10 consumer behavior facts every designer needs to know

Design isn’t just what it looks and feels like, design—according to Steve Jobs—is how it works. Behind every decision to leave something out or bring a new component in lies a clearly defined set of goals. Think about the last time you worked on a design: was there an action that viewers were expected to complete? Were they supposed to buy something, learn something, or contact someone? This is exactly where design meets consumer behavior. As visual communicators, tapping into our audiences’ deep psychological triggers will make our work significantly more engaging and persuasive.

These 10 principles of consumer behavior that will change the way you approach design projects:

1. Cognitive dissonance: design for doubt

Consumers have (a lot!) of second thoughts. Cognitive dissonance is the idea that human beings struggle when their identity and values are not consistent with their behavior (PDF), like buying a diamond ring that comes from a war-torn part of the world.

Design can help reduce that postpurchase tension. Where appropriate (ill-begotten diamonds aside), insert reliability markers in your communications pieces: testimonials, awards, support channels, and any certifications. Including this information might be harder for print, but if space/layout allows it is definitely something to consider.

Broadway show posters are a great, though often overplayed, example of reducing cognitive dissonance with trust markers like quotes, awards, and ratings. Photo by Broadway Tour via Flickr.

2. Selective attention: plan for distractions

As much as we might wish, our designs are not displayed in a white, immaculate room. Instead, we must compete with an increasing amount of visual pollution competing for our viewers’ attention. As you create different pieces, bear in mind that they don’t exist in isolation. Selective attention points to the fact that people are continuously exposed to multiple stimuli and are highly aware of those that respond to active wants and needs. To make living more bearable, we consciously and subconsciously filter out new information that doesn’t match what we’re currently searching for.

In your designs, consider the importance of pointing to the audience’s most pressing desires and issues.

This award-winning ad by BBDO New York succeeds at explaining why the product addresses a pressing need. By pointing out that hunger can trigger suboptimal (and quite hilarious) decisions, Snickers is perceived as a genuine problem solver.

3. Perceived value

Your client knows his product is superior. You know it, and the data proves it. At the end of the day, this all means nothing if you fail to communicate it to the right audience. Your product shouldn’t only be better—it should appear to be better, and those are two entirely different things. Perception is a powerful concept in psychology that deals with our ability to organize and interpret the information coming from all the stimuli that surround us.

Perceived value, unlike actual value, is a deeply subjective valuation. What seems highly valuable to me may have no importance to you, and that idea plays a central role in consumer behavior. Consider the iPhone. While it’s actual value might lie somewhere around $200, consumers are willing to pay well over $600. That significant $400 gap is the difference between the value perceived by Apple users and the item’s objective, actual value.

Even Apple, with its strong fanbase, has had to face the challenge of portraying a great product. In a creative attempt to close the gap between the iPhone’s actual and perceived values, Apple recently launched an ad campaign that features photos taken with the phone’s camera. The key here is to understand the following: is the iPhone’s camera actually superior? And is the iPhone’s camera perceived as superior? Those are two radically different questions, the second being crucial for anyone trying to succeed in communication design.

Apple’s Shot on iPhone 6 Campaign. Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr.

4. Motivation

Perhaps no other psychological trait is as life-altering as motivation. William James said it best: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.” Understanding the source of our audience’s motivation will help us communicate more empathetically and, ultimately, accomplish our design goals.

To encourage new shop owners to join, designers at Creative Market created this landing page that taps into several motivation triggers: power, financial support, esteem, among others.

In one of his most important contributions to psychology (and every other discipline, really), Abraham Maslow created a motivation theory based on what we know as the hierarchy of needs. Which specific desires drive our behavior, and how do we prioritize them? This was Maslow’s concern decades ago, and it should still be ours today. Successful design aligns communication pieces with an audience’s main source of motivation.


5. Cognitive involvement

Some people are just not that into you. Even if the need that you’re trying to satisfy is active, and you’ve already captured their attention (which is selective, as we just learned), it’s going to take an additional level of interest to get them to pay attention to everything you have to say.

Sometimes people are just happy to act on something without going through an intensive decision-making process. They complete what we call low-involvement decisions: choices made without processing much information or engaging in deep research. High-involvement decisions, on the other hand, are more complex and require an extensive information search process on our part. Our challenge as designers, then, is to find the right amount of information to share both with highly involved and uninvolved audiences.

Would you say everyone is highly involved in their income tax filings? That’s what I thought. You’ll find everything from the careless, “just get it over with” professional with zero time to waste, to the accounting-savvy DIY business person who wants do it all. The design team at Turbotax created a solution that accommodates both levels of involvement:

Turbotax guides users that need a walk-through and lets more involved users explore on their own.

However you decide to face the matter, one thing remains true: try to design communications pieces that can go from skimmable to comprehensive in just a few interactions.

