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ARTICLE TechnologyJuly 5, 2016

It’s human nature: 10 ways design anthropology can help you build a better website


In the same way internet search is becoming more 'human' in the way it surfaces results, our websites have to get a whole lot smarter – to think more like our customers do. Here are 10 ways design anthropology can help you deliver a better experience online.

User experience (UX) became a focus in the 1990s, when computers in the workplace became more common. Often, the first iterations of hardware and software weren’t that easy or intuitive to use and people learned to make allowances for them. But as the tech has become more sophisticated, it has also become more user friendly. UX design has played a big role in this evolution. Design anthropology – the practice of designing experiences for humans with underlying socio-cultural, psychological and biological characteristics in mind – has the potential to take website design to the next level.

According to Melbourne-based Design Anthropologist and UX Designer Harry Kontos, “design anthropology can help with the way we design websites, apps and online experiences because it flows from direct observation of what people do with technology. It helps us make sense of evidence-based insight into human behaviour online.”

Here are 10 ways you can make your online store more human.

1. Put the user front and centre

Rather than building a website according to popular templates and layouts and then testing it on users, Kontos suggests embedding your website designer(s) inside the team that is developing products or services. “Do the early work to understand the user perspective to adapt your product to actual needs,” he advises.

Bear in mind, too, that the fastest, most efficient way of building a website might not deliver the most user-friendly experience. Kontos singles out responsive design, where website content is reflowed to fit different screen sizes according to standardised patterns and layouts.

“Responsive web design does not know what we want to achieve any more than an old-school website does,” he says. “Sometimes we maintain the status quo even when we agree it is bad for business and bad for users. The correlation between uniformity in design and user satisfaction never existed.

“The opportunities for website designers must evolve outside of visual, layout or even content design to novel experiences, storytelling, pure functionality and novel interactions design. I think this is a pretty exciting consequence of the standardisation and uniformity we are seeing.”

2. Use position and size to show importance

While there’s huge opportunity to innovate in website design to improve user experience, some features and functions earn their place in good design because they play into our biology and cultural contexts. 

For example, how do you make it clear to website visitors that a particular piece of information is important? Typically, we place important information at the top and make it larger.

“There is this hierarchy of visual variables that says it’s best to use position and size over colour and shape,” says Kontos. “These perceptions are based on our evolved visual processing biology. It’s what works for our current evolutionary state and designers with a knowledge of these concepts tend to do better work. All successful design principles have a basis in evolutionary psychology.” 

3. Moving elements get people’s attention

Another example of design speaking to our innate biology is moving website elements. From sliding galleries to flashing ads, movement online automatically gets a viewer’s attention.

“If you consider our most primitive origins, individual survival was dependent on our ability to quickly interpret motion on the savannah as the potential threat of a predator,” says Kontos. “Motion meant ‘pay attention or you could die’. Because our biology is anchored in that past, motion still means ‘pay attention’, especially to things in the peripheral view.”

Because movement is such a powerful feature, it should be used to draw attention to really important information and features on your website. Bear in mind, too, that motion can also distract a viewer from a task – so make sure you aren’t using it for non-essential messaging during the checkout process, for instance.

4. Leverage the cultural significance of colour

While position and size communicate a similar message to everyone who might visit your website, other features such as our response to colours may be shaped by our different cultural experiences. For instance, our familiarity with traffic lights might predispose us to associate the colour green with “go” or “continue”, and associate red with “stop”.

“Some colours carry a different meaning for, say, a Chinese audience than for a European one,” says Kontos. “Our response to certain colours is based on both nature and nurture factors, on innate and learned experience.”

Your online shop can use colour both to connect with target audiences (using red and gold at Chinese New Year, or red and green at Christmas) and help them navigate your site – for instance, using green buttons to show what the next step is.

5. Don’t take before you give

When shopping online, people like to take their time to browse the website and compare the options. Asking them to commit too early – whether through a pop-up that asks them to sign up for a newsletter or asking for their details before they’ve decided to make a purchase – makes potential customers feel that the value exchange is unequal. You’ve become the online equivalent of a pushy sales person.

“Don’t force people to log in or create an account – showcase your offering so that they choose to sign up,” says Kontos.

While you may want as much information as possible about your customers, ask yourself what percentage of sales you’re willing to miss out on if customers refuse to share these details. Asking for additional information like a phone number, someone’s title or their age can tip the scales in terms of what they feel they are getting in return for what they are giving you. Kontos advises: “Don’t ask for all their personal details, just the minimum information needed to complete a transaction.” 

6. Give people just enough information

A UX design technique that’s become more important as websites have grown more complex is progressive disclosure. Put simply, progressive disclosure means that you reveal the minimum information a person needs at the right time, to avoid confusion and clutter. Examples of progressive disclosure include displaying a snippet of an article with a “read more” button at the bottom, an expanding menu of categories and products, or only displaying a billing address in the checkout if the customer indicates that it’s different to the delivery address.

“Progressive disclosure is good because it’s about storytelling, and if there’s one thing more important to humans than a good day hunting on the savannah, it’s a captivating story,” says Kontos. “People respond well to being taken on a little journey, with bits of value along the way and an objective in mind, even a vague one.”

7. Don’t punish people for being human

People make mistakes. They miss fields and leave out information, change their minds about delivery addresses, decide to buy one more or one less, misread card details and press “next” before they are ready to continue.

When you design your website, “anticipate incompleteness or mistakes and let the user continue to use the system until later,” says Kontos. For instance, allow customers to add items to a shopping cart before asking for personal details to complete the purchase. “And if a user wants to purchase as a guest without sign-up, let them do that too,” he says.

Customers also need to be able to easily spot and correct errors. Systems that prefill or check that addresses or card details are valid can help customers get it right.

8. People believe other people

“Reviews and ratings pick up on another of our most fundamental human biases – herd mentality. This bias, which can be beneficial or not, is the innate, unconscious desire we have to be part of the group,” says Kontos.

The instinct to consult with and rely on the judgements of others (social proof) seems built in to our biology. Kontos says: “Experiments with primates show that even though they do not know why, monkeys will avoid approaching a space that another monkey group fears. This happens even when the fearful group has not actually experienced the space for themselves, but learned to fear it from a previous group.”

Encourage customers to share their feedback and display these reviews prominently on your website and social channels. 

9. For every action, a reaction

When people click on a button, link or new tab they expect something to happen. If it doesn’t, they may click again, try another link or end up abandoning your site altogether.

“The expected response time for data refreshing is now measured in milliseconds,” says Kontos. He recommends adding micro interactions or small animations (such as throbbers, which show something is loading) that mitigate delay aversion. Another example of this is using a colour change when people click on a link or button to tell them their action has registered on site.

10. Don’t violate people’s trust

While you want people to make online purchases, sign up for newsletters and engage with your brand on your website, it’s important to go about it in an ethical fashion, says Kontos.

Within SEO, it’s common to talk about white hat and black hat SEO, to distinguish between ethical and unethical SEO practices. However, search engines can’t parse and penalise designers who use sneaky user interfaces.

In UX, dark patterns are the equivalent of black hat SEO – a user interface designed to trick people into doing things, such as buying travel insurance or ongoing subscriptions, clicking on an advert or agreeing to receive third-party email advertising. This can take the form of preselected opt-ins, adding “must-have” accessories to someone’s cart automatically without their explicit consent, and ambiguous or complex wording, among other tricks.

“Avoid using knowledge of human behaviour and psychology in an exploitative or manipulative way,” says Kontos. “Gently nudge users in directions that help them connect with your brand and your product, if it meets their needs.”

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