Just like shopping in the brick-and-mortar world, website users are exposed to direct and indirect cues online that can unconsciously nudge them into making different decisions down the line. This process is called priming.
Web designers can use priming to their advantage if they understand how and why it works, and how different situations call for different methods of priming. Priming describes the exposure to a stimulus that activates mental pathways. At a later point in time when these pathways are still active, they are more easily accessible for a similar stimulus than non-active ones. This leads to a priming effect.
An example of this is seen in television commercials. Watching televised advertising activates different mental pathways, and these pathways usually only link to positive memories - which is exactly what ad designers get paid to do.
The next time you visit the supermarket and see a product from an ad, these positive memories are triggered and they leave you with a positive attitude towards the product. If you need to choose between a hundred different types of yogurt brands, you are most likely going to go for the one that gives you a positive feeling.
How Designers Can Use Primes
Priming does not work by forcing a decision upon your customers, but you can use it as a means to effectively support their decisions. Primes that can be used to guide your customers and support their decisions through website design include the following:
Colors have different meanings and can be used to prime emotions. You can color your background or only specific elements like buttons or content areas, for example. Be aware of your target group and their understanding of colors and the emotions they elicit.
Text can also be used as a prime, of course. Include the exact wording of your menu items in your content and build a nice story around them, for example. Then when customers look around your site, the primed menu item will lead their thoughts back to your story -- which makes elements of the story accessible.
Use metaphors that refer to information to help your customers make a decision. For example, imagine you try to sell vacation trips. You could use the metaphor of a shell to trigger positive emotions like sun, beach, palm trees, ocean, waves, relaxation, etc.
Use pictures to prime your customers. These pictures can either be in the background or a central element of your webpage. You can prime emotions that come with the purchase of your product or you can prime a desirable action that requires the purchase of your product, for example. Both times, you trigger memories that might only be distantly related to your product, as a way to guide your customers' decisions.
Use videos to prime a whole process of actions. Showing the sign-up process with the different steps involved will make it easier for your customers to sign up, for example. Different memories related to a sign-up process will be accessible that help to make the right choice. Besides, when your customers see the sign up button, the process of signing up will be more accessible to them than it would be without the prime.
Include audio on your website to prime any action you want your customers to engage in. Make sure that you don't tell your customers what to do, but rather give them the idea that they figured it out themselves.
Ensure that you pay attention to the atmosphere on your website. The emotional perception and elements that refer to emotions are important primes when it comes to the perception of your site. And for the rest, be creative! Anything that activates information in the minds of your customers can be used as prime.
It is important to note that priming is not the same as subliminal messaging. The two are related, but subliminal messaging includes 'hidden' primes and is considered by many to be an unethical marketing practice. Besides, not much research can be found to prove that subliminal messaging really works.
Priming, on the other hand, has been proven multiple times to influence our judgment and decision-making, and is a recognized marketing tool. Priming includes visual or at least sensible primes that can be identified, such as pictures or odors. These primes should be context-sensitive and part of your website design.
Primes influence our choices, but they support our decision-making processes instead of forcing a decision upon us. However, primes only work if they are not identified as such, which also offers some food for thought.
About the author: Paul Veugen is the CEO and founder of Usabilla, a Web-based usability testing tool that allows marketers, analysts, designers and usability experts to collect visual feedback on their websites. Participants answer questions with points and notes on top of a webpage, mockup or sketch, and the results are analyzed and presented visually with charts and heat maps.