6. Memory and learning

When brands have communicated a given message for some time, their audiences start storing that information in their long-term memory. The process of changing the content of that long term memory is what we often call learning. In a way, the brands we design for are continuously “teaching” their consumers to see them in a certain way. When you’re faced with the challenge of modifying whatever is stored in the audience’s memory, as in a brand repositioning campaign, you’re effectively acting as an educator—or re-educator, if that makes more sense.

When Foursquare was completely redesigned in 2014, their creative team faced the challenge of introducing many changes with respect to everything users already knew about the app. These screens helped Foursquare users store new information in their long term memory, and in doing so engage in a true learning process:


Sometimes this education process goes as far as to create an environment where a brand is literally tied to something that constantly reminds us about it—an object, idea, symbol, etc. that makes the brand immediately accessible to us. In consumer behavior, this idea is known as priming (PDF).

7. Dual coding

As designers, we hate the idea of being redundant. We cringe when someone asks us to add another “call now” box or signup button. But sometimes you really do need to say things twice. There are, however, many ways to send a message without repeating yourself. One such way is to use something called dual coding.

Dual coding involves using two different types of stimuli to communicate in order to strengthen our impact in the audience’s memory. The idea is that the combination of verbal and nonverbal messages build stronger associations in consumers’ minds. In 2010, American Express created an impressive integrated campaign that used multiple media to strengthen public awareness about Small Business Saturday. From radio ads, to informative brochures, to online video, this campaign made a great use of dual coding to get us to adopt a new celebration. American Express was so successful in designing pieces for consumer learning, that Small Business Saturday was officially recognized by the U.S. Senate.

The current Small Business Saturday website.

8. Peripheral cues

As you can imagine, consumer behavior researchers are obsessed with figuring out how we can be persuaded. To try to explain how we go from “What’s that?” to “I need it,” psychologists Richard Petty and John Cacioppo came up with a theory called the Elaboration Likelihood Model. It basically explains that there are two ways to convince someone of something: the central and peripheral routes. The central route is all about introducing facts and information that help people engage in a careful and extensive consideration. The peripheral route involves all those surrounding cues that help us get a quick general impression about something: the quality of the message, aesthetics, emotional appeal, and credibility, among many others.

Designers can play a vital role in the production of both kinds of cues, but we’re often in charge of heading projects related only to the second. Don’t worry: properly used, peripheral cues can be just as persuasive, especially when our audience doesn’t have much time to get involved in whatever decision we’re trying to provoke (which is pretty much everyone, right?).

Moo, an online printing company, uses the peripheral route to prepare customers when they are about to open their packages. Using exciting expressions like “Yay!” has an emotional appeal that can positively affect the way customers react to the product. Photo by Bill Stilwell via Flickr.

9. Aspirations

It’s natural for us to look up to certain behaviors, objects, and attitudes exhibited by others. As we do this, we form strong aspirations that influence many of our behaviors. Savvy marketers know this, and smart designers should be prepared to embed these aspirations in various communications pieces.

Aspirations are nothing more than a hopeful desire to become something. Designers tap into consumer aspirations every time they select, for example, another human’s image to convey a persuasive message. When selecting imagery to complement your design pieces, think about how the human being observing them will relate to whoever appears on those images.

Skype’s brand book provides specific guidelines to select the images that will represent them in communications pieces. When they ask if the image feels natural and shot on a real location they are addressing the need to make sure that these people are both aspirational and relatable.

10. Roles and status

It’s a basic notion of social psychology that our networks influence many of our decisions and behaviors, particularly what we buy. The situation is so common that researchers have come up with a term for what happens when we buy something for the sole purpose of displaying our wealth: conspicuous consumption. Designers must remain wary of the importance of creating opportunities for consumers to display their use of our product/service/idea to their immediate circles.

Consuming certain products or ideas can help us establish a certain status among our peers, and this is particularly true for Millennials.

Dunkin Donuts created a campaign called #MyDunkin to invite visitors to share their stories using social media. Aside from generating great word of mouth, the campaign gave Millennials an opportunity to brag and vent status-relevant situations with their peers.

There are many more ways that consumer behavior principles and psychology affect the way design looks and works. The most innovative campaigns often bring talented designers and brilliant behavior insights like these together.

Have you ever put any of these principles to work? Let us know on Twitter @AIGAdesign.

About the Author:

Laura (@laurabusche) earned a summa cum laude degree in Business Administration from American University in Washington DC, a Master of Arts in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and is currently completing a doctoral degree in Psychology. She is passionate about consumer research, design thinking, branding, and their exciting crosspoints. She is the author of O'Reilly Media’s Lean Branding book and a Brand Content Strategist atCreative Market. Laura regularly blogs about branding and business at laurabusche.com/blog