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The Psychology of Content Design

This post is part of a series called UX Foundations.
Applying Fitts’ Law To Mobile Interface Design
Harnessing Social Media for Rapid Usability Testing

As web designers, we face a difficult task every time we sit down to produce content for the web. There’s no doubt that we understand Content is King; this term was most famously coined by Bill Gates in 1996, and (love or hate Microsoft) he was right about the future of computing.

The way that we traverse the internet has changed drastically since it was born. In the beginning, the primary way to access online resources was by directly accessing a URL. Early versions of search surfaced (Yahoo in particular), and finally the current giant, Google, arrived on to the scene. Search-engine results dominated the content discovery market as a monopoly for years to follow; while it is still the primary source of information gathering, there are increasingly new ways (and, in particular, new platforms) on which we discover content on the web.

For a moment, consider the current state of ubiquitous Internet access.

Image: PhotoDune

Access to the Internet is far more ubiquitous, both from a access/population ratio perspective and from a daily scenario perspective. More people have access at more junctures throughout their days. This has occurred naturally through the