To prime is not a crime – Priming in UX design

Can we influence decisions and actions of the users of our website or application? How to guide the user to facilitate the use of our solutions? From the article you will learn about what is the mysterious phenomenon of priming and what kind of profits it may bring in creating a positive UX.

Read the following string of words: “water, bath, foam, purity”
and fill in missing letters

_ _ _ P

Why did you think of the word S-O-A-P, and not, for example, S-O-U-P or C-R-O-P? The priming effect is responsible for this. A string of words had activated the network of associations in your brain and that’s why you thought about the word soap faster than the other matching alternatives.

What is priming?

Priming is a unconscious effect of memory in which exposure to one stimulus affects the response to another stimulus. Priming uses our memories and rooted mental constructs and influences our decisions. Scientifically priming (positive) is explained as the phenomenon of facilitating the processing of the stimulus under the influence (usually previous) of the other stimulus. It may be manifested in: shorter reaction time, less probability of making a mistake and a greater chance of correctly interpreting the ambiguous stimulus.
Generally speaking, the phenomenon of priming is based on the mechanism of associations. The stimulus with which we had previously been in contact affect how we process information that reaches us.

The basis for the positive effects of priming can be compounds (between the previous stimulus and the test stimulus) of different nature: morphological, sound, semantic, associative, affective. One thing is certain – priming works and thanks to it, we respond faster to related words (sky cloud) than to unrelated (auto cloud). The following types of priming are distinguished:

  • Repetitive – the preceding stimulus and test stimulus are identical, eg violin → violin
  • Semantic – the preceding stimulus and test stimulus belong to one semantic category or their meaning is related, eg violin → harp
  • Associative – the preceding stimulus and test stimulus are connected by association, eg fiddler → roof; tank → dog
  • Affective – the previous stimulus and test stimulus have a similar affective (emotional) meaning, eg spider → ulcer

How to use priming in design?

For the purposes of UX and optimization, first of all knowledge of repetitive and semantic priming will be useful – thanks to them you can improve the convenience of users by providing them with the right direction. However, be careful not to inconvenience the user with incorrect associations.
Not only words but also images, colors or even sounds can be the main stimuli.

Not only words but also images, colors or even sounds can be the main stimuli.

Zdjęcie ze sklapu internetowego na którym widać osoby w okularach co ma sugerować że to sklep z okularami

Above the image that paves specific associations. The user who enters the homepage sees in the first place a picture that matches his attitude – he expects a page with glasses. This is an example of semantic priming (because it concerns meaning). Choosing the right photo (in this case, people wearing only glasses, without any other elements that could distract you) makes it easy to identify quickly (recognizing a shop with glasses).

The image can also be mislaid with improper associations – by example of the Norman Nielsen Group.

Zrzut ze strony szkoły na której są zdjęciach małych dzieci co ma sugerować że jest to szkoła podstawowa

Photos of young children on the Challenger School website mislead users – the recipients think that the school is not intended for older children, only for those in pre-school age (or the first years of primary school). In fact, it is also a school for children up to the 8th grade. This is an example of the fact that inappropriate images on the home page can lead to incorrect (from the site’s point of view) associations and lead user to abandon the site.
Negative effects can also be caused by the use of inappropriate “triggers”. These words cause an immediate and intuitive user response. “We promise not to send SPAM” – such a message introduces the user into a state of uncertainty and doubt. The mention of the word SPAM near the subscription to the newsletter may affect the lower registration rate. It is worth carrying out the A / B test in such a situation and checking if users actually react negatively to such a message.

Zrzut ekranu newslettera który obiecuje że nie będzie wysyłał spamu

When designing user-friendly solutions, repetitive priming is also used – for example, by duplicating some interactive elements within a page or application. After becoming familiar with a given element, the user will be more willingly and efficiently using it in other places (eg on subsequent subpages or application screens), as is the case, for example, on Dropbox. In addition, all users of computers and mobile devices are already familiar with the standard elements of interfaces such as buttons, sliders, switches. For this reason, it is wise to adhere to existing conventions during the design phase. Users will quickly and intuitively use the interface elements they know.

Persuasive design

If you apply the paving correctly, you can “turn on” the user a certain way of thinking and predispose him to make specific choices or take the right actions. A good example is priming before asking for permission to access the address book in the Cluster application.

Ekran aplikacji Cluster
Cluster app screens

This is called permission priming. Using the screens that build the context (explaining why it is worth giving consent) before the right question caused that the problem of users choosing “Do not Allow” almost completely disappeared. It is also important in this case that the explanation contains specific benefits for the user granting permission. The “Use Address Book” communicated and highlighted graphically provides the stimulus for the next screen.

The use of appropriate peripheral tips can also contribute to better user experience. Such tips may include icons, as in the example below.

Zrzuty ekranu aplikacji clear pokazujący jak z niej korzystać
Clear app screens

During the onboarding of the application, the user becomes acquainted with the appearance of the application and gets a hint on how to use the function. Thanks to a simple pointer in the form of an icon, he knows what gesture he should use on a given screen. In this case, the icon is a secondary hint that assists the user in later execution of the task. It also complements the instructions – the words “Tap and hold” appear as the previous stimulus, and the icon acts as a test stimulus. In this way, the user will understand the icon faster and with less probability of error.

You can also use video materials for paving. Showing the context of using the application on the film may result in a situation in which a user who is in similar circumstances to a movie (priming affective), activates his memories associated with it and will be more prone to install and use the application.

Priming can affect the users’ decisions and, consequently, the actions they take. It is therefore an effective tool to guide the user through the website or application. However, it should be remembered that we will not force anyone to do anything, but we can effectively support the user’s decisions and, to some extent, teach him more effective methods of using our solutions.

In conclusion, the psychological phenomenon presented above is a force to be reckoned with. The trick is to use it both for the benefit of the user and for the purpose of the site.

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