The Psychology of Web Design

Good website design is noticeable to almost everyone that will visit your website, not just web designers.  For people that use the internet frequently it is easy to identify valuable websites from the rest.  When you see a website for the first time you make an instant judgement on its quality and relevance.  Even if it is done subconsciously, we are able to take a fairly accurate impression very quickly.  In fact, in 2006 the BBC News website reported on a study which showed that the brain makes decisions in just one 20th of a second of viewing a webpage.   This first impression is then carried over to other parts of the website, like content and professionalism.  So you can see why it is essential to make a good first impression.

How is all this possible, you might ask?

It is simply recognition – the mind is able to recognise a combination of general human psychological and website design factors (which are not actually independent of one another) at extremely high rates of speed, in the same way that you are able to to recognise several letters jumbled together as a specific word and assign meaning to it.  Psychology has always played a part in internet usage, but we are only recently beginning to understand the depth of its effects.  When you break it down, web design is simply the manipulation of content and images on a website to appeal to the perceptions of a target audience.

How is this useful in your web design?

The psychology community has conducted studies since the early days of the internet.  I remember reading one years ago which showed that websites using shades of blue or brown as their colour themes tend to receive better user response than those with themes of other colours.  This could be for many reasons, but personally I think it is to do with the world around us and our natural instincts. For example, unrelated studies have shown that female babies have an instinctual attraction to the colour blue.  In addition, 70% of the earth’s surface is water, our most essential consumable, and our body is made of a similar percentage, not to mention the appeal to most people of a clear blue sky.  Take a look at the Barack Obama website – for me, the attraction was instant!  And I can’t see that website looking as good if it were in any other colour.

Another example of psychology affecting website perception is our accustomisation to reading black writing on a white background.  From the time we are infants we are trained to read books and papers that are black on white.  So it stands to reason that, until we begin teaching in other colours, we will always find it easier to read black writing on a white background.

What about website design factors?

Most people that aren’t web developers or designers (and even some that are) don’t really know why a site looks good to them, they just know that they like it.  There are, of course, the basic principles of web design that the majority of designers are aware of: clean layout, easy navigation, attractive and relevant images, etc.  But when you are trying to make a website that stands out among the rest, that has a high conversion rate and performs well, you need to get more specific with your design.  Here are some of the details you should remember when designing a website:

  • What images suit the content best?
  • What is the focus of the page? (i.e. Where is the eye drawn to on the page?)
  • Is the focus on the correct section or item?  If not, how can you change the focus? (e.g. change the colour of a call-to-action button to stand out from the page)
  • Where is the eyeline on the page? (the eyeline is the line of site that the eye follows on the page when scanning it quickly – e.g. top left to bottom right, right to top left then down the sidebar, etc.)
  • What do other MAJOR websites in your industry look like?  This is especially important when looking at blue chip industries like medicine, law, news and education.  For these, and some others, there are generally accepted designs for particular website types, like journals, newspaper sites, encyclopedias, forums, etc, and if you are designing one of these sites then you MUST take into account what is perceived in the industry to be a credible website.
  • Less is more – the simplest designs are often the best.  You don’t want to over-populate any one of your webpages with too much of anything (images, content, etc) and you certainly do not want to make your readers scroll down a page for 30 seconds to find what they are looking for.  Have a good balance, make sure everything is easy to access, and make sure your site looks neat.  When things have been laid out in a way that has some order to it, and is not just clustered together, it is more professional and is much easier to look at, both initially and for extended periods of time.

The best way to understand these design factors and uncover others is to spend some time analysing other websites in your own and similar industries to see what those designers have done right or wrong and learn from them.  Find ways to improve aspects of sites that you already use.

You mentioned web design and psychology not being independent?

Psychology and website design have always overlapped, even before the first study was conducted.  One factor to consider that is common to both fields, and is generally one of the most important factors in either, is security.  All humans have a psychological need to feel secure, and on the internet that need is multiplied considerably.  With more and more internet scams and fraudulent websites appearing all over the world, security is becoming the largest obstacle in the e-commerce industry.  Taking this into account, websites must incite a feeling of security within a visitor before they will take any action on your website.

