The psychology behind product design: Q&A with Nathalie Nahai


Author and web psychologist Nathalie Nahai talks persuasive user experience design, behavioral economics and why we get hooked on social media

Higher user engagement and ever-increasing conversions are pretty much the Holy Grail for product designers and UX teams. But how do you know what’s going to nudge users down the funnel to conversion, or keep them coming back to your app for more?

That’s where web psychology can help, says Nathalie Nahai. Nathalie helps teams apply principles from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics to their design and development process. They then take these insights onwards and build them into interactive prototypes with a tool like Justinmind, test the results and go on to create better digital products.

We caught up with Nathalie to find out more about web psychology and prototyping winning products, as well as the new edition of her book, Webs of Influence: The Secret Strategies that Make Us Click.

You’re a web psychologist. What exactly does that mean, and how did you get into it?

My path to working in this role was a slightly unusual one. I’d studied psychology at degree level and, after spending some time at Central Saint Martins doing fine art, I ended up going over to Atlanta to pursue music – I’m classically trained in violin and I’ve been playing guitar since I was pretty young. When I came back to London I thought I’d see if I could make the music work, so I took a course in website design so that I could develop my own site.

I learned Dreamweaver, HTML, Flash and then of course HTML5 came out and Flash was dead in the water… this is probably dating me a bit!

I realized quite quickly that this was something people needed, so I ended up freelancing as a web designer. I was at a co-working space in London thinking about whether to get agency work, and a friend warned me, “Don’t go into an agency, you’ll find it too single track for the way you work.”

I tend to like doing lots of things at once, and having considered different ways in which I could combine my skills and interests, I eventually came to the realization that if our physical environments can influence our behaviours, then so to must virtual ones. So I looked for a course, another degree or PhD, and nothing existed yet. This was before UX was a thing and behavioral economics still wasn’t particularly big, so I really struggled to find anything on the matter.

In the end, it turned out to be a good thing; having not been able to find any books on the subject I thought “Well, why don’t I write one myself?” Completely naively, I wondered “how hard can it be?” So I started blogging to see if there was any interest, and there was.

I developed my ideas while reading primary research across a variety of fields – from marketing, cultural studies and cognitive psychology, to persuasive technology, personality and behavioral economics. I started developing the roadmap that I wished I could have been taught, and when a find of mine introduced me to his editor at Pearson, I submitted a proposal they gave me a book deal. That was 5 years ago.

What’s the interaction between your discipline and what we now call user experience?

I never really know how to answer this question! I never trained in UX because it wasn’t yet a widely established field (at least in its application to website and app design) when I was starting out. It’s developed into a rich and fascinating field, however one of the important things that UX offers – and that I’m not as interested in conducting myself – is a testing framework with which to measure the impact of the principles that good UX, psychology and behavioral economics espouse.

I’m most interested in the principles themselves – what they are, how they shape our behaviors – and I absolutely love teaching people how to use these insights in a way that will deepen their knowledge of what drives human behavior. I typically do this by giving workshops, keynotes and writing articles and books, and my aim is always to teach people the principles in a fun, practical and useful way so that they can then test and implement this knowledge within their existing frameworks.

Nathalie explains web psychology and user behavior

You’ve just brought out a new edition of your book Webs of Influence. What’s changed in web psychology since the first edition came out 5 years ago?

So much has changed in 5 years! There’s a lot of content in the first edition which is now mainstream practice – which is good right!? – but it also means the book is not quite as useful as it was when it first came out. I thought I could do an updated version that readers both new and old would find as useful, applicable and relevant as the first edition.

On top of that, so much interesting research has come out in the last 5 years, particularly with regards to individual difference and personality. There are tons of new insights around the ways in which we can frame messages, use specific language to engage people, and deploy psychometric testing to assess (and predict) people’s online behaviors. The last one has been gaining quite a lot of airtime in the press lately, especially with the furore around political campaigns in the last year.

So, all of this extra content was ready to be included, and having kept abreast of the new research that was coming out I thought, “Oh it’s not going to be that hard to update.” And of course it was, because I ended up rewriting all of it! The chapters on social media, persuasive videos and personality are all completely new in terms of their content, and there’s a lot of stuff that got a massive overhaul.

Even though the structure and format of the book is broadly the same, there’s barely a single sentence that didn’t get tweaked and updated.

We’ve covered the theory part of web psychology, but what about the practical applications? How do you help companies improve their digital products?

Typically I work with companies in one of two ways. I primarily give a lot of talks at conferences, many of which are held internally for company employees. It might be a conference for a specific track – people who work in marketing, developers and designers, or customer service, for example – or it may be a talk designed to bridge across different teams.

I always aim to provide a relevant context to help people understand the psychological background of their users, and this can often help different teams collaborate more effectively when working towards a common goal.

I also run workshops – they’re fun because you end up seeing how people apply these principles at a granular level. I’ve worked with Unilever for the several years, often working with their new intakes, teaching them about some of the basic web psychology principles and getting them up to speed.

