Elin Williams
Optimisation Executive
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  • Customer Psychology

28th Nov 2017

8 min

Psychology and user experience:

As a recent psychology graduate, I wanted a role that involved psychology and research. The thought of trying to understand user behaviour and user needs within an online environment seemed exciting, and after doing some research to find roles within this field, I came across PRWD. This is how I started working for the CRO agency as an optimisation executive.

In my first 3 months here, I have learnt of some of the challenges that face a CRO agency that focuses on adopting a user centred approach. This approach considers a user’s experience when interacting with a site. User experience is sometimes viewed at a disparity with conversion optimisation, some businesses may have a mind-set that making money is the most important, and user experience comes second. While the end goal of user experience means understanding behaviour through psychology and bettering a user’s experience of interacting with a site, conversion optimisation traditionally focuses on increasing revenue.

Here at PRWD, I am continuing to learn the importance of a user centred approach to CRO, to create the best possible experience for users and how having an understanding of psychology is important. Watching only a few remote user research videos is enough to get a sense of what challenges users face, and how these experiences weigh heavily into their intention to purchase. One of the things that I have learnt is the importance of user experience research to be able to understand behaviour, and the wider implications of the psychology involved in this.

Using my degree specifically, psychology is applied within the role to be able to understand people’s mental models, to anticipate how people will feel when they interact with a certain area of the site and to understand what emotional state they may be in, which is a real area of interest for me.

The similarities between psychology in the real and online world:

All I have learnt so far has made me realise that user experience extends far beyond the online world of conversion, having implications in the physical world. Environmental psychology, looking at the interplay between an individual and their surroundings, is a real point of interest for me and has always been something that fascinates me. One of the things I enjoy about my role is that the same psychological principles applied to online environments, also apply to real-world environments. Creating a user centred environment is fundamental to both online and offline experiences, and greatly influences behaviour.

In an online environment, a common challenge users face is filling out complicated forms. An example of this is lengthy and data heavy forms such as insurance forms. Some users may find having to input data into a form is stressful for a number of reasons and often use heuristics to make decisions in such situations. Users may be unfamiliar with the process, unable to understand some of the language used, unable to understand what is required of them and experience cognitive overload due to all the information they are being presented with. As a consequence of these factors, more errors could occur, leading to feelings of depletion or frustration. Being able to understand these mental models and coming up with strategies and solutions to combat these situations is a vital part of applying psychology to the role.

Using the form example, psychology is used to understand how information should be grouped and presented to users to reduce cognitive overload. How to make processes that are unfamiliar easier for users, by providing users with guidance information, like tooltips or video’s displaying examples of what data to input. Also by providing user friendly error messages which indicate detailed information about how to amend errors. In simple, users are given intuitive information which guides them through the form.


(Illustrating user friendly error messaging and helpful guidance information – taken from moneysupermarket.com) 

In terms of the physical world, the psychology of understanding the way an environment can be shaped to facilitate decision making is fascinating, and yet uses many of the same core principles we use to help people in the online world, just applied to different situations.

A point of interest for me, is the real-world example of building design to facilitate emergency evacuation. Psychology is used to understand people’s mental models, similar to how psychology is used in online environments. Clearly filling out an online form is very different to facing an emergency situation, and the two situations cannot be compared. However, psychological principles such as the familiarity heuristic, effective guidance and intuitive communication to make processes as simple as possible can be applied to both situations.

The design of a building influences the way people are able to make decisions to evacuate in an emergency situation. Research suggests survival rate in an emergency situation is predicted by awareness of the hazard, however one of the issues people normally face in a mass evacuation is that information regarding the risk is not communicated to them. People base their decision to escape on the signals from other people as often they are unable to see the threat. Like in the online world, people need informative communication to know how to react in a given situation.

Another factor to consider about human behaviour is the familiarity heuristic, seen both online and in real-world situations. Familiarity heuristic has been highlighted in much of the psychological literature surrounding fire evacuation in particular. People are more likely to evacuate from a door they are familiar with as opposed to the unfamiliar fire exit. During an emergency situation, arousal is heightened and controlled reasoning is reduced, people rely on associations and heuristics to inform decision making. Heuristics, like the familiarity bias and memory associations, like remembering the most familiar exit, mean people are unlikely to exit out of an unfamiliar route, this being a fire exit. The issue with this behaviour is, if everyone is trying to get out of a main exit that they are familiar with, speed at which people evacuate the building is significantly reduced, leading to detrimental consequences.

Like in the online world, understanding these psychological phenomena’s means solutions can be implemented based on human behaviour. To solve such issues, research based on psychology and human behaviour suggests solutions like raising people’s awareness of the familiarity bias, this may help them think about their exit decision in an emergency situation. Secondly, engineers and designers can take these psychological factors into account when designing a building. One solutions for the familiarity heuristic would be to have visitors enter a building through different entrances, making them more familiar with different doors in case of an emergency.

Airports are another example of how psychology is used in a similar manner to understand both online and real-world behaviour. A podcast I recently listened to spoke of the cross over between user research and the physical environment, specifically an airport environment. An airport can shape users’ expectation of what they’re going to experience, they are traditionally process driven environments and are often associated with frustration, stress and chaos by the user before they have even turned up to the airport.

People can be quite unfamiliar with the processes of an airport and as a result get frustrated. Environmental psychology is used here to provide solutions like creating a more intuitive environment where information is communicated to users before they need it and layout is made clear. Communicating information such as, what time they should arrive, the process from when they arrive at the airport to when they get on the plane and where they need to go.


People must be able easily navigate to different areas of the airport, this is achieved by having an intuitive layout with informative instructions of where to go. This, coupled with communicating to users how to operate in such a process driven environment, provides users with a better overall experience.

Like the online world, ambiguity is likely to lead to inaction, if a websites layout is not clear and users are unable to find certain areas of the site or information is vague. An online example would be delivery information being scare or vague, if this is not communicated efficiently to the user at checkout, then users are far less likely to purchase from this site.

In simple, psychology in both the offline and real-world, shares many of the same principles, and there are many more examples of this. Successful interaction in these environments rely on having a human-centred design, which has been understood by considering mental models and human behaviour.