Using human psychology in design—Why do we work?

Design is closely tied to people’s way of thinking. If we know hows and whys of human psychology in design, we can design better, and complete our jobs as designers. Here’s a question for you.

Why do we work?

Why do we do anything for someone else? There must be reasons!

Yes, there are. The three ‘basic’ reasons for anyone working are –

  • Value
  • Fear
  • Positive Emotions

Most (if not all) of our actions can be explained by above. Examples—

  • Working in an office
  • Helping out a friend in need
  • Doing the bidding of a bully
  • Helping your sibling during tough times
  • Donating money to charity

…and more.

Human psychology in design is important, as to know how to use (or may I say, ‘exploit’) these facts while designing something to sell a product. To narrow it down—to design better CTAs (Call To Action(s))

What’s a CTA, you ask?

As wikipedia said,

A call to action, or CTA, is a banner, button, or some type of graphic or text on a website meant to prompt a user to click it and continue down a conversion funnel. It is an essential part of inbound marketing as well as permission marketing in that it actively strives to convert a user into a lead and later into a customer.

So yeah, CTAs are important.

But how can we use those in our CTAs? Let’s elaborate.

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Understanding and using ‘Value’

On the intertubes, value is often the value of time, as there are not much things you can offer (Example: No one says ‘Use my software, and I’ll pay you!’). Therefore, the thing that is mainly offered is time. The product is explained in such a way, that tells us that ‘Oh, if I use this, I can save time, and thus work on more important issues!’ hence we click it.

We know that CTAs should be placed in locations that are close to describing why the product will save the customer’s time. This is the first and foremost thing.

Talking about value, one more thing comes to mind. Mentioning in the CTA that there will be a trial, or the software will be given for free (Be sure to emphasize on free) we can instill a feeling in the user that buying/using this will lead to ‘saving’ of money (which it won’t, the lead will be most probably converted into a customer).

Even if we’re not charging, having free in the CTA is important. People often fear (explained more soon), and thus assume, that the software will not be free. Clearing that up is important.

So we know that if we emphasize the fact that it’s going to be free for a limited period (or maybe even for forever) we can sell better.

A few examples:

Odesk‘s CTAs show the fact that it is free, and that it’s use will save time (‘Get the Job Done’)


Remember the milk‘s CTA tells us how it will save a user’s time, and shows the fact that it is free (although this could’ve been done with more emphasis)

Human Psychology In Design--RememberTheMilk's CTA

Dropbox shows a clean, neat CTA button which is near to a video introducing it, and shows that the service is free.

Human Psychology In Design--Dropbox's CTA

Understanding and using ‘Fear’

Fear, again, isn’t relevant on the web. What can a person possibly fear? Not physical fear, at least.

What companies and marketers can do is to say that the product is on a discount (or is free) for a limited time period, or that will be free/discounted if the user performs a following action.

This is mostly seen in websites built to scam people but can have non-malicious uses as well. However, these too are looked down upon.

Freelance Folder shows a pop up box on every visit. This may be attributed to value, but is mainly fear, as the reader fears that they will miss out on the chance of making 125$ an hour.
Human Psychology In Design--FreelanceFolder's CTA

Understanding and using ‘Positive Emotions’

On the internet, one of the strongest positive emotions which can be generated is empathy. Utilizing empathy of users can give great conversion rates. If we have suitable text next to the CTA which gets users to pity and empathize with our goal, then we surely get a customer.

Barack Obama’s website does this well. On his homepage, there is a ‘Donate Now’ button, which is accompanied by a strong message to invoke patriotism and duty towards the state in people.

Human Psychology In Design--Obama's CTA

One International has a pop up CTA, which has a strong message along with an image.


This article comes to an end, and I remind you again of the three factors. Value, Fear, Positive Emotion, which translate to Time, Fear, and Empathy in the web world.

Here are a few more guides to help you understand CTAs better.

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