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Designing for Habits

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Some may argue that familiarity beats novelty. Most designers would probably disagree, but why are we so convinced that a redesign will have a positive impact on a business? Most of the time it's much wiser to invest in ensuring that a product or service is easy to choose.
In-house design teams and marketers try their hardest to make products stand out by refreshing and reshaping them. They are obsessed by the apparent power of a fresh start. But there's a flip side: the more consistent a product remains, the less mentally taxing it is to use. Designers ought to bear this in mind, but often don't.

It seems the advantages of familiarity are a well-kept secret. Marketers tend to spend too much time, effort, and money creating a fresh start for their products, even though research shows that we respond to placement, color, shape, and spatial orientation in our daily decisions. On the basis of these four factors, the consumer's brain is engaged in a process called perceptual priming. The designer needs to mould the experience around the user's memory of words and objects so that the right cues lead to the right choices.

Each time you choose a given product, service, or brand, it gains an advantage over the ones you didn't choose, and the products that you didn’t choose suffer an equal and opposite disadvantage. That gap grows bigger with every purchase you make — as long as the product you chose in the first place meets your expectations.
How can priming improve product design?
First, visual objects and elements can be used to prime certain actions. Design can prime people to form expectations of a website, service, or product. If those assumptions are met, the overall experience is smooth and satisfying. However, when the assumptions are not met, friction arises, along with the perception that the product or service has poor usability.

Elements in the interface can prime behavior and expectations. An example of this is a coupon field on the checkout page of an e-commerce website. Even though the user may not have planned to use a coupon, the presence of a coupon field primes them to leave the checkout flow and search for a promotional code.

By using priming techniques, designers can encourage users to expect a certain level of service with a good clean design and practical navigation. Think about priming patterns that your competitors use whenever you carry out your research and analysis. Simply knowing how you compare gives you more control and freedom when defining your product or service.
Making it easy to choose
Unfortunately, companies frequently make design changes that end up disrupting habits rather than enhancing them. If we think about priming from the outset of the redesign process we can subtly influence a user's decisions. When used appropriately, priming can prompt the user to take the best possible path inside a service, saving them time and minimizing frustration along the way.

We must implement design changes that will reinforce habits and encourage repurchase.
The Amazon Dash Button provides an excellent example: by creating a smooth process for reordering previously bought products, Amazon helps its users to develop habits and locks them into a particular distribution channel.
  • Build on familiarity with simple touches such as using appealing terminology. For example, talk about launching "improvements" rather than "news".
  • Consider priming at the design stage, matching your service's goals with you customers' needs.
  • The mind is lazy. The user does not wish to be challenged or forced to concentrate in order to arrive at their desired outcome.
  • Think about priming patterns that your competitors use whenever you carry out your research and analysis.
Designing a product or service around habits is a powerful approach. Building updates around the familiarity of existing offerings will make them easy to come back to.

Of course, companies have to keep their products up-to-date, but new technological and design features should be introduced in a way that retains the imprint of the ones they are replacing.

Consumers are more likely to choose what's familiar. With that in mind, we need to start questioning our continuous rush to refresh and update our products and services. Most purchasing decisions are made non-rationally and almost automatically. The user experience needs to help customers choose based on elements and processes that are familiar to them. By designing products and services that allow users to hold on to their habits, we can capitalise on the innate value of familiarity in branding and design.
This article is written by Martin Brolin on The UX Blog: Designing for Habits.
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