There are many ways to accomplish this – disclaimers, privacy policies, brand-name security logos, etc – but the best way is to simply be upfront about all aspects of your website, product or business.  People are very good at picking up on misdirections and lack of information.  For example, putting important information in a difficult-to-find area or making unfavourable remarks in very small font gives the impression that you are trying to hide something.  If you have an honest and informative website, people will pick up on that too.

In terms of e-commerce, using a well-known merchant account (e.g. a bank, Paypal, SecurePay, ClickBank, etc) with secure ordering is usually enough to make people feel safe enough to follow through on the purchase.

These are just a few of the most obvious examples.  Take some time and have a look at some of the most successful websites you know. Pay attention in the first few seconds of visiting a new website and take note of why you like it and what they have done that is effective.  Notice how you feel when you are looking at a site and try to understand why you feel that way.  After a while you will begin to pick up smaller details that are useful in achieving certain reactions in your visitors, which is really what online marketing and web design is all about.

What do you think?

George Cleanthous

George Cleanthous

SEO Strategist at Web Profits

Formerly of EY and Alcatel, George has extensive experience in many facets of online marketing and has developed an expert analytics skill set. Specialising in Search, George helps drive innovation and the application of our search engine optimisation strategy.


  1. Utah Web Design says:

    By seeing the title itself I impressed.web design psychology should read by each and every web designers.After reading this they should come to know what to do and what not to do?

    January 28th, 2009 at 8:23 pm

  2. Vanessa Pagan says:

    Great write up on how important Psychology is in web design. Using those factors can make or break success for a website. I’ve just finished reading a new book that’s come out by scientist, Dr. Susan Weinschenk called Neuro Web Design that deals with this exact topic and would be a good offline resource to dig deeper. You have less than 20 seconds to make a connection with your visitor, use every tool you can to make it!

    January 29th, 2009 at 12:10 pm

  3. Rahul Bhatewara says:

    This is a very good and important topic; when it comes to web site design decisions. I totally agree that Psychology of the user does play an important role and first RIGHT impression is equally vital. (Read a book titled “Blink” and you will know the importance of first impression)

    Thank you very much for sharing this topic, it is benefitial to all of us reading through it. It actually triggers me to dig this topic little more in details to improve upon my current web portal project.

    Thank you once again.

    January 29th, 2009 at 1:52 pm

  4. Marius says:

    Also fast loading sites with great photography I think is very important. Broadband and good jpg compression gives us more scope for larger, clearer images at sufficient bandwidth.

    January 29th, 2009 at 7:34 pm

  5. San Diego Web Design says:

    I enjoyed well while reading your article.I web designing people read then they will get an idea of it.Very interesting!

    January 29th, 2009 at 8:45 pm

  6. Michael says:

    Great title! Very Brian Tracy of you!

    January 29th, 2009 at 10:20 pm

  7. Las Vegas Web Design says:

    Great topic for all web designers!!!

    January 30th, 2009 at 8:09 pm

  8. Digital Products Center says:

    Since not many are having fast broadband connection, speed is a top priority matter. Pleasant color combination is an important matter too.

    February 18th, 2009 at 11:34 pm

  9. kvint says:

    thank you for the info!

    March 7th, 2009 at 6:19 am

  10. SEO Jens says:

    good webdesign could be really worthy. it ll help you getting link to your site also convert visitors ;). so everyone should invest a little bit more in that.

    March 10th, 2009 at 7:28 am

  11. Jordan says:

    Very true, when i came to this website, i immediately couldn’t go away from it, but when i went to another website with similar content to this, i decided i couldn’t be bothered reading it because of first impressions, even though the content may have been brilliant, it didn’t look like there was anything useful to read! .

    Oh, and by the way this website resembles some of apples deign techniques he-he particularly the small boxes at the bottom of the site, etc.

    November 19th, 2009 at 8:21 am

  12. George says:

    Thanks for this post’s not just a simple blog post, it has tips..especially the one that you’ve said that we must spend time analysing other websites in our own and similar industries.. Thanks again.

    March 2nd, 2010 at 8:11 pm

  13. Kristy says:

    Internet Psychology seems like a great big scary term, but I guess it really comes down to common sense. I use the internet so much for a lot of different reasons, and as an internet reader, I am just as you have described. But with my own website I think I have been relying heavily on how the search engines crawl my site. I think I need to go through and create a better balance between google and human psychology. :)

    August 17th, 2010 at 1:15 pm