Understanding the Perceptual Set Theory and How it Influences Your Web Design

Understanding the Perceptual Set Theory and How it Influences Your Web Design

When designing websites, it’s important to remember that not everyone responds to messages the same way. Someone from the US and someone from Turkey may interpret your website very differently, based on varying cultural, geographical, and religious backgrounds. So how do you ensure your messaging comes across properly? In a global world, getting users to take the action you desire can be tricky.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be, thanks to the Perceptual Set theory.

You might also like: Frictionless Experience: How to Create Smooth User Flows.

What is the Perceptual Set theory?

perceptual set: duck rabbit
Image Credit

What do you see in the above image—a duck or a rabbit?

The above controversial duck/rabbit drawing was first introduced by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899, and it’s been a mystery ever since. Some people see a duck, and some see a rabbit. Interestingly, people are more likely to see a rabbit during the Easter period.

Now, take a look at the image below. What do you see?

perceptual set: b 13

13 or B?

How about this—what’s in the middle image?

perceptual set: abc

13 or B?

Okay, how about this one then—what’s in the middle image?

perceptual set: 12 13 14
Image Credit.

13 or B?

In the first image, you are most probably going to see the number 13 if you just finished dealing with numbers. You’re likely to see the letter B in if you just finished reading the alphabet. However, the second and third images put things in perspective—you are likely to see B or 13 depending on what preceded the controversial figure or letter.

This, in essence, is the Perceptual Set theory in action.

While we assume that we perceive things exactly as they are, the perceptual set theory explains that our perception of things is influenced by various biases, including our expectations, emotions, motivation, and culture.

You might also like: Why Fonts Matter: How Fonts Help You Build a Better Shopping Experience.

Using the Perceptual Set theory in web design

Having a clear understanding of the perceptual set theory couldn’t be more important today, especially considering how cross-cultural the internet is: different people are likely to see your design and content elements differently, and unless you guide them to see exactly what you want them to see, your conversions will suffer. And the best way to guide them is through a clear understanding of how the perceptual set theory affects design.

Below are three tweaks to help you use the perceptual set theory to make your web design and content more effective.

1. Use anchoring

In a 1974 experiment, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman asked people to estimate how many African countries were in the United Nations. Before asking this question, they had participants spin a wheel of fortune that was rigged to always land on 10 or 65.

Tversky and Kahneman found that people who landed on 10 guessed, on average, that around 25 percent of African countries are in the United Nations, while those who landed on 65 guessed that 45 percent of African countries were. That’s a sharp difference in response. The scientists concluded that the anchor—the number people saw on the wheel of fortune—influenced the responses of the participants.

In essence, people tend to compare subsequent options with the first choice they were presented with when trying to make a decision—so someone who sees the number 100 first is likely to choose a higher number than someone who sees the number one.

Take a look at the screenshot below:

perceptual set: donations

In an ad designed to get people to donate to Cordaid, the agency Saatchi & Saatchi anchored the small donation required to help people in developing countries to the cost of a luxury item in a Western country. The result was an increase in donations and an ad that won Silver at Cannes Lions.

Starbucks also uses this approach in their app, by giving users preloaded options that are higher than what many would have opted for. Anchored to this, people are more likely to reload higher amounts than they intended to.

How does this affect your web design? When trying to nudge people into making certain choices with your web design, it is important to realize that the default options or placeholder information they are presented with can influence their choice. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use placeholder information as an anchor to inch people closer to the choice you want them to make.

2. Use priming

In a 2008 study, psychologists from Yale University and the University of Colorado found that the temperature of what we’re drinking could influence our feelings—serving someone a warm drink is likely to make them respond more warmly, and serving them a cold drink is likely to make them respond coldly.

Similarly, another study found that the use of homophones could prime people to respond in certain way to offers. For example, simply including the word 'bye in your copy could influence people to buy more, due to the fact that the two words share the same pronunciation, despite having different meanings.

When you're exposed to a particular stimulus, it could influence your behavior in subsequent, possibly unrelated tasks. This is explained by a phenomenon called priming.

For example, if you are exposed to bread and shortly after are asked to fill in the missing letters in ‘B_ _ T_R’ to form a word, you’re most likely to come up with ‘BUTTER’ instead of ‘BITTER’ or ‘BETTER.’ This is because bread’s common association with butter has primed you to think first about butter.

If the perceptual set theory explains that what we see is influenced by biases, experiences, and other factors, what role does priming play? Priming lets us influence these expectations and biases in a way that gets the outcome we want. It lets you influence the notions people have that influence what they see—or what they don’t see.

An example of priming

Below is a screenshot of a checkout form courtesy of Nielsen Norman Group.

perceptual set: checkout

In this checkout form, users are presented with the option of getting a discounted rate by entering a promotion code—the ‘Promotion Code’ field primes them to search for a coupon. In order not to miss out on a better offer (FOMO), many users will leave the checkout flow to search for a coupon for this site.

If they can’t find a coupon, the search is likely to continue long enough to cause disinterest in completing the sale altogether—increasing cart abandonment and affecting conversions. So, while the ‘Promotions Code’ field was probably included to increase conversions, it actually causes a block in the checkout flow, and conversions likely to suffer.

Color can also be used to prime users in your web design. Depending on your audience, certain colors could mean different things. For example, research shows that we perceive color differently depending on our gender and culture. In fact, men and women prefer different colors, and these colors mean different things. Below is a chart of the color people prefer depending on their gender:

perceptual set: good colors

And colors they dislike based on gender:

perceptual set: bad colors

Research also shows that the color red can increase enthusiasm, stimulate energy, and encourage action.

Knowing this, you can use color in your web design to prime your audience. Understanding the psychology of the different colors you’re using can help you prime users for desired actions.

3. Maintaining the status quo

Unless you’re Amazon and have the resources to run thousands of tests simultaneously, it isn’t good to suddenly change things in your web design. Even Amazon, with practically endless resources and unlimited business ideas, is careful not to upend the status quo.

For example, when it comes to sign up forms, people are used to a particular format. Take a look at the following sign up form on MarieForleo.com:

perceptual set: form 1

Or this one on LewisHowes.com:

perceptual set: form 2

Or this one on the OptinMonster blog:

perceptual set: form 3

If you pay careful attention you will notice a pattern—they always ask for your name before asking for your email. This seems to be the standard for newsletter sign up forms and as a result, most web users are programmed to expect to be asked for their name first. Some users will even type automatically without reading to see what the form is actually asking for.

If you switch things up and use a format requiring email first before asking for name, you’re violating a perceptual set principle, and will confuse people using your website. As a result, conversions will suffer.

In essence, while it is fun to want to be innovative and switch things up with your designs, it is also very important that you don’t sacrifice intuitiveness in the process. People have certain expectations of how elements perform on websites—particularly when it comes to order of form fields, location of certain elements on a website, etc. When you drastically change these things and put them where people least expect them, you create friction. And this friction will cost you a lot of conversions!

You might also like: How to Convince Others of Your Design Direction.

The Perceptual Set Theory in action

While the biases and backgrounds of our users could make them see and interact with elements of our website differently, we will get more conversions by using our understanding of the Perceptual Set Theory to create a more intentional web design that subtly guides them to take the action we desire.

Have you used the Perceptual Set theory in your designs? Share your experience in the comments below!

About the Author

John Stevens is the founder and CEO of Hosting Facts. He is a regular contributor to top publications including Business Insider, The Next Web, AdWeek, Entrepreneur, and others.

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