Website design psychology: Why do all websites look the same?
Should you aim for insanely creative designs or will you get better results from following the herd? Take a dip inside your brain to find out.
If you are getting your first website, or are rebuilding your existing site, you may merrily scan the internet to get ideas and design inspiration. The problem is that once you have looked through a few dozen websites, you realise that they all start looking the same.
As @HeyLouise points out in this recent forum thread on this very topic, “Some people are so used to seeing a large image at the top, tiny fonts, a row of icons, % bars, etc. that they expect that’s how a professional website should look.”
They morph into a Stepford Wives vision of online utopia. The same layouts. The same colour schemes. The same font combinations. The same smiling stock image people selling everything from dental services to consulting.
But is sameness a bad thing?
The human brain is a wonderful piece of machinery and spends its days running like an overclocked computer.
"The psychology of website design needs to balance the conflicting needs of your potential audience – the brain’s love of mental shortcuts with the brain’s need for novelty."
To reduce mental processing impact, your brain uses a tool called “heuristics” or mental shortcuts. This allows your brain to spot an incomplete pattern or trend and fill in the blanks, thereby reducing mental processing time.
In the early days of walking upright, rustling undergrowth could mean the difference between life and death, so your brain evolved to find ways to cut the decision-making process short, to allow you to respond in a split second.
Even though the incidence of sabre-toothed tigers leaping out of bushes has reduced to nil, our brains retained the heuristic shortcut skill.
The representative heuristics shortcut
One of the most common ways it uses this shortcut is what is called a representative heuristic. Your brain decides by comparing what it sees with what it has seen before. If something looks similar, then your brain makes a split-second judgment and draws a correlation between the two things.
For example, scam websites often look a certain way – screaming bold black headlines, spelling errors, filled with ads and images or words that flash at you. If you accidentally land on a site that looks like a scam site, your brain makes the link between the two, and nudges you to click away.
Representative heuristics is why your brain wants to see Home tab on the left of a menu bar and Contact Us on the extreme right tab of your menu bar.
It is why we expect website buttons to look like clickable buttons. It is why we expect to read content about a business on an about us page and expect to see a contact form on a contact page.
If your design doesn’t match what people expect to see, you add processing strain on people’s brains. This creates confusion as people try to find a mental match for what they are expecting.
There is a saying in sales, “A confused mind always says no!” If you don’t want a “no” for your business, then you need to work with people’s heuristics.
The other brain need: novelty
So surely that means all websites should look the same to get the best result? Not so fast!
There is another brain need – the need for novelty. Novelty seeking behaviour varies between people and across demographics such as age and geography. Some people have a high need for novel new experiences, and others are happier with consistency.
The brains of high novelty seekers are often correlated with people who enjoy high-risk activities. They are easily bored with the same old same old, and they crave the unfamiliar and different.
The psychology of website design needs to balance the conflicting needs of your potential audience – the brain’s love of mental shortcuts with the brain’s need for novelty.
In many cases, this means that your basic website design and structure needs to follow the common patterns for your industry. That is why most web designers start by checking out your competition.
You may want to leave the hyper creative designs for businesses with a large number of clients who have high novelty seeking behaviours. If your client base is more traditional, then go with tried and tested designs.
However, don’t be afraid to add in some novelty to tap into individual differences across your client group.
Some simple ways that this can be done is through adding in unique photos taken of your business rather than using stock images; being a bit creative with your web words; exploring the use of video on your site and not being afraid to regularly freshen up your brand colours and style.
The bottom line for most small businesses when marketing to the brain is to keep what works and what really matters to your clients, and only change what is less important.