A Deep Dive into the Psychology of User Decisions

A deep dive into user decisions

We like to apply labels to users: they’re irrational, lazy, unpredictable, rushed, and so on.

To some extent that may be true—we aren’t machines.

But research shows that users actually make decisions based on a set of predictable subconscious patterns.

To create satisfying digital experiences, UX designers should be aware of—and support—these cognitive habits.


Human beings use psychological tactics and biases to get to decisions quickly. These mental shortcuts are called heuristics. We use heuristics in everyday life, but we especially like using them with software.

We don’t follow these patterns out of laziness or because we’re scatter-brained. It’s quite rational to take advantage of heuristics as a user because…

Let’s take a look at some of the most common heuristics that users employ.

In the digital world, there’s very little penalty for being wrong.

Web pages can be complicated. We’d rather make a decision and get on with our lives.

Carelessly clicking around is more fun because we get a small dopamine rush from each click.

The web enables us to move quickly from one decision to the next, at a much faster pace than the physical world. So that’s what we do.


A combination of the words “satisfy” and “suffice.” It means to settle for the first reasonable option you find, without considering the whole set of possibilities. We don’t look for the right answer—we look for whatever is good enough.

Users make quick and dirty scans. When they come across something that refers even a little to what they’ve come for, they instinctively click it.

Loss Aversion

Losses loom larger than gains in our minds. It is thought that the pain of losing is about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. We put in more work and take more risks to avoid losses than we do to make gains. Part of Prospect Theory.

Users will go to great lengths to avoid something that’s potentially negative, or that could cause them to lose what they already have.


People draw conclusions based on what comes to mind immediately. We give a lot of importance to things that we recall quickly and things we can already see right in front of us.

If a user needs to make a decision on a page, what’s right in front of them? What can they recall quickly from other pages? What do they notice first?

Decision Fatigue

Making a lot of decisions lowers a person’s ability to make rational ones. It’s also exhausting.

If a user is forced to make decision after decision after decision, they’ll eventually start making sub-optimal choices… or give up entirely.

Reference Dependence

Human beings do not have an innate way to determine absolute value. So we assign value by comparing one thing to another. We make judgments in relative rather than absolute terms.

In a set of choices in an interface, how the options relate to each other will determine what the user will do.

Status Quo Bias

Unless there’s a compelling incentive, people are more likely to stick to the default. In other words, we tend not to change the established situation.

This explains, for example, why users rarely take advantage of fancy customization features or change default settings.

Hick’s Law

The number of stimuli present influences the time and effort required to make a decision.

When users come across a situation with too many options, sometimes they’ll try to bypass the unpleasantness of Hick’s Law by hastily making any decisions.

Sea Bird in Flight

So what?

As designers, what do we do about all this?

Here are a few ways we can tailor our digital experiences to these heuristics.

1. Decrease your DPP

One helpful exercise is to look at what we can call our DPP: Decisions Per Page.

Take an important page from your interface and count the number of possible decisions a user could make on that page. This includes actions (which always require a decision) or information that leads to a decision.

I’m willing to bet the number is higher than you would have guessed.

If the DPP is too high, what do you do?

Completely get rid of some decisions if they’re unnecessary or duplicates from another page.

Hide some options, or at least dramatically reduce their visual weight.

Split up decisions onto more pages. Break complex tasks down into smaller steps.

2. Reduce visual signals

Start by reducing the number of colors and fonts. Using more than four meaningful colors causes the “rainbow effect” which disorients the brain and creates an impression of ugliness.

Movement is distracting. Use animation sparingly and only for a specific purpose.

Build a design system. It ensures consistency between elements, and prevents users from having to re-learn the interface on every new page.

3. Optimize the default experience

Be aware that many people will never use fancy customization options. Make sure the general default experience provides for all the important task flows.

Forms provide lots of opportunities to be helpful. For example, we could pre-populate fields with the most common value or a realistic example. This representative value helps the user understand how to complete the field and what the expected response is. Not to mention it will save most users time and decision-making energy.

4. Prioritize for the user

Since many users aren’t going to accurately prioritize things on their own, we should do some of that work for them. The ultimate goal is that they can glance at any page and know instinctively which items are most important.

Knowing what to prioritize requires that you learn about your users, their goals, and their main workflows. Think about what is essential (vs. what is optional) and what moves the user forward.

We can give the user visual clues to create a clear hierarchy. Our brain assigns importance to things based on size, color, imagery, contrast, white space, and alignment.

5. Evaluate your content

Remember almost all users scan—they don’t read. Classic principles of good writing, including descriptive headings and inverted-pyramid structures, help users get meaning from content.

Some common red flags include a lack of headings and big, long blocks of text. Call attention to important information using bulleted lists and bold or italic fonts. Take the time to craft your microcopy.

6. Consider the post-click experience

What happens when a user clicks on something? What’s the next thing they see and how does it connect to where they just were? How does it fit into their whole journey through your interface?

It could be easy to think of each page in isolation. But remember pages aren’t individual silos—they’re pieces of flows. It’s all a series of connected actions.

Give good information scent with link labels so users know where they’re going. Allow them to gracefully recover from clicking on the wrong thing to eliminate the “cost” of clicking. Make sure they’re always moving forward.

How Much Money Do Designers Make?

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How much do they make?

In this post I’ll answer the question How Much Money Do Designers Make from entry level to those that have been in the industry a while. Please continue reading below for the full post.

$42,000+ (on average in the U.S. for entry-level designer positions)

Getting the most basic part of the question out of the way first, according to Indeed.com the average entry-level web designer rate per hour is $22.62, which over the course of a year averages out to a salary of $42,934.

Yes, there are tech roles that pay more, but if you’re someone with a background in traditional print or graphic design, a jump to web design can be a pretty seamless transition. And—unlike those traditional jobs than can be hit or miss as media continues to go more and more digital— web design jobs are plentiful, with Indeed.com listing over 15,000 positions as of this writing.

$53,877+ (on average in U.S. for senior positions with 3+ years of web design experience)

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Once you have three or more years of experience in the field and can qualify for senior level positions, Indeed’s average salary moves up to $53,877 (and peaks as high as $118,809 for senior designers who add UX design skills and experience to their resume).

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Average Rates Vary Based on Geography

Finally, Web design salaries also vary based on your geographical area (or the geography of the company you’re applying for, if you’re working remotely).

Here’s a breakdown of how the average entry-level salary varies between East and West Coast (New York and Los Angeles) and between high cost of living city and low cost of living city (we’ve used New York and Yuma as our examples).

Another factor that brings variability to design salaries is the fact that design work isn’t always a single commitment to one company paying a fixed wage.

New York: $62,237

Yuma: $41,452

Oakland: $66,240

Chicago: $60,230

Yes, it’s possible to get a job as a designer working for one company, but—like all creative jobs— design can be a freelance career, where the amount of income you bring in will depend on the number of clients you land and the amount of work you’re interested in and willing to do.

How To Create Custom Website Backgrounds The Easy Way

In this post I’ll show you how to create custom website backgrounds the easy way with these seven tips to take your site to the next level. While there are many ways to use textures in web design, you’ll get a lot more mileage out of those backgrounds if you take a modern approach, and follow a few simple rules.

Here are seven tips to help you use background textures in web design well (all of which are in-line with the latest and greatest 2019 design patterns and trends).

  1. Go Simple and Understated
  2. Go Big and Bold
  3. Incorporate a Trend
  4. Use an Image
  5. Use Color Variations
  6. Grab a Gradient
  7. Animate It
Continue reading “How To Create Custom Website Backgrounds The Easy Way”