Skip to Main Content

Apr 10, 2017 BY A Mighty Citizen UX Design & Content, Marketing

4 Psychology Hacks to Improve Your Website’s Effectiveness

Last month, we sent one of our intrepid digital reporters, Jamie Tulisiak, to SXSW Interactive. She returned with a ton of tips, including four psychological tricks you can use to improve your online presence.

There is no such thing as neutral design.
—Kelly Baron, Fjord

At this year’s SXSWi, Kelly Baron of Fjord offered a session entitled “Best Behavior: Prompting Preferred Patterns.” Her talk focused on “digital nudges”—a behavioral science concept about how positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can influence decision-making.

After Baron went through the myriad examples of nudges in everyday life, I felt a little duped.

Sure, I’ve long realized that the “Original Price: $400” tag on a $29.99 TJ Maxx dress is supposed to make me feel like I’ve bagged a steal, but the artful nudge of Netflix timing my next episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to auto-start in a calculated 15 seconds? Yep, even my binges have been masterminded.

In its purest form, a nudge is not about manipulation; it’s about using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to steer behavior. A nudge promotes the action a website wants users to take but doesn’t remove the other options.

Savvy designers take advantage of nudges to take things off users’ thinking list—giving them context and directing them toward the “best” action.


When making decisions, people love context:

  • “What are other people doing?”
  • “What are all the options?”
  • “What am I gaining/losing by not selecting a particular option?”

Anchoring is the technique of offering context to help your users make their decisions. A great example of this is the donation page on the website we designed for The Long Center:

Research shows that when presented with multiple options, users will opt for the middle-ground choice.

The labeled tiers on the Long Center form—e.g., Individual, Emerging Patron, Heritage, etc.—nudge users to select the option in the middle by presenting it as the “giving norm.” By offering more top-end donation options than lower-end, we have made it more likely that users will select a higher giving tier than they otherwise would have. 

Default Settings

Default settings are a prime example of how a nudge can “remove something from the thinking list.”

When an option is pre-selected by default, users are far more likely to accept it. That’s why so many online forms have an email opt-in box selected by default: Web designers know they’ll get more opt-ins if they don’t require the user to take an action to select it themselves.

But given the power of the default setting, we have a responsibility not to abuse it for selfish gains. 

Consider the donation form on the website we designed for Mothers’ Milk Bank of Austin:

Two features stand out.

First, the “This is a one-time donation” button is marked by default because MMB knows this is the most common type of gift. Defaulting to a recurring gift would likely anger donors who didn’t notice they were signing up for a monthly donation. 

Second, the “Please direct my donation to…” list is defaulted to “Area of Greatest Need.” This way, MMB can use their financial donations as they best see fit—an important power for any nonprofit organization. 

Mighty Insights

Thoughts on strategy delivered to your inbox

Limited Choice

When presented with too many options, people freeze up. It’s why people take forever to order off the mega-menu at The Cheesecake Factory. 

Thus, smart designers present users with options A or B instead of options A-Z. 

Take social media share buttons, for example. Too many social icons on a webpage—placed there in an attempt to heavily push shares—usually result in the opposite effect: shares decrease. That’s why more websites are retreating to offering just a couple of options (usually Facebook and Twitter). 

But even if you’re committed to offering a plethora of social media share buttons, a great workaround is using the “more” icon, as seen on the blog we built for Navigate Life Texas. Along the top of each page, users see this:

By clicking the “+” icon, a window pops up that offers more social networks:

A “more” button gives users the option to share your content on additional, less popular social networks without bombarding them with all of them at once.

Social Herding  

We’re pack animals: we like to follow the crowd.

If users see that other people are doing something, they’re more likely to join in. Social herding is the practice of giving a website a sense of community.

A great example of this, from our website for our friends at Meals on Wheels Central Texas, is this campaign activity section on their donation page. Showing that other people are actively involved in this great mission makes new site visitors want to contribute as well:

So while nudge theory can have vastly different applications and motivations—not always in one’s best interests (I’m looking at you, McDonald’s: “Would you like to supersize that?”)—when it comes to designing your website, a good, honest nudge can make your site more user-friendly and help you meet your digital goals more efficiently. 

As Baron said in her SXSW talk: “When common sense fails, common sensors bridge the gap.” Common sense nudges sound like usability gold to me.

Who We Are Careers

Copyright © 2019 Mighty Citizen. All rights reserved.