How To Use the Psychology of Web Design To Influence User Behavior

Web Design Psychology

You’ve only got a small window of time to capture a user’s attention. 

The best websites subtly persuade users to explore and convert. They’re complex to design but should be simple to navigate. Every element must be intentionally placed and work coherently. 

In this article, you’ll learn how to use the psychology of web design—along with concrete elements like colors, spacing, layout, typography, and shapes—to prompt the desired action from users.

The importance of user research when designing websites

When it comes to your site’s design and usability, your opinion doesn’t matter. 

Customer research, data-driven insights, and web psychology principles should dictate the design—not your biased perspective.

The only people that matter are website visitors. Which aspects of the web page appeal to them? Which functionality is confusing? Is your design persuasive enough to keep them interested?

If you want to design a truly customer-centric user experience, you’ll need direct feedback and data.

We can break down user research into two main categories:

  1. Quantitative
  2. Qualitative

Quantitative user research gives you measurable data from sources like multiple-choice surveys, polls, and questionnaires.

Qualitative user research lifts the hood on people’s opinions and motivations through mediums like interviews and open-ended surveys.

Quantitative research tells you what. Qualitative tells you why. Both data points play into your site design (and its results).

8 psychology principles that can prompt action on your site

Why do we behave the way we do? What motivates us to make specific decisions?

Even user research can’t fully penetrate subconscious decision-making—because, a lot of the time, people don’t know the answers themselves.

Great websites prompt action from users because they rely on intuitive design. These eight web design principles informed by human behavior and psychology can help:

1. Hick’s Law

Ever wondered why you struggle to choose what you want to eat from a huge menu? Hick’s Law says too many options will stifle decision-making. The same goes for the design of your site.

Named after British and American psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, it describes the time it takes for someone to make a selection based on the number of options.

Look at Google’s homepage from 2004:

Screenshot of Google Homepage from 2004

Compared to today’s version:

Screenshot of Google Homepage Current Version

Most links have been removed or reassigned to the search results page to eliminate choice. From 12 to 2.

The same applies to a big library of products. The antidote? Filters. This design element can cut down on the amount shown and help reduce the time spent on decisions. 

Fashion retailer ASOS sells thousands of products with an advanced filter system that begins on the navigation menu and extends through every product page:

Screenshot of Asos Product Page

This allows customers to quickly pinpoint the section they want to browse and further narrow down by price, occasion, and sizing.

You can also provide the option to jump ahead. For example, Clarke’s Cakes & Cookies offers an “Add to cart” button when you hover over a product:

Screenshot of Clarke's Cakes & Cookies Vegan Menu

Users don’t have to waste time clicking into each product page to make a purchase.

If you don’t simplify decision-making, you could lead users to the “Paradox of Choice”. They take too long to decide, may not choose anything, and leave unsatisfied.

2. Fitts’ Law

Fitts’ Law states that both the size of a target object and its distance from the starting point impact user engagement. The bigger and closer an element is, the easier it is to interact with.

Fitts’ Law is a staple in human-computer interaction. But it was created long before web design was even born.

Psychologist Paul Fitts understood that human error wasn’t always down to personal mistakes. It could be a result of poor design.

It’s why Spotify makes the “Play” button far more prominent than any other on the screen:

Screenshot of Spotify on Mobile

Button placement is also carefully considered: on mobile, it’s closest to where users’ thumbs naturally rest.

Fitts’ Law doesn’t mean making a button big enough to fill the screen. It’s about pinpointing your most popular buttons and making them easier to tap or click.

3. Gestalt design laws and principles

Humans have an engrained need to find order in disorder.

“Gestalt” psychology is based on this theory. It means “unified whole” in German and was coined by psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Kohler.

Through a series of tests, they discovered the mind “informs” what the eye sees. In simple terms? Humans view separate objects as a whole before focusing on their smaller parts.

