A brief guide to psychology principles in UX design

In this week’s #UXchat, we’re discussing various psychology principles and their relevance in UX design. 

maslow hierarchy of needs

We recently explored the subject in-depth in Becca Kennedy’s recent blog posts four psychology principles every UX designer should know and the psychology of storytelling, but here we take to the UX community on Twitter and ask them how psychology and cognitive design is used in UX design, for better and for worse.

Just in case you’re new to UXChat, here’s a little background to our weekly UX conversation where you can rub virtual shoulders with some of the most knowledgeable ‘UXperts’ on the planet, every Thursday at 4pm.

This week’s conversation was hosted by Martin Jancik, a product designer at Edookit. You can read more from Martin by following him on Medium and you’ll find many of Martin’s helpful comments throughout the following discussions.

I’ll also be dropping in ‘jargon busting’ explainers for people who are entirely new to the subject. i.e. me.

Are psychology principles utilised appropriately in UX design

Where’s the line between subtle nudging and outright manipulation? Many psychological principles applied to UX design are intended to be invisible to the casual observer; they are there to guide and educate. Others however are designed to trick you into taking a route you may regret.

But what do we even mean by a ‘psychology principle’?

According to Very Well, Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that looks at the human mind and behaviour as a whole. When trying to make sense of the world around us, Gestalt psychology suggests that we do not simply focus on every small component.

Instead, our minds tend to perceive objects as part of a greater whole and as elements of more complex systems.

So how does UX design positively or negatively use cognitive science?

Dark patterns

One of the most high-profile enemies of UX are dark patterns, these are user interfaces that are designed to trick users into doing things they may not want to, such as signing up for recurring bills or receiving endless push notifications.

Here’s a recent example from DarkPatterns.org via Will Scott:

Here the UXchat community discusses the manipulative practice further…

Other heinous practices

Boo! For shame! Take them to the stocks! Here are the UXperts’ least favourite techniques…

But how could we be using psychology principles more positively? Sweeeeeeeeeeeet emotion!

Of course, we all know the true enemy of good intention? Nope not cake. No, it’s not alcohol either. Or Mario Kart. Look it’s deadlines, okay? Deadlines.

How do you use psychology principles to connect with your users emotionally?

Here are a few resources recommended by the UXperts on connecting with users in a not-to-creepy-but-still-meaningful-and-only-cuddly-if-that’s-okay-with-you kind of way.


Gamification is the practice of using elements of gameplay and applying them to non gaming situations. Examples of this include Reddit users increasing their ‘karma’, or a craft beer company asking for reviews and giving you reward points, or me seeing how many trolling tweets it takes for me to get blocked by Innocent smoothies.

But where does the practice of gamification stand on the ethical divide?

Can you influence (or even change) human behaviour using psychology principles?

Our UX community provides a plethora of resources and reading material for further exploring and answering this very question…

Also check out our guide to UX courses and communities for more resources.

Thanks so much for everyone who took part in #UXchat this week. Please follow us and tune into Twitter every Thursday at 4pm for more insightful UX based discussion.

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Main image courtesy of Simple Psychology

Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager of WhatUsersDo. He’s also a filmmaker and the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy and editor of Search Engine Watch.

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