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How design affects our perception
How design affects our perception

When developing a design, it is useful to know the peculiarities of human psychology and to use psychological techniques in practice. We are talking about one of these, the framing effect, today.

How design affects our perception
How design affects our perception

In April 2007, the Washington Post conducted a social experiment. Joshua Bell, one of the most famous American violinists, played like an ordinary street musician on the subway. Donning a baseball cap and jeans, Bell picked up a $ 3 million Stradivari violin and began playing. I wonder how many people will stop and listen?

Instead of the expected crowd in 45 minutes of performance, only seven out of 1,097 people stopped to listen to the game. After that, most of the passengers said that they simply did not notice the violinist, and were very upset when they found out that they had missed it.

Joshua Bell: Subway Experiment
Joshua Bell: Subway Experiment

This experiment clearly demonstrates an important psychological phenomenon known as the framing effect: small changes in ordinary communication or the familiar environment radically change our perception. Bell grabs the attention of audiences in concert halls around the world with his virtuoso performance. However, in a crowded suburban subway station, Bella was perceived as an ordinary street performer and calmly passed by.

The framing effect is of particular importance to a designer's work.

Each design carries a message that users will appreciate and perceive in some way. The task of the designer is to attract the attention of people, to leave a lasting positive impression. If the designer does not see such a task in front of him, the result will be the same as in the experiment with the great violinist: people will pass by, not paying attention to your product.

At Opower we strive to align our work with this philosophy and practice the findings of the behavioral sciences. This helped its employees to understand the usual behavior of people and teach them to save on electricity.

From Opower's experience, there are three steps that designers can take to make their own work more compelling, convincing and practical.

Step 1. Learn

To apply the principles of the framing effect in practice, you need to study the psychology and behavioral sciences, in which they are studied in detail. Today, the subject of behavioral science is more popular than ever. Many useful books have been written about heuristics and cognitive biases that affect decision-making:

  • "" By Robert Cialdini;
  • Nudge: Better Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler;
  • "" By Daniel Kahneman.
Psychology and Behavioral Sciences
Psychology and Behavioral Sciences

In one article, we discussed how the framing effect affects our perception of numerical information. These same techniques can be useful for broader design.

Social norms

Humans are social beings, and our behavior is largely influenced by established social norms.

The Opower team compared how electricity is consumed in similar buildings and the impact of local social norms on residents. It turns out that realizing that you are using more electricity than your neighbors is a powerful motivator. It is this fact that prompted many to start using less energy.

Social norms influence our behavior
Social norms influence our behavior

In another study by Robert Cialdini, two types of ads were placed in hotel rooms asking to reuse towels. At the same time, one of them emphasized the environmental benefits, and the other emphasized the fact that most of the guests had already taken part in the program. When the results were compared, it turned out that 35% of hotel guests who read the first ad reused the towel, and 44% of those who read the second.

Fear of loss

People try to avoid losses by any means, even in spite of the possible benefits. Of the two scenarios - the possibility of losing money or gaining it - the psychological pain of losing far outweighs the pleasure of winning. This effect can also nudge people into action.

Example: Opower sent emails to customers inviting them to sign up for a program that would help them spend energy more efficiently. People responded five times more often to letters that used expressions about the possibility of loss and loss (for example, “do not miss it”).

Loss fear can be used in design
Loss fear can be used in design


People always want what they cannot get. The scarcity increases the perceived value of the item, makes it more desirable.

Currently, when launching a new product, they use the principle of scarcity, exclusivity, in order to stir up interest in it. This happened with Mailbox. Although the service ultimately disappointed many, it made a lot of noise. For several weeks, almost a million people were waiting in line to try out the app. Scarcity coupled with social acceptance sends a strong signal that this product is worth looking out for.

Using scarcity to draw attention to a product
Using scarcity to draw attention to a product

Step 2. Choose the right message for your audience

Research confirms that choosing the right message for a specific audience is just as important as delivering it.

So, during fundraising for charity, a small study was conducted among two groups of users who received different messages. The first group - people who can potentially donate money, show interest in charity, but have not yet participated in such events. The second group is the permanent volunteers and philanthropists of the charitable organization. They received one of two letters asking for a donation. In one message, the emphasis was on how much money had already been collected, and in the second - how much still remained to be collected.

A fundraising experiment
A fundraising experiment

It turned out that potential philanthropists donated more and more often when they received a message about how much money had already been raised, while regular donors were more likely to respond to a message about how much remained to raise. This can be explained by the fact that different audiences were motivated by different factors. The first group was more influenced by social approval, while the second group was more convinced by the call to contribute and achieve the set goal.

The conclusion can be made like this: study your target audience and adapt the message for it. Identify what influences her decisions and perceptions the most, and adjust.

Step 3. Design, test, repeat


Once you've got a grasp of the basics of behavioral science and you've identified the user group that is most receptive to your message, it's time for the actual design.

And one more example from the Opower company, which has developed an interface that allows people to save on heating in winter. This accounts for the most electricity consumption. Below you can see the list resulting from the brainstorming session.

Technique Message
Social norms 72% of your neighbors in San Mateo set their thermostats to 20 ° C or less
Fear of loss Every month you lose $ 30 due to incorrect thermostat setting
Shortage / time limit Winter is almost over - lower thermostat temperature and save energy
Anchor effect Your thrifty neighbors set the thermostat to 18 ° C
Personalization Based on the characteristics of your home, we recommend that you set the temperature to 18 ° C
Trust / authority The U. S. Department of Energy recommends setting the thermostat temperature to 18 ° C in winter
Curiosity What temperature do you think your most economical neighbors set on the thermostat?
Advantages Earn and collect points on your gift card when you lower the thermostat temperature and save energy
Convenience Pay 15% less utility bills with one simple action - lower thermostat temperature

While this is not an exhaustive list, it has already given the team some thoughts on promising opportunities that can be realized in the project. And only then these ideas are poured into the final design concept, help with storyboarding and layout creation, or suggest the need to make changes to an existing product.

Distribution channels and time

It is necessary to consider how the decisions made will affect the perception of the product. How will people receive a message from you: by email, text on a specific web page, reminder in an app? What is the best time to send a message?

Communication channel and time are powerful levers of influence on users.


After Opower has fine-tuned the concept and started prototyping, it's time to test it. It is necessary to check how successful the developed layouts are. Qualitative research, such as surveys, provides insight into how people perceive the end product. It is clear from experience that it is not always possible to rely only on this information: what people say and what they do does not always coincide. The feedback received needs to be supplemented with data from analytics and quantitative testing. All this helps to refine and improve the product, making it better with each new iteration.

Using frame effects in design is just one of many possibilities, but it can have a tremendous impact on product quality if applied carefully and wisely.

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