Building websites for humans: A guide to behavioral design

Last Modified: November 4, 2019

At Station8, we have begun taking a new approach to building business websites. It’s called “behavioral design,” but you could think of it as just doing our work with actual humans in mind.

What will your next business website be designed for? Who will need to see it, and how will they be influenced?

These are simple questions, and they probably have fairly obvious answers. But, thinking about them can help you understand some of the major shortcomings in the average web design process.

That’s because most creative teams treat client projects as artistic challenges. They set out to draw beautiful and striking pages meant to impress. If they are successful enough, they might even win awards.

Unfortunately, the resulting compliments and awards don’t increase sales or otherwise lead to business growth. In fact, what real-life users want in a website can be at odds with the latest design trends or internet marketing fads.

When web designers and their clients lose sight of this truth, you get pages that are interesting as art, but non-productive as tools for awareness or revenue growth.

As a philosophy, behavioral design is a balance between creativity and usability. It’s the difference between theory and practice. Artistic instincts still matter, but they are tempered with real-life considerations for the way users interact with our work.

This movement toward behavioral study has been underway in other fields for some time. For instance, in economics, behavioral studies focus on behaviors around buying, selling, and savings that depart from formulaic predictions. They take the real world into account and help us to gain a wider understanding and generate more accurate predictions.

By following a behavioral approach to design, and thinking of website users rather than artistic instincts, we can create more conversions while giving our customers more of what they want. Best of all, we can do it without having to make huge changes to our approach.

Designing websites for human beings isn’t difficult since a lot of it comes down to common sense. Let’s look at five tips that you and your web development team can use together to create with behavioral design in mind…

#1 Understand Your Average User(s) with Behavioral Design

The first step toward creating websites for people is knowing who those people are. After all, there are a lot of different kinds of people out there, and you need a site built for the ones who can help you reach your business goals.

In some marketing situations you might have a single audience or set of decision-makers to deal with. Most of the time, though, the business owners and executives we work with are concerned with multiple buyer profiles, not to mention distinct groups of researchers, purchasers, and influencers.

It’s imperative that you think carefully about each audience segment your website should appeal to.

  • What can you say about your users demographically?
  • Where do they live and work
  • What sort of time and resources do they have to find a solution for their challenges?
  • What are their emotional hot buttons.
  • Who do they respond to?

Along with these qualifying concerns, there are technical factors that should be considered.

  • Do your website visitors prefer to access the internet through traditional computers, mobile devices, or a combination of both?
  • What sort of knowledge do they have with your products and services, or using websites in general?
  • Are there specific tools – like forms or click-to-call buttons – they prefer?

We all like to use things that feel easy and interactive. If you doubt that, ask yourself why so many people will pay more for an iPhone than any other device. The catch, however, is that what feels comfortable or efficient to one person might not be intuitive to another.

The better you understand your buying audience, the easier it will be to create a web presence that appeals to them.

#2 Emphasize Workflow and Usability

As we have already noted, there’s a certain irony in knowing that an award-winning website might not be the one that’s a favorite with actual customers. That’s because a lot of “cutting-edge” design eschews convention for artistic effect.

Thinking far outside the box might make you a rebel, but it won’t necessarily help you win more customers over the web. That’s because what buyers want most is to understand what your pages are all about and then have an easy bridge that takes them from one topic, page, or content block to the next. Things that get in the way of that goal, interesting as they might be, are going to hurt conversions.

One of the best ways to design your website for actual humans is to stick to conventional search and navigation features.

Don’t hide the menus that take people from one area of your site to another, and keep your content as “flat” as possible. That simply means a person looking for answers on your website won’t have to go more than two or three layers deep to find what they’re looking for.

Along the same lines, keep your calls to action simple. Use buttons and other tools that stand out when you’re trying to generate a conversion or offer a helpful feature to a visitor.

Additionally, try to remain consistent in your use of navigation-related design elements so no one gets stuck on your site.