Gestalt psychology has a number of laws and principles that apply to web design:


If objects are near each other, we’ll view them as a group. Social media scheduler Hootsuite overlaps these screenshots, colors, and icons to show they’re all related:

Screenshot of Hootsuite Icons and colors

If these visuals were further apart, it might not be clear they’re part of the same feature.


We naturally group similar items based on common elements. For example, educational app Moneywise separates sections by color in the navigation menus:

Screenshot of Moneywise App 

It then carries them over to each card’s background to help users understand where they are and get oriented faster.


We fill in the gaps of shapes that aren’t closed or parts of images that are missing. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) logo of the panda is a popular example:

Screenshot of World Wildlife Fund logo

While the body and head are unfinished, our mind closes the gap to see the full animal. Rather than a more complex design, the principle of Closure makes simplicity interesting.

Common fate

Objects moving in the same direction look like they belong together. You can use this tactic in web design to direct the user’s attention to a sign-up form or value proposition. As you scroll through Buildium’s landing page, all other elements move apart from the sign-up form:


This “sticky form” shows how you can use the principle to draw attention to the parts that aren’t moving, too.


When two symmetrical elements are separated, our mind connects them to form a coherent shape. Gucci used this tactic for its SS18 campaign website

Screenshot of Gucci SS18 Campaign Website

Symmetry is everywhere in the natural world. Using it on a landing page can help it to feel balanced and familiar for users.


Elements arranged on a line or curve look as though they’re related. You’ll see this on most mobile app product pages where space is limited to encourage users to keep scrolling. Trulia uses the same tactic on its desktop site to show there are more properties below:

Screenshot of Trulia Desktop Site

Amazon is one of the best examples of using this principle in a logo. The arrow takes the eye from A to Z to subtly suggest the huge range of products on the site:

Screenshot of Amazon Logo

It also doubles as an orange smile (we’ll cover colors soon), which prompts warm, positive feelings.

Common region

When objects are within the same closed region, we group them. Like Chatbot, you’ll see this type of organization on most landing pages:

Screenshot of Chatbot Benefits for Marketing 

 Here are all of the above laws in action:

Gestalt Principle 

You’ll see Gestalt principles everywhere in web design. Use them to organize your content and UI to make it easier for users to intuitively understand and navigate.

4. Visual hierarchy

Which part of a web page do you read first?

Visual hierarchy example

Visual hierarchy is the order in which we view and process visual information. It also stems from the Gestalt theory of wanting to bring order to chaos.

You want to draw attention to specific elements on your site first (e.g., calls to action and forms). Chat marketers Manychat uses size for this:

Screenshot of Manychat Homepage

Marketing automation solution Ortto uses color and shapes:

Screenshot of Ortto Homepage

You could also use animation or contrast for the same effect. In web design, it’s all about proportions. 

Take for instance the Golden Ratio—1.618. Designs that use proportions in line with the formula are considered aesthetically pleasing.

First, choose the length of the smallest element. Then multiply it by 1.618. The result? The perfect length of the bigger element.

Here’s what it looks like in action on mobile UI design:

Golden Ratio in UI design Example

Web pages that follow this logic are pleasing to the eye. Traditional art and architecture relied on this proportional system for centuries. It’s also found in naturally occurring weather patterns and plants. 

You can apply this subconscious familiarity to your UX to help new users feel more comfortable—even if they don’t know why. 

5. Occam’s Razor

William of Ockham’s problem-solving principle says the simplest solution is usually best. He’s right. When two competing designs have the same function, the simpler one is almost always the right choice.

This comes in handy when choosing between design prototypes. But it can also be used when narrowing down CTAs. Intercom’s homepage gives the user two options:

Screenshot of Intercom’s homepage

Get started and View demo. One route for those needing more information. One for others ready to start. Simple solutions remove friction and keep people moving.

6. The Von Restorff Effect

Certain elements on a landing page are designed to jump out at you. Why?

