• Customer Psychology

22nd Oct 2015

5 min

Seeing how psychological principles can influence website visitors in a variety of ways is one of the aspects of website optimisation that I find most fascinating. Within the industry, ‘persuasion’ could be seen as something of a buzzword at the moment. Concepts such as social proof, scarcity, urgency, authority and loss aversion are already being used by the bigger retailers. But why? Why is it that these principles increase the effectiveness of our websites? Why should we be looking to them to help enhance our conversion optimisation efforts?

Can do vs. Will do

As website optimisers, one of our key aims is to provide visitors to our websites with a positive experience. Traditionally, this centred on optimising for usability; making our websites easy to use and intuitive. I read an interesting blog on UXmag recently that suggested that “great UX is actually the art of invisibility”. I would whole heartedly agree that usability is integral to website optimisation and is absolutely the right place to start when getting started with optimisation. Despite this, optimising for usability can only get you so far. Picture a user sat in front of a computer screen with a beautifully crafted form. Imagine it’s been through rigorous usability testing and is the result of a number of successful A/B tests. In theory, the user can easily move through and complete this form without difficulty or frustration, but what’s to say they actually will? Psychological principles help motivate users towards a given action such as adding to basket.


Psychology Principles ease customer concern

To buy or not to buy?

It could be said that conversion optimisation is all about influencing decision making – the decision to purchase or not to purchase, for example. There is a perception that decision making must take place in the conscious part of our brain. The conscious part of the human brain is slow, deliberate, effortful and logical and thus, makes sensible, well informed decisions. As Freud explains however, “the mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.” The sixth sevenths that Freud refers to here are the subconscious part of the brain. The subconscious is characterised as fast, automatic, instinctive and emotional. The subconscious is defined as the “part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings”, so although we may not realise it, the subconscious is influencing every decision we make. The integral part of this definition is the word ‘action’. By addressing the somewhat irrational subconscious, we can trigger action and as a result, move our customers towards making a purchase decision. The use of the phrase ‘think before you speak’ can be drawn upon here as an example of how the subconscious can lead our reactions in some situations. It does this before allowing our consciousness to process the reaction rationally and before taking into consideration any potential consequences.

Influencing the subconscious

Psychological theory suggests that the following sits within our subconscious brain;

  • Fears
  • Values
  • Beliefs
  • Emotions
  • Self esteem
  • Past experiences

By using each of these as a starting point, we can start to add an additional layer of richness to our website optimisation efforts.

Here is an example of how ‘emotion’ has been used in the offline world to help encourage a specific action;


Psychology principles in offline world


The ‘My daddy works here’ motorway safety campaign tapped into drivers emotions, encouraging them to think about the people behind the traffic cones and stick to the temporary speed limit.

It’s worth noting here that we’re not in the business of trickery; psychological principles shouldn’t be thought of as a way of tricking users into purchasing. Rather it’s about encouragement through a number of smaller decisions, understanding potential concerns and putting users at ease. Consider a typical online purchase journey. There are a number of stages (or decisions) through which users are required to navigate prior to conversion. Looking for opportunities to prompt the subconscious at each key stage of the user journey is the best way to effectively utilise persuasion principles on site. Considering the principles that are most relevant at each stage is important; an obvious example here is reassuring users about the secure nature of your site within the checkout process.

Where to start?

So now we know more about how and why psychological principles influence decision making, what’s the first step in introducing these principles to your site? All of the tests we run at PRWD are data driven and are supported by qualitative research and testing with psychological principles is no different. Don’t test it just ‘because!’ Ensure you have sufficient rationale to support it. Identify sticking points in your user journey within your analytics. Find out more about what’s causing issues by conducting research which will also help you identify suitable solutions. We place a lot of value on getting face to face with users and can’t recommend it enough. Especially when looking to identify concerns, motivators and influencers that could feed into testing the implementation of psychological principles.


  • Usability is still fundamental in website optimisation and UX
  • Decision making is driven by the influence of the subconscious
  • The subconscious is irrational by nature
  • Behaviour can be influenced by triggering a reaction in the subconscious
  • Draw on data and research to get to know your users, their triggers and motivations
  • Subconscious triggers affect everyone differently so introduce psychological techniques through testing to really understand the impact on your users

For more on psychological techniques, check out http://coglode.com/

You can also check out the slides from my presentation I gave on ‘The Psychology of Shopping Online’.

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