Generating and evaluating creative designs is fun, but artistic impulses need to take a backseat to usability for customers to feel comfortable on your pages.

#3 Behavioral Design Thinks Beyond the Immediate

In the traditional approach to web design, artists created and then filled in with content. It is assumed that each page on a website has one job or goal, and various elements are placed along the way to help visitors find their way to the conclusion or the next step.

That works wonderfully in theory but doesn’t always hold up in the real world.

For one thing, visitors coming to your website won’t always arrive at the place you expect them to. A link or search engine listing might deposit them on the “About” page instead of the “Home” page, for instance.

And for another, they won’t necessarily consume your content in the way you expect. They may skim and move on without absorbing key points.

To make the most of behavioral design you can think beyond the immediate concern of each page, or even your website as a whole.

Ask yourself what’s likely to be on someone’s mind when they arrive at your site, and what their next action or desire is going to be. Then, you can build your whole site around those insights instead of creating a series of linear steps that may or may not be followed.

Each page in your website is just one part of a larger piece of work. And, your online marketing campaigns fit into a buyer’s journey that reaches farther than any of your pages. Recognize that and plan appropriately.

#4 Utilize Testing and Observation in Behavioral Design

The largest part of all behavioral work in the academic world involves observation.

To go back to our behavioral economics example, researchers might predict what will happen to home purchases as mortgage rates increase or decrease, but their most important function is to study those outcomes when they actually occur. Only then can they draw any conclusions.

The mindset is the same in behavioral design. Despite all that you should know about your company, your customers, and the competitive environment you’re in, you can’t really tell how people will respond to your website until you can track their activity within and throughout your pages.

Then you can see which tools, topics, and elements are the most effective.

This is the normal course of development that occurs in virtually any industry where products are made. Everything from electronics to cars and appliances can be improved by studying users, both before and after product release dates.

It’s during testing and evaluation that key improvements arrive. That’s how engineers achieve breakthroughs that seem obvious after the fact.

The point, as you might guess, is that you should keep a very close eye on how users work within your site.

Take advantage of beta testing before it goes live and watch your analytics afterward. The insights you gain can help you solve problems you didn’t know you had, and generate future improvements that make your website more usable, efficient, and profitable.

#5 Follow a Process of Continual Refinement

While this overlaps with our previous point, we want to be sure you understand that behavioral design is an ongoing process. It’s not something you do once, but a mindset you adopt and follow for years.

Some of the refinements you make to your website will be driven by user data and customer requests. In other cases, you might come up with inspirations on your own, taking cues from your design team, or even implement something you’ve seen on a colleague’s or competitor’s website.

The most important detail is that you keep moving forward and never become complacent or satisfied.

Even if you sense that your website might need to be replaced or overhauled in the future, thinking of new ways to use design as an enhancement for real customers can help you with the next iteration.

As long as your business is running, this process should repeat itself.

It would be easy to look at a lot of the products we have today and compare them favorably with older models from previous years or decades. It’s important to remember, though, that most of those improvements didn’t come through single leaps forward; instead, they arrived as small changes that built on one another over time.

A good business website follows the same path. It needs to be designed with people in mind, and then improved again and again based on those same criteria.

Good Behavioral Design Goes Beyond Aesthetics

As professional web designers, we pay a lot of attention to things like layout styles and color theory. We love watching pages come together, and truly enjoy those moments when clients light up after seeing their mockups unveiled for the first time.

Our industry is maturing, though, and behavioral web design isn’t just the latest in a series of ideas or buzzwords – it’s a philosophy that puts users and customers first. That translates into more engagement and a competitive edge for your company.

In our data-driven world, it’s always worth it to look for ways we can work smarter, become more efficient, or set ourselves apart from all the other providers out there.

When you choose a behavioral design approach to having your website created, it lets you move past the old way of harnessing creativity and toward better business results.

In other words, when you hire a company like ours to build a website that’s designed for people first, you go a long way toward helping yourself at the same time.

Published: November 4, 2019

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