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In the ever-growing world of smartphone and social media apps, User Experience (UX) designers work to improve engagement metrics. The goal is to get you to spend more time using their app. That’s because more engagement equals higher advertising revenue.

In the world of business software, however, most development time is spent on getting the functionality right. That’s understandable, because its success is based on how well it functions, not how much time employees spend using it. But good UX design can also help improve the results businesses get from their software.

As custom software developers, our job is to help companies successfully achieve their goals using the systems we develop. Here are five behavioral psychology principles we use to create software that improves business performance.

Jakob’s Law

First put forward by usability expert Jakob Nielsen, “Jakob’s Law” describes how users develop expectations for the way that websites and software should work based on their experience with similar systems. The key takeaway from his analysis is that there is power in familiarity. As users, we want and expect digital tools to work the way that other, comparable tools work. When they do, we find them easy to use and are more apt to make them part of our daily lives.

Jakob’s Law is an extension of the concept of “mental models.” In psychology, the term mental model refers to an explanation of what users understand about how a system works. Successful software design will make use of the users’ existing mental models to make the new system easier to learn. This is critical — especially in business operations, where the cost of training employees can be significant.

This doesn’t mean you can’t introduce a new, innovative user interface in your product. If your new design improves user performance — helping users work quicker or more accurately — you should definitely consider implementing it. Just be aware that unfamiliar interfaces will take users longer to learn and adopt.

Designing for Habits

Many social media and consumer apps have come under fire in recent years for encouraging habits that users don’t really like. For example, users blame the “infinite scroll” of Facebook and Instagram for unintended hours wasted in these apps. And when they finally close the apps, cleverly-worded push notifications constantly work to reengage them.

These kinds of habit-forming interventions — ones that create behaviors users don’t want — are definitively bad. But some habits can be good — if they involve the kinds of behaviors that people do want. In business, we want to encourage behaviors that help people stay on top of their work and complete high-priority activities.

To help (ethically) encourage healthy habits in your team, behavioral psychologists have developed the Cue-Action-Reward (CAR) model. First, identify a Cue (sometimes called a trigger) for when employees should engage in the desired behavior. For example, you could email employees at the end of each week when they need to fill out their timecards. Or, your salesperson could get an alert to contact a lead after eight days to ensure they don’t get stale. Your software’s dashboard can also provide users with timely cues for when to take the desired action.

The second step of the CAR model is to make the Action as simple as possible. Ideally, your notification will take users to the right screen in one click. Likewise, the information they need to complete the task need should be pre-filled whenever possible. Then, with just a few clicks or a short note, the activity can be finalized.

Once the task is done, your software should then provide a Reward — some sort of feedback that they did it correctly. This can be as simple as a text message, or something more engaging, like an animation. For a particularly difficult-to-encourage behavior, you may even consider “gamifying” your software with a leaderboard or achievement badges.

Less Is More (Up to a Point)

Here’s another UX “law” for you. Hick’s Law says the time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of available choices. This one makes sense, intuitively. If there are more options to pick from, it will take you longer to choose one. Think about the last time you had to pick out new toothpaste or breakfast cereal. The choices are staggering — no wonder you’re so exhausted after shopping! (This is an actual psychological phenomenon called decision fatigue. It’s the reason supermarkets put junk food in the checkout lane. By the time you’re done shopping, your brain is too tired to say no to impulse buys.)

The common example used for Hick’s law is so-called “grandparent-friendly” remote controls. As TVs have added increasingly more features, remote controls have added just as many buttons to access them. With more button options comes increased confusion — especially for some seniors. In response, their children (and grandchildren) have taken to “simplifying” the remotes by covering up unneeded buttons with tape. These modified remotes provide just the features that seniors need to access, making the “interfaces” easier to use.

A "grandparent-friendly" remote control with unneeded buttons covered by tape.

Likewise, your business software should strive to reduce the number and complexity of options whenever possible. By simplifying the user interface, you will make the system easier for your employees to use — which will help ensure they do so!

The flip-side to this is that it’s possible to get too simple. If users can’t figure out how to perform an action, or if they have to click multiple links to get to a common feature, you’re actually making your software harder to use. That’s the opposite of your goal. User testing throughout the software development process can help you find the right balance.

Chunking

One way to help ensure that your software is easy to use is by grouping information into bite-sized “chunks.” You may have heard that humans can only remember seven (plus or minus two) things at any given time. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s based on the common limits of our working memory. One way around those limitations is by chunking information into smaller groups that are easier for our brains to handle.

For example, you would likely be hard-pressed to remember the number 3290586721 without a lot of time to study it. But what if I chunk it into three groups, like this: 329-058-6721? In this form, we recognize this as a phone number. Now, we are more easily able to remember it — at least long enough to make our call.

You can apply the same principles within your business software. Organize information that goes together into separate, easy-to-read chunks. For example, individuals accounts or projects can be arranged into visually separate sections, to make them easier to distinguish. This is often done by placing them inside different boxes, but that’s not necessary. In fact, it can often be visually less cluttered to simply separate your groups using ample white space and clear typographical hierarchy.

Default Options

People often stick with the default options provided to them. Being intentional about what defaults you set for people can therefore have a major impact on their behavior.

One of the most famous examples of the default options effect is that requiring people to opt-out of being organ donors on their driver’s license application (rather than hoping that they opt-in), leads to a lot more people being organ donors (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003). Likewise, when the default option is for workers to be automatically enrolled in their employer’s retirement savings plan, most people will allow it, increasing their savings rate.

Within your business software, this means pre-selecting the most common options for your needs. For example, when creating a new record, default the category to the one that your business uses most often. If you select the default by some other method — such as the first one alphabetically — many users won’t switch it. Note that this isn’t because they are lazy. It’s because they have so much other work to do that filling out every detail of your form feels like a barrier to completing their other tasks.

Well-designed software defaults benefit both you and your employees by simplifying their decision making. For example, instead of making employees choose the due date for a new task, you could default it to a standard amount of time from the creation date. This will help keep employees moving through the task creation process. If the date seems reasonable, they’ll keep with the default. If it’s significantly off the mark, they can easily change it.

In general, you want to set your defaults to those options that you most want people to select. An example would be setting the default urgency level of support tickets to Low, instead of Medium or High. Most people won’t change the default setting unless it’s really needed — but you’re not preventing them from doing so. As a result, you’ll get fewer tickets marked as high priority when they really don’t need to be.

Conclusion

By understanding how your employees behave — not just your software’s functionality — you are more likely to achieve your business objectives. Need help developing software that will improve business performance? Let’s chat.

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