In our last post, we talked about how the way you use links on your site fundamentally affects the site’s relationship with search engines (who hold the keys to web traffic).

Done well, internal linking makes your site more navigable, which makes it easier for the likes of Google et al. to ‘trawl’ through all the different pages and index them on their search engines. To search engines and your users, links mean something. By linking someone to something, you are implicitly offering them something of value. Link to pointless things, and you are not valuable. You get the picture!

There’s a unique psychology at work here, and it has largely to do with the ways in which search engine algorithms are designed to interpret user behaviour. Forget the search engines for a minute. Understanding what goes through a visitor’s head when they browse through your site means putting them first in terms of how you design the site itself. This goes beyond information architecture – it encompasses the fundamentals of the user-design interaction.

A user interacting with a website

UX design: psychological fundamentals

In a fantastic article for UX Magazine, Dr. Susan Weinschenk (PhD), a behavioural psychologist, establishes a number of design principles for user interfaces. “A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the design that others are experiencing,” she argues.

Dr. Weinschenk’s UX design principles are a great starting point for a discussion about the design-user interaction, which takes place when somebody lands on your website. How can we apply these to design tools?

Information architecture

  • People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done. “Show people a little bit of information and let them choose if they want more details.”
  • People crave information—often more than they need. However, they can only look at so much information before losing interest.

From knowing your user to structuring your site, we’ve explored information architecture at length in the past, so we won’t re-tread old ground. However, this principle of UX design raises an important dilemma facing designers: the human attention span. On the one hand, people like having access to as much information as possible; on the other, too much information is likely to distract or overwhelm people to the point where they no longer care.

Put simply, you need to have a very clear idea of what your users are going to be looking for once they arrive at your site. Dr. Weinschenk recommends offering users a small amount of information and giving them the option of finding out more—something I think is an exceptionally useful tip. You can do this by condensing the content of one page into a short, tweet-length (140 character or so) summary by the link, in order to allow users to gain an idea of what information lies on that page.

You want users to be able to access all the necessary information they’re after – you just don’t want to give it to them all at once or in one place. For more on structuring information architecture properly on your site, check out our archives.

Breadcrumb navigation

  • People will make mistakes. Anticipate these mistakes and make them easy to undo.

Like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for someone to follow home, breadcrumb navigation gives users an immediate understanding of where they are on a site. “Breadcrumbs give users an alternative method of navigation, allows them to see where they stand in the hierarchy of a website, and will reduce the number of steps needed to navigate to a higher-level within a website,” argues Hongkiat.

As Dr. Weinschenk argues, users make mistakes, and it’s our job to give them a way to undo those mistakes. By showing users the path they have taken through the site’s architecture and allowing them to jump back to any previous step along that path, breadcrumb navigation is an excellent tool for improving the user experience. You can clearly see what the parent of page z, its parent page x, that page’s parent page y, the homepage, and so on.

A contact us image

Converse with your visitors

  • People are social and will use technology to be social. Users will therefore look to others for guidance on what they should do. Reciprocity is the best way forward – give users something they want or need before demanding something back from them.

When somebody visits your website, they’re looking to gain certain information and knowledge from you – and if they have nowhere to turn when they’re lost, they’ll switch off and look elsewhere.

This doesn’t just extend to ‘contact us’ forms, but to the language and phrasing you use throughout your site. It helps to personalise things in a conversational way. Ask your users if they need any help – whether they’re looking for product x. Maybe you offer multiple services; you could try separating these by short text summaries of the service pages, with links for more information and ask them if they’re looking for service 1 / 2 / 3 /4 directly through text.

Offering help in a very obvious and directed way gives users the opportunity to gain your assistance before even speaking directly to you. You’re helping them out and demonstrating you are able to do so further if necessary. Converse with your users and give them somewhere to turn for help through the site design itself.

In our next post, we’ll examine Dr. Weinschenk’s other four psychological rules of site navigation and how they can be applied in practice.

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Adam Parrish

Owner and creative director at Creative Freedom Ltd. Unbelievably cool icon design expert, husband, and father of two awesome girls. A proper decent chappy and thoroughly fab to work with. Ok, so I wrote my own bio…

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