Why Simple Websites are Better #1 - Playing to Mental Prototypes

We’ve always believed that simple website are better, but now there is a host of evidence to back –up the intuition. Over this and the next few posts, we’re going to explore: mental prototypes, cognitive fluency, visual processing and working memory – and how all those things affect your web design.

So, what are mental prototypes when they’re at home?

A prototype is a basic mental image your mind holds to represent a particular type of thing.

For example, most people when asked to visualise a bird will have an image of a robin in their brain. The more a bird differentiates from this ‘prototype’, the less ‘birdy’ we consider it to be – for example penguins and ostriches are not considered as birdy as sparrows.

The same goes for fruit (apples), furniture (chairs) and websites.

Using mental prototypes helps us make sense of the world in a practical, efficient manner, so we don’t have to fully analyse everything we come into contact with each time. Otherwise, we would constantly be paralysed with trying to process everything we saw.

The reason this is important for web designers to know is that as result of prototypes, your brain likes things it is comfortable with, and will subconsciously reject things that deviate from the norm.

So most people will have a vague visual image in mind when it comes to a website for a plumber or a trendy shoe store, built up from all of those they have seen previously, and they will ‘want’ such websites to match these visual images.

Some designers and business people think it’s a good idea to be innovative and ‘stand out from the crowd’. This is certainly true in principle, but not if it’s just for the sake of being different. Because if your website is too different from what people expect, then they will find it strange and unsettling. This is unlikely to result in sales and enquiries for you…

So if your website has users hunting around for the navigation or looks like something out of the future, they won’t be sitting there admiring your innovation and cutting edge styling, they will be wondering why the website is so ‘wrong’.

So, by all means, be original and make an impact, but make sure you know what the prototypes for your area are, and that you’re using them to your advantage.

For more analysis, we recommend this excellent article, which was the inspiration for this series of posts: http://conversionxl.com/why-simple-websites-are-scientifically-better

If you found this article helpful and want to learn about good web design and bad web design, then have a look at our resource bank.