The Halo Effect - Cognitive Bias in Website Design

The Halo Effect - Cognitive Bias in Website Design

Your customers are people. Your website visitors are people. Users are real people from all walks of life and they come with unique collections of experiences, preferences and biases as they encounter information and, inevitably, your brand.

So, let’s talk about cognitive biases and why you need to consider these when building, refreshing or maintaining your website—arguably the most impactful representation of your brand. 

A cognitive bias refers to how the framing or context of information influences a user’s decision-making, perception and/or judgment. Individuals who interact with your website have a myriad of biases - we all do - many of which have been researched and documented on a mass social scale. 

Me, as a designer and problem solver, and you, as a business owner, need to be aware of these common social biases and how they can help or hurt your business. 

The 'Halo Effect'

One bias to consider is the Halo Effect, first studied in 1920 by American Psychologist Edward Thorndike, and further theorized by Solomon Asch.

As NNG states, the Halo Effect bias “causes people to be biased in their judgments by transferring their feelings about one attribute of something to other, unrelated, attributes”. In other words, judging a book by its cover. 

We’ve all seen this at work in our everyday life, in both positive and negative ways:

  • A well-designed wine label = good wine
  • An expensive car = successful person
  • A nicely manicured yard = well-kept home
  • A beautiful brand = a company that has their sh*t together
  • A celebrity-endorsed product = a reputable, high-quality item

This can work in your favour, as in when you “dress for success” for a job interview or for your first day of work. In an office setting, people might infer from your formal outfit that you have a good work ethic or strong leadership skills.

Cognitive biases not only affect our personal lives but in areas of business such as, and especially in, marketing. It has been documented that organic labels produce a more positive image of a product. “The way a brand labels and markets their products can also determine whether you like the end result. For example, a food study published in Food Research International Trusted Source labelled the same food products (yogurt, potato chips, juice) 'organic' or 'conventional'. The 'organic' products received higher ratings overall, and consumers were willing to pay more for them.” (source)

User bias and your website

As it relates to your website and other brand touchpoints, NNG brings up an example of a user tester’s comment in their video.

They give the example of a spelling mistake on a web page affecting a user’s opinion of the quality or integrity of a moving company. Two unrelated aspects of the business—web content and the moving service itself—likely managed by two different departments, but now connected and transferred in a user’s mind.

As a designer, I want to ensure that a client’s website and digital user workflow is creating a good first impression through a positive experience. The goal is to use the positive benefits of the Halo effect to win over the user. 

Almost every aspect of a digital interface can influence the portrayal of an organization’s brand identity or ‘personality,’ including:

  • Visual design: how the UI looks
  • Content design: how the UI sounds
  • Interaction design: how the UI feels

It’s easy for companies to focus on the visual design and neglect the content, or to focus on interactions but forget to budget for quality photography. These, along with the performance of your site, will balance to create an incredible experience. We test this experience (the website) with users to ensure usability and to gauge impressions.

If users like one aspect of a website, they're more likely to judge it favourably in the future. Conversely, if users have a particularly bad experience with a site, they'll predict that the site will treat them poorly in the future as well and, thus, will be reluctant to return to the site.

When users visit your site, we want them to have a positive impression, gain that positive Halo effect and have it reflect on and transfer to your company as a whole. 

As an owner or stakeholder in your brand, you must audit your site and all of your brand touchpoints to make sure that you are not leaving yourself vulnerable to a negative Halo effect, sometimes called the Horns effect. As shown in the NNG video, this is where inconsistencies in your content or visuals can cause a negative association to transfer to your brand. Continuity and cohesive systems create a good impression and create trust between a user and your brand.

It’s important to listen to your users’ feedback, regularly check your analytics and routinely monitor your site and brand touchpoints to make sure you are putting your best foot forward. One loose end can unknowingly hurt your reputation. One good impression can build your business. 

Want to check out other cognitive biases that could be affecting your customers? Check them out here.