The Gestalt Principles: How Human Psychology Influences UX

The Gestalt Principles at Play

In the world of design, understanding the intricacies of human psychology is like having a secret key to crafting remarkable user experiences. Designers can use tools such as the Gestalt Principles to make considered design decisions based on psychology. But first of all, what are the Gestalt Principles?

These principles are rooted in the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; they explain how we naturally organise visual elements into meaningful patterns and forms. In UX design, they are one of our guiding principles. They determine how users perceive and interact with what's on the screen. From grouping similar elements to directing attention, they orchestrate the user experience. We’ll go through four of the main principles below, highlighting how you might use them as a designer.

The Law of Closure: A Sense of Completion

Imagine you're looking at a jigsaw puzzle, and a few pieces are missing. Your brain naturally seeks closure; it wants to see the whole picture. The "Law of Closure" in design taps into this innate human tendency.

Source: WWF

A good example of this in the design world is the WWF logo. Their logo features the iconic image of a panda. However, the panda is not depicted in intricate detail. Instead, it’s represented through simple and bold black shapes. These shapes form the incomplete outline, leaving gaps in its body. Despite the gaps, our brains instinctively fill in the missing information and recognise the shape as a panda. The clever use of negative space and minimalism encourages viewers to mentally complete the image, creating a strong sense of closure when we connect the dots and see the panda.

When applied effectively, the Law of Closure can lead users to complete actions or processes. It provides a sense of satisfaction, like finding the missing puzzle piece. In UX design you can use this principle to produce designs that can encourage users to explore further, click that button, or complete a form, as they seek closure in their interactions.

The Law of Common Region: Creating Visual Relationships

Picture a menu where certain items are grouped together in boxes or highlighted sections. The Law of Common Region is all about grouping similar things in the same space. Using this principle whilst designing can help establish a visual hierarchy. This will help users navigate the design and understand where they need to look for the information they need. 

Source: ASOS

Most e-commerce websites use this principle to help us quickly find the product we’re looking for. Grouping similar items together and labelling them clearly makes navigation easier, whilst also serving up alternative products. ASOS is just one example of how the Law of Common Region is used to make products easier to discover.

This may seem like an obvious consideration because of its prevalence. However, this principle affects how users perceive relationships between elements and can affect how they make decisions. When content is grouped within a common region, users naturally associate those items as related. This can influence user behaviour by guiding them towards exploring these related items, potentially leading to more engagement or purchases.

Proximity: Guiding the Eye and Action

Proximity is all about how close elements are to each other. When items are near, our brains see them as related, almost like they're part of a family.

Source: Amazon

Nearly every product that uses a navigation bar will use the law of proximity. The key navigation buttons are usually grouped together and any secondary navigation buttons will be separate. For example, if you take Amazon, the search bar is the main point of navigation and below you see divided categories and the login/basket in the top right, showing these sections are secondary navigation.

In design, the Law of Proximity is a powerful tool for directing user attention and behaviour. By placing elements close together, designers can guide users to perceive a connection.

The Law of Figure/Ground (Multi-stability): Shifting Perspectives

Imagine an image that can be seen in two entirely different ways, like the famous optical illusion of the duck-rabbit. You cannot see both at once, you can only see one or the other.

Source: Aeon

People instinctively perceive objects as either being in the foreground or the background, they either see what stands out in the front (the figure) or what recedes in the back (the ground). In design, this principle can create intrigue and engagement. Users may perceive elements in different ways, which can encourage exploration and interaction. Designers can play with this ambiguity to draw users in and keep them engaged, as they shift their perspectives to uncover more. However, this must be used mindfully as to avoid disorientating or misleading the user. We recommend only using this with elements that are purely aesthetic, such as illustrations or logos.

Application Of Gestalt Principles in UX Design

Now that we’ve explored four of the main Gestalt Principles, let's delve into how designers can wield these principles as powerful tools in their UI/UX design arsenal.

Embrace Closure for Calls to Action: 

Use the Law of Closure to your advantage by creating visual cues that encourage users to complete actions. For example, design a button with an arrow that hints at the next step, inviting users to click for closure.

Leverage Common Regions for Grouping: 

When organising content, group related items together to simplify complex interfaces. For instance, in a music app place songs and playlists within visually distinct regions to signal their association.

Guide with Proximity:

To direct your user’s attention and actions, apply the Law of Proximity. Place related elements close together, such as navigation items or content categories, to create a more intuitive and straightforward experience.

Explore Figure/Ground Dynamics: 

Play with aesthetic elements so that they can be perceived in multiple ways. This can create a dynamic and engaging user experience, as users shift their perspectives to uncover hidden depths within your design. Use this approach sparingly and only with aesthetic elements. A clear and simple user experience should always be the top priority.

Final Thoughts

By applying these principles, designers can create interfaces that resonate with users on a psychological level. It's not just about aesthetics; it's about crafting experiences that feel intuitive, engaging, and enjoyable. The Gestalt Principles, when harnessed effectively, can help transform designs from mere visuals into a journey that users willingly embark upon, again and again.

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