fewer sign-ups, but more will stay on, which benefits the site owner.

Clearleft co-founder Jeremy Keith agrees about being upfront: “The thing is, what you’re offering won’t be for everyone. The best thing for you is to make people aware of that as soon as possible, rather than stringing some along under false pretences.” He believes the more negative industry approaches have been absorbed from the world of advertising, which often “hides the true nature of a product and makes it about something else,” and “falls into the trap of thinking of everyone as an amorphous lump of people who behave in the same way”.

Jeremy mocks the notion of “assuming a perfectly spherical user” as a starting point. Savvy web designers realise you can’t second-guess an end-user’s setup, and so Jeremy wonders why anyone would assume they know what someone thinks, or about their background and detailed requirements; obfuscation is therefore a terrible approach.

According to Joe, this extends to revealing those behind an organisation: “A lot of research we do at cxpartners involves eye tracking. We find people are drawn to human faces. Used sparingly, they’re a good way of encouraging people to look at things on your site.”

This technique is particularly well used in bringing users the faces behind a business: “If you’re a self-employed consultant, put a picture of yourself on your front page and don’t pretend to be a monolithic corporation. People will be engaged with a picture of you, because people respond well to people,” explains Joe. 

Personal touch

“Similarly, if you’re working on a business site, make it more personable by including staff shots – users will get the idea they’re doing business with an individual rather than a faceless corporation.” However, honesty plays a part here, too – avoid plastering a site with stock photography of grinning mugs, because that’s “using faces for the wrong reason, and people are good at seeing through fake sentiment”.

Other visual elements can assist and encourage. Aral talks about an ‘affordance’ being key in interpreting an object’s purpose. “When you see something new, how it looks says a lot about how it should work. If it meets those expectations, you’ve something usable and intuitive; if not, it’s confusing. Every element in an object you create has a purpose, either to aid or to confuse.”

From a psychological standpoint, further techniques dovetail nicely with striving for instinctive, natural, compelling interfaces. Simon mentions “pleasure, joy and things that surprise, grab hold and keep your attention,” and Aarron advocates the power of contrast. “The human brain is deft at recognising differences in elements. It’s a skill we developed as we evolved to alert us to threats. Online, you can make a primary action stand out by varying scale and colour, or by increasing space around it.” He adds attention is a “finite commodity”, though – try to make everything stand out and nothing will.


“To create strong emotional connections with your audience, the personality of the people behind a site needs to shine through,” argues Aarron Walter. On his own site, he includes photos of himself; similar techniques can work for even large corporations

Often, minimalism comes into play. “The concept of cognitive load is very important in web design – humans have limited memory and so keeping the load light stops your audience abandoning a task,” explains Simon. When trying to direct users on a specific pathway, Aarron recommends “eliminating non-essential things that could lead users in the wrong direction,” and Jeremy suggests spending time getting to the heart of your message. “Keep chopping away at it. Decide if the purest form is possible to put out there,” he argues. “Also, realise companies often aren’t clear themselves about what they’re offering. Work together to find an angle, what people should know about, and get that across succinctly, honestly and clearly.”

No quick fixes

Finally, there are no quick off-the-peg solutions when it comes to user experience and psychology. “What you’re building is – hopefully – unique, and so the challenges and solutions will also be unique,” explains Aral. Joe agrees: “The thing worth focusing on in psychology is you’ll read a book or a bunch of tips, but more often you’ll come across a problem that you’ll need a particular solution to. The thing is, it’s hard to find a psychology solution to a problem you’ve got.” 

The temptation, he says, is to read a book on psychology and try to crowbar in tips from what you’ve learned, but you just end up looking fake. “People find that easy to spot – they can smell it a mile off,” warns Joe. “So don’t over-egg the psychology. Just try to do one or two little things that encourage people to do what you’d like, and be positive and nice. Don’t use ‘100 great psychology tips for web designers’, or you’ll come across like an oily salesman version of Derren Brown.”

Jeremy reiterates Aral’s earlier point, in that user experience is about the users – people. “I get worried the web industry is always looking for systems and rules of behaviour, trying to find a very analytical, programmatical way of dealing with people as opposed to a human way. But that’s just not how people work from a psychological standpoint,” he says. “There are no easy answers, but that’s not something to be discouraged about. In fact, I’d be discouraged if there were – if there were things you could plug in to get the perfect website every time. That would be depressing and wouldn’t say something good about human nature.”

6 great examples of UX

Below our interviewees discuss the sites they believe are some of the best examples of good UX around – sites you should use and learn from.


Simon Norris argues that the best emotional design is “about tapping into factors that influence us in terms of pleasure and joy,” an example being the Threadless.com cart’s animated smiling face. “It plays on the emotional side of our behaviour and makes us feel more connected and engaged with the website,” he says

JustGiving makes use of psychology to engage with its audience: human faces; succinct text; few paths for a low cognitive load; and the ‘peer effect’, where you see others’ donations and may follow accordingly

Apple’s site is a masterclass in positive thinking. “You’re on dangerous ground playing negative emotional strings,” explains Joe Leech, “but engender positive emotion by associating your product with things that make people happy and you’ve got a halo effect”

Squarespace’s pricing page makes use of psychological techniques to engage visitors and increase conversions: clarity and few choices (for lower cognitive load); and contrast (both in extra features per tier and flagging a choice they’d like you to go for)

Simon Norris thinks Sky Rainforest Rescue is a great example of how a website can capture an audience through visual language and engaging images, many of which involve people

Amazon uses positive psychological techniques to drive sales. “Get yourself a little something,” is based on a personal wish list