Then if there are specific campaigns that they are working on – pricing strategies, ratings, banner ads, for example – I’ll them understand which principles may best serve them, and they then go and test them according to their framework.

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So if I understand right you’re not involved in the actual design process very much?

On the design side of things, it’s quite common in these workshops to do a web or app teardown. People will bring what they’ve designed and ask how I would change the design. Typically people are more interested in quick and surgical suggestions and the they go away and make the changes themselves, building an internal knowledge bank as they go.

Have you seen an increased number of businesses open to applying web psychology principles since you started out?

People’s interest in exploring online behavior in this way has certainly deepened, and businesses are a lot more savvy and open to using psychology than they were when the first edition of the book came out in 2012.

Many businesses didn’t really know what to make of this stuff before; unless you’re familiar with using psychology to understand people and pick apart behavior, and using those insights early on in the design phase, it can take a cultural shift before such an approach is valued and implemented.

I find that it’s something which many firms still struggle with. Younger, more agile companies and larger, forward-looking tech behemoths tend to be the ones with well-established UX teams and roles for psychologists and behavioral economists, but many mid- to large companies have cultures that are much more resistant to change. I wouldn’t say that everyone’s completely on board, but I would say it’s a lot better now for people who want to work in this area.

Curious about how to build a UX team in a large enterprise?

You’ve mentioned behavioral economics a couple of times. What is behavioral economics and how does it relate to product design?

I think that the term ‘behavioral economics’ was a smart marketing strategy to sneak psychology through the door of financial institutions who thought it was a bit of a woolly, artsy subject. Essentially it’s about the psychology of human behavior; it provided an alternative model that was antithetical to (and much more accurate at predicting human behaviour than) the classical economic theory.

The classical theory says that humans will weigh up potential options in a logical, rational way. But of course we know that humans don’t make decisions in this way. We’re not rational agents. This is why if you offer someone ‘50% off’ versus ‘buy-one-get-one-free’, even though the objective reality is the same in each, you’ll typically get different behaviors across the two conditions (people tend to want to get something free as opposed to money off).

Behavioral economics is the study of why we behave in these seemingly irrational ways, and it borrows from decades of psychological research.

The reason it’s interesting when it comes to product design is that you are creating a product to influence someone’s decision-making processes, so if you can understand how people make decisions and why, then you’ll be better equipped to design environments that give rise to particular behaviors and nudge people down particular avenues of decision-making.

Can you give us some web psychology insights into, for example, the differences between how people use desktop devices and mobile devices?

One of the interesting things about mobile devices is the tolerance we have for the kind of experience we’re delivered. Thanks to the tiny real-estate of screen size, people tend to expect mobile interfaces to be a lot less cluttered, so you have to be sure you’re creating a frictionless experience that has a low cognitive load.

The other thing that’s less obvious is that we seem to have a greater sensitivity to stress on mobile than desktop. I think this is primarily to do with the way we use mobile devices. We use them to step out of dysphoric states, to escape a sense of boredom, loneliness or frustration.

We self-medicate with our devices through dopamine hits. It’s late at night and you can’t sleep, so what do you do? You whip out your phone. You’re in a queue, you’re bored waiting for someone, so what do you do? You whip out your phone.

One of the more qualitative differences between desktop and mobile is that we expect a sense of pleasure, reward and convenience from our mobiles that we don’t necessarily expect from our desktops. I think that would be the most salient difference – the expectation that users have for reward and pleasure when using their mobiles as opposed when looking at their desktops

This might be an unanswerable question, but which emotions most strongly influence online behavior? Fear, desire, social validation?

That depends on what mood you’re in, what app you’re in; there can be various motivators, most of which center around reward-seeking.

When you look at one of the primary reasons that people go on their social feeds, it’s for a dopamine hit. This unpredictable, small promise of reward has a variable ratio of reinforcement: you’re gambling on getting a hit, essentially. That’s one of the main reasons people go on social channels, and I’m including messenger apps in that.

That said, it’s difficult to tease this apart from some of the more social drivers such as social validation, feeling loved or feeling liked. When you’re looking for likes for instance, there is the element of immediate reward and feedback, which can be damaging if you don’t get enough! But also there’s the aspect that if you’re starting to measure your worth and your value through these quantitative measures, then your self-esteem can take a hit. It’s quite a complex picture.

A weird question, but has this insight totally ruined social media for you or are you still hooked just like everyone else?

I do use social media! I’m not on Facebook: I came off about 4 years ago when some acquaintances of mine who run The Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University told me about some of the consensual psychometric research they’d conducted with Facebook likes.

The intimacy of the personal data they collected was beyond what I’m comfortable with. I value my privacy and I think if humans are to flourish we need to have a private space in which we can make mistakes without being under a watchful gaze.

I am on Twitter and I’m also on Instagram, which is more personal. The thing is, even if I know about all of these principles I’m just as susceptible to them as everyone else. I have switched off most of the notifications on my phone and I am more conscious about how I use technology than I might otherwise be, but I still go for the dopamine hit… Busted!

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Cassandra Naji
Cassandra is Marketing Lead at Justinmind