10 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People

Design May 08, 2020
Fry, from Futurama, squeezing his eyes while asking himself whether users are mentally challenged or just plain stupid


This image represents a classic meme denoting how developers and product makers behaved (and some still do) for quite some time. Some expected reactions could come as following:

  • “How could someone miss that perfectly designed hint in the UI?”
  • “The user is probably a moron or an unadvised elder”
  • “If they can’t see that button, they shouldn’t even work with financial audit”
  • “I would be able to figure that step in seconds. It’s pretty clear what should be done”

I need to confess something. Even though I’ve never programmed or helped design a UI until recently, I always agreed with these thoughts. Possibly because I couldn’t see anything besides my own belly button, but that’s a story for another time. For now, I am a changed man. All this change started with a mindset shift.

Everyone has a story to tell.

What I mean is: no one has the same background, knowledge, experiences and perspectives as someone else. When you start to understand people are different, unique and that there is no absolute right or wrong, you can start thinking towards your product's user.

Enough of confessing and personal story, I would like to share with you a few knowledge pills regarding how people behave and how you can apply design concepts to improve your product’s user experience, taken from the book 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People, by Susan Weinschenk. All the concepts in the book are thoroughly backed up with research data, so check it out if you want to verify where these concepts come from.

1. How People See

  • Our brain is designed to recognize patterns and tries to use whatever you have as a pattern when looking for something. So whenever you need to represent an object in your website or screen, use simple geometric drawing for it. Bonus points if you keep it 2D - easier and faster recognition.
An optical illusion showing varied geometric figures, but no complete square. The illusion is that there is a square there, perceived by your brain, but not really in the drawing.
  • Speaking of patterns, you need to know that people like classifying whatever they see, for an easier grasp of what is going on. So be aware that whatever elements you present on the screen will be categorized by their proximity - things that are close together are interpreted as belonging together.
  • Another good practice you can apply when designing is to provide visual cues whenever something changes on the screen, especially if it is important and if it is outside the middle of the screen. People can miss small changes when they don’t know those can happen.
  • Last but not least, consider designing your colors to attend colorblind people. The average of color blindness globally is around 4.5%, considering all the types of this deficiency. Think about this when you use color coding and when you mix green, red and blue in the same screen.
A frame containing the same image 4 times, but one of them is how the normal vision works, and the other 3 represent how they are perceived by people with common types of color blindness

2. How People Read

  • Although it is almost common sense right now, it’s worth noting that typography is crucial for your user experience. If you adopt a decorative font, be aware that people are going to take longer to read it, and find it more difficult, no matter its content.
A frame showing various types of fonts and how difficult it is to read them
  • If you want people to truly comprehend a piece of information, you need to understand who is your audience and what previous knowledge and experiences they could and could not have. Things can be a lot clearer when you also provide a headline, to let your readers know what is the context.
  • To maximize reading effectiveness on a screen, adopt a large point size for text, provide ample contrast between foreground and background and break your text into chunks whenever possible, using bullets, short paragraphs and pictures.

3. How People Remember

  • People remember only four items at once. As arbitrary as it may sound, the researches provided consistent results. So if you ever need people to remember anything, limit it to four items. If you have more than 4, break into categories, each containing no more than 4 items again.
  • It's much easier to recognize information than to recall it. So you can eliminate some memory load whenever possible through interface features and design guidelines. Also beware that people will forget things, so if anything is important, make sure you remind them of it.

4. How People Think

  • People process information better in bite-sized chunks. This means that if you have a long task that you require the user to do, you should always break this task in smaller, simpler tasks. This is also true when presenting information: use ‘read more’ to assure people will be presented an adequate amount of information each time.
Image that represents progressive disclosure - showing only information related to that specific context at a time
  • People create and rely on mental models. Before they interact with your product, they have a mental representation of what your product will be like, based on their past experiences. If this model is too far from your UI, people can get frustrated. You should abuse product demo and videos to establish your user’s mental models and prepare them to use your product.
  • People learn best from examples, and process information best in story form. If you can show what people should do, with videos instead of written media, it will be a much better user experience for them. And if you can make it in the form of a story, people will have an easy time remembering it.

5. How People Focus Their Attention

  • People filter information. This means you should never assume people are going to see an element in the screen. If you need to draw attention to it, use color, size, animation. And beware that if you need someone focused, don’t ever use animation outside the content to be focused.
  • People can’t hold their attention for more than 7-10 minutes. Hence whenever you are presenting information, keep in mind to introduce novel information or a break between whenever you need more than minutes. This also means to keep any video tutorial, demonstration or presentation under 7 minutes.
  • Multitasking is a myth. That’s it. Although controversial, data shows that no one is able to multitask. What is sometimes called multitasking is actually swapping attention rapidly, but if your application requires users to do it, expect a lot of errors and provide ways to fix them afterwards.
A bar chart showing how much time is productive and how much it is lost due to context switch when you are working on more than 1 project at a time

6. What Motivates People

  • People are motivated by progress, mastery and control. Look for ways to help people set goals and track them. Show people how they are progressing toward their goals and beware that the closer they are to the goal, the more motivated they get.
An example of how you can show progress on account creation in your apps
  • People are inherently lazy. People will always look for getting things done with the least amount of work possible. If you give them too many options to process and decide, they will prefer an easier alternative. Look for the good-enough solution, rather than the optimal one.
  • To make people addicted to your product, give people small and easy tasks to do, rather than a complex one. Combine it with a reason to come back every day (maybe a reward of some kind) and proper time and they will become your most loyal customer.