Behavioral scientist Hedwig Von Restorff found distinctive items are more likely to be remembered than ordinary items. With so many visual elements on your site, you need a way to make important items stand out.

You find this theory used often on pricing pages. Basecamp has a red outline and orange overlay highlighting its Pro package:

Screenshot of Basecamp Pricing Page

Brands use this technique to draw attention to the package that will make them the most money.

This psychological principle is always used for CTA buttons too. These are bigger, brightly colored, and isolated to make them visually distinctive to improve conversion rates.

Whatever you want to stand out most in your web design, make it distinctive.

7. The Zeigarnik Effect

Ever wondered why TV show cliffhangers play on your mind so much? That’s the Zeigarnik Effect in action.

It’s named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik (whose professor was a Gestalt psychologist). She theorized we could better recall uncompleted tasks than finished ones. 

Why? Interrupting a task before it’s completed creates psychological tension that can help us retain information for longer. 

That’s why using progress bars or check marks when users are setting up an account (like on Handshake) can encourage them to finish it:

Screenshot of Handshake Profile Progress Bar 

Highlighting this unresolved tension will lead users to that satisfying feeling of completion once it’s done. It’s an effective tactic you’ll see in onboarding or education apps and courses.

8. The Serial Position Effect and Peak End Rule

When reciting memorized items in a list, most people start with the first and last few they heard. 

Coined by renowned psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, the Serial Position Effect is dictated by the location of an item in a sequence. Those at the end and beginning are most easily recalled. The middle items are remembered least often.

Instagram takes this into account and puts the most-used home and profile buttons first and last:

Screenshot of Instagram Account Buttons 

Similarly, the Peak End Rule suggests we remember the most emotionally intense points of an experience and the end better than the rest. 

Duolingo regularly shares goal progress with fun illustrations, bright colors, and positive associations to encourage users to keep interacting:

Screenshot of Duolingo Goal Progress

By understanding the sequence of your UI and the impact of the Serial Position Effect, you’ll be able to minimize the loss of information in those middle stages. 

You can also use the Peak End Rule to create emotional highlights with your content. This will include any negative experiences too. So, try to mitigate these. Otherwise, you risk losing your users’ trust and, potentially, their business.

How to use 5 web design elements to influence user behavior

Your website design can be someone’s first and last touchpoint with your brand.

Get it right? Your first impression can lead to loyalty. Get it wrong? Money down the drain.

Pair these five main web design elements with human psychology principles to influence user behavior:

1. Colors

Color psychology is a principle in itself. It’s the foundation of your brand design. You’ll carry this through all of your digital marketing. From your content and ads to your landing pages.

The color scheme you choose isn’t just about brand recognition. It should help you stand out. But it’s so much more than that.

Different colors evoke certain emotions in humans. It’s why red is used for warning signs (it’s been proven to increase our heart rate), and nature’s green makes us feel calmer. 

Emotions influence customer behavior and purchasing decisions too. Here are some fundamental colors used in web design and the emotions they represent:

Fundamental Colors Used In Web Design

Nearly 40% of Fortune 500 companies use blue in their logo. As it suggests trust and security, it makes sense.

It’s also a calming color. No surprise then that meditation app Calm uses it across their site and logo:

Screenshot of Calm Homepage

Red and green are the colors most affected by color-vision deficiency. But almost no one struggles to distinguish the color blue. So, it can be a good accessibility choice too.

Color is often used to make CTA buttons stand out. Productivity app Notion uses the classic red to draw attention to the sign-up call to action:

Screenshot of Notion Homepage

It’s also the only element above the fold with color (the Von Restorff Effect—distinctive), which makes it pop.

The popular email marketing newsletter, Very Good Copy uses a similar black and white landing page with a big (Fitts’ Law) yellow button to direct the user to their one and only (Hick’s Law) CTA:

Screenshot of Very Good Copy Landing Page

You don’t have to stick to one color, either. Conversational marketing tool Drift uses vibrant colors, overlays, and shapes to position itself as a youthful, innovative brand:

Screenshot of Drift Website Colors and Design

Companies that use multiple colors usually offer a wide choice of products and services. (Think Google and Microsoft.) ResourceGuru uses complementary tones of different colors to symbolize how it brings many distinct elements into one management software:

Screenshot of ResourceGuru Homepage

These colors are also used in the app itself (Gestalt Similarity) to make it easier for users to segment information. 

The takeaway? Don’t let your web design colors be an afterthought. Think about the emotions they evoke and how to factor that into your UX. 

2. Spacing

“Negative” is usually a bad thing. But it’s an important element of good web design.

White space (negative space) refers to the portions of a web page that are “empty.” Confusingly, it can still be part of a larger image or color. But this is the space between your main visuals, lines of text, and margins. 

Recipe subscription ckbk uses one main background image to act as negative space between a heading, descriptive line of text, and CTA button:

Screenshot of ckbk Homepage

When used well, it draws attention to your most important information. Used wrong, designs can look “off.”

Microsoft demonstrates the effect it can have between lines of text:

Text Spacing Example By Microsoft

Too much or not enough is hard to read. Aim for around 30% more than the character height.

This example from WordStream also shows how a lack of negative space can make an ad seem “cheap”: 

Example of White Space Design

This is especially important for healthcare products where you need to work harder to earn people’s trust. If you’re trying to sell people something that’ll impact the most precious thing they have (their health), your design needs to be high quality.

Small business CRM Keap uses it well below the fold. It focuses all attention on each of its features with plenty of white space surrounding them:

Keap Website Design

Cluttered pages are tough to read. Most people won’t bother trying. Studies confirm, most of us skim when we read. That’s why simple websites are scientifically better. Set yours up for skimming with clean design, and you’re more likely to hold people’s attention for longer.

3. Layout

The layout of your landing page is as important as the copy. If you want optimal results, the two need to be aligned.

According to this paper on cognitive landscaping, the layout of your site has to work together to make the user feel in control. Being distinctive from other sites with memorable elements also contributes to this feeling.

Negative space has a huge part to play. But you’ll see most sites using a mix of the Gestalt design laws, too:

  • Proximity. Unbounce’s ecommerce landing page groups a heading, icon, description, and link close together to show they’re all connected without needing a border:
Screenshot of Unbounce’s ecommerce landing page

You’re also looking at visual hierarchy (with the size of the text) and Hick’s Law (one link to simplify choice) in action.

  • Common fate. Marketing analytics tool Singular makes the company icons of its users stand out on the homepage by moving them in one direction:


This draws attention to the huge brands already using their service. It also shows there are too many to fit on one screen. That’s effective social proof.

  • Continuity. Futuramo’s dashed line is a popular choice in web design for connecting two elements:
Screenshot of Futuramo Homepage
  • Symmetry. Mr Leight eyewear uses symmetry on its homepage to focus all attention on the main hero image:
Screenshot of Mr Leight Homepage
  • Common region. Trello’s homepage uses closed boxes to group screenshots, benefits, and explanations of specific features together:
Screenshot of Trello’s homepage

Along with different colors to separate them further, there’s less likely to be any confusion about which screenshot relates to which feature.

The same goes for drop-down navigation menus. Timberline Tours categorizes all related content in closed white boxes:

Screenshot of Timberline Tours Website Design

The layout of your site should connect all elements in a slightly complex way. Not too convoluted, so users can’t navigate themselves. But enough to keep them interested and motivated to keep exploring.

4. Typography

Typography has a few terms that are often confused. 

  • Typography is how text is arranged to be visually appealing; 
  • Typefaces are the design styles applied to letters, symbols, and characters; 
  • Fonts are different styles applied to typefaces. (For example, bold or italics.)

Like colors and shapes, different typefaces and fonts can help to express your brand’s personality. Serif is the more classic, traditional style. While sans-serif feels more modern and clean.

Screenshot of Font Categories Personalities

Script, handwritten, and decorative styles can all show a unique personality. Just be careful they don’t affect readability. Using too many at once might also seem quirky but can cause confusion:

Typography Example

Wondering which is scientifically best for your site? Sorry. There’s no single answer. While Garamond was the best on average in a recent study, it wasn’t the same for all users.

16 Fonts Measured for reading speed

There were substantial individual differences among participants. Most relate to age differences. What Nielsen did recommend from the results was “cutting 11% more words if large parts of your audience are 50 years or older.”

While there’s no correct answer for every user, it does prove that font has to be chosen wisely to aid reading speed and accessibility.

Color and spacing psychology all come into play with typography. But consider the size of the text too.

Zoho uses larger numbers to make its social proof stats stand out (Fitts’ Law):

Screenshot of Zoho social proof stats

Semrush does the same but adds unique colorful shapes to separate each stat further (the Von Restorff Effect):

Screenshot of Semrush social proof stats

Whatever your web design text says, make sure it’s properly spaced, uses colors thoughtfully, and is sized systematically to draw attention to the important parts. 

5. Shapes

Shapes don’t just have a huge part to play in logo design. They can also be used throughout your site. As well as setting a mood, they can lead user flow around the design, or create depth and movement.

Screenshot of Passenger clothing uses squares and rectangle elements on their website
  • Circles and ovals suggest harmony and inclusion with no sharp edges. Visual collaboration platform Miro uses circular shapes (and Gestalt’s Closure principle) to suggest connectedness:
Screenshot of MIro uses circles and oval elements on their website
  • Triangles are powerful shapes that can suggest power or direction. Jazz FM radio uses one to symbolize the “Play” button:
Screenshot of Jazz FM radio uses triangle element on their website

You can also see a huge reliance on negative space to keep things clean and modern.

  • Polygons (shapes with more than four sides) feel vibrant and can grab users’ attention. You’ll see this more on sites that are pushing tech and innovation. AI-powered talent platform Beamery subtly carries the hexagonal shape of its logo through its user interface:
Screenshot of Beamery uses hexagonal element on their website
  • Curves and waves can calm the user with their motion and natural flow. Buffer combines this tactic with arrows (Gestalt Continuity and Common Fate) to direct the user’s line of sight through the four ways the team’s service can help:
Screenshot of Buffer uses curves and waves element on their website

You can be more abstract with your shapes too. Visit Humboldt uses the silhouette of the county’s famous Redwood trees to blend the hero image into the information below:

Screenshot of Visit Humboldt uses silhouette of the county’s famous Redwood trees to blend the hero image

Social media collaboration platform Pearpop uses its pear-shaped logo throughout the site to show it’s a youthful, down-to-earth app:

Screenshot of Pearpop uses pear-shaped logo throughout their site

Nonprofit Surfers Against Sewage uses shape differently. Instead of a solid outline, a messy eraser brush rubs out the image of the ocean in the background to make way for the heading:

Screenshot of Surfers Against Sewage uses a messy eraser brush rubs out the image of the ocean in the background

This powerful warning message is more of a texture than a shape. But it does its job by grabbing your attention and making you think.

If your logo has a shape, think about how you could incorporate it into your web design. If not, consider a feeling or message you may want to symbolize with one.


Web design isn’t an exact formula, but there are theories behind it.

None of the examples of effective websites above use just one principle of psychology. Each overlaps several coherently.

Whether you’ve got a web development team or it’s just you, the strategy is the same. If you think you’ve got something that works, test it. Optimize it. Then test again. 

Repeat this process regularly, and you’ll keep up with the subconscious needs of your users.

Learn how to go beyond traditional A/B testing with advanced statistical techniques from CXL’s advanced experimentation analysis course.

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How To Use the Psychology of Web Design To Influence User Behavior