Have you ever walked into a friend’s house and realized everything has changed? Or maybe at your local department store or supermarket, where everything has moved around since you last visited? It’s frustrating that things are not as you remember them, or as you think they should be.
We’re creatures of habit, and humans aren’t very good with change. Once we have a model for how a certain space looks in our head, finding that model altered can disorient us. We love familiar patterns, so when the recognizable becomes unrecognizable, we experience shock.
It’s the same digitally.
Good design does not equal good experience
You may have seen an app or website change its design, or maybe your favourite clothing line has rebranded - it’s the same unsettling feeling that we have to learn a new way of doing things. A warning to web designers: if you want to change a website based on a design trend, beware, and tread with caution.
No-one logs onto a website consciously knowing they are applying a mental model - it happens subconsciously, like brushing your teeth or locking the front door on your way out.
Our brains organize the world by shapes, colors and various other stimuli. Website and app designers facing a creative urge need to balance their desire for uniqueness with their realization that customers simply prefer the familiar.
Seeking the familiar
When we shop online, we don’t realize we have a model for where the “Add to Cart” button or the “Support” and “Contact Us” links should be located, but we do. It’s a model based on all of our previous experiences online, and the standards and general trends applied to websites today. When we interact with a website, we are doing much more than looking at prices, text and colors. We are scanning for the familiar, first seeking out clues like square-shaped boxes that give us baseline information before we apply higher-level cognitive processes like reading the text contained in those boxes.
In my job, I have access to a wealth of data to help me analyze how visitors interact with different platforms. I wanted to test some of these preconceptions - so we ran a major study of a major global e-commerce site whose Call To Action (CTA) buttons varied in size and shape across the site.
By analyzing hundreds of user interactions with the site, we saw users presented clear indications of confusion, such as scrolling up and down and searching where to click. Each button varied in design, showing that it took users longer to align their mental model and understand how to react. That’s frustrating for the customer and the brand, it’s going to impact their bottom line. This study is a clear indication of the need for consistency in a brand’s digital design language.
When you mess with the process of thinking and mental models, you run a major risk of frustrating and disorientating your customers, and potentially losing them.
The power of the human brain
Humans are amazing energy-conservers when it comes to brainpower. Once we establish a mental model, we immediately store it as a default template, saving us the valuable brainpower required for recognition processes in the future. So when it comes to updating design, here are some points to always remember:
- KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid
Pretty designs are great, but they aren’t always practical. Be as creative as you want, as long as your thinking is rooted in the practice of user experience - using buttons and tabs as standard.
- Practice model behavior
If you’re unsure what your customers’ existing mental models for websites might look like, do some research - looking up the bigger companies in your field will give you a good example to follow.
- Creativity may be key, but don’t forget the lock
Artistic license is an excellent tool to employ to stand out from the pack and make your site memorable. But strike a balance: make sure your website has a flawless, clean skeleton that covers the basics of customer experience, and that the creative aspects are limited to excess dressing and design.
- Put yourself in the customer’s shoes
Never forget what it feels like to be an average consumer logging on to make a simple purchase.
The best advice I could give to a designer, speaking as a psychologist? Always imagine yourself as a consumer, not a designer.