7. People Are Social Animals

  • People are programmed for imitation and empathy. You can influence people to some behavior by showing someone else doing the same task. Stories are an efficient way to make people take an action - especially if you show a video of people doing what needs to be mirrored.
  • People expect online interactions to follow social rules. The same way you will distrust a stranger on the street offering something you are not quite sure you need, people distrust when you intrusively interact with them online. Follow person-to-person interaction rules to make sure you earn your customers’ trust.
  • People can tell when a smile is real or fake more accurately with video. Images of people smiling are very attractive for your website, but beware when using video. If users perceive the smile as fake, mistrust will occur.
How fake smiles can be perceived as fake and how an authentic smile should look like

8. How People Feel

  • There are seven basic universal emotions: joy, sadness, contempt, fear, disgust, surprise and anger. These are all understood across all cultures, through facial expressions and physical gestures. When using pictures of faces, pick one of the universal emotions to communicate clearly with your audience.
A drawing showing the 7 universal expressions: disgust, happy, rest, sad, anger, fear, surprise and contempt
  • People are hard-wired to enjoy surprises. Things that are new and novel capture attention, so providing your users with something unexpected not only captures their attention but is also pleasurable. Although consistency is needed, sometimes providing new ways for your customers to interact with your product can prove to be rewarding.
  • People use look and feel as their first indicator of trust. Design factors (color, font, layout, navigation) are critical in the first ‘trust rejection’ phase, so think carefully in how to use them in order to provide your customer the best first impression.

9. People Make Mistakes

  • People will always make mistakes - there is no fail-safe product. You can collect what kind of errors people keep committing, and design accordingly to avoid most of them, but there’s always a way for mistakes. After all, we are all human.
  • Not all mistakes are bad. Mistakes can be good (if they teach people what needs to be done) and also neutral (if the mistake is easily undoable). Make sure to provide clear error messages containing information on what was done, what was the problem, how to correct it, if possible with an example. Use plain language and use active, not passive voice.
  • People make errors when they are under stress. But some level of stress can be beneficial - if the task is too boring, people can not be motivated to keep going. The graphic below is a representation of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which explains this behavior. Design for the correct amount of stress (balancing distracting elements) in your product.
A chart showing that some stress is adequate for the performance of a task, but high levels of stress can ruin the performance as well

10. How People Decide

  • People make the most decisions unconsciously. Knowing the unconscious motivations of your target audience is key to persuade people into taking certain actions. This does not mean people don’t need logical / rational reasons to take an action, but in the end, the unconscious is the decision maker, even before the logical brain can ponder on it.
An iceberg drawing showing that our perception is only 5% conscious, logical and 95% unconscious, intuitive
  • People think choice equals controls, and generally ask for more choices and information than they can process. Even though people think more options are better, researches show that less options is far more effective (4 at a time - how much we can remember, analyze and compare).
  • Mood influences the decision-making process. People have a natural tendency to make decisions - intuitively versus deliberately. People will estimate a product’s value higher if decisions are made in their ‘natural’ style. You can influence their mood with a short video clip:
  • Good mood rate products higher if the decision is made intuitively;
  • Sad mood rate products higher if the decision is made deliberately.

Wrapping Things Up

The book presents many researches confirming these concepts, more than enough to provide evidence that implementing these knowledge in your product designing will yield better results. As much as you think you are not predictable and don’t react like most of what is described above, I can tell you:

1- You probably do react like this (most of the time) and are unaware of it.

2- Even if you still believe you don’t react like this, your customers do. They are human and surely obey the same laws of behavior as the people studied in those researches.

After reading the book, you can still think users are dumb, or that you are some sort of high-intellect individual that behaves totally different from the majority of people. At least remember that they are the ones paying the bills and, even for selfish reasons, you should attend their needs.

An infographic showing the main benefits of UX design, such as helping avoiding errors, faster data processing by our brains, ROI of 2-100, and reduce the loss of online business

This article was written by Valdir Manzano. He's Brazilian, and he graduated in Mechanical Engineering but never worked on it. He started building data-related products about 2 years ago, and is now working as a business developer.

Feel free to tweet at him, or send him an email telling him what you learned from this article.

Josh Ternyak

Hi, I am Josh Ternyak. I am a 15 year old front-end web developer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota who builds websites and talks about how he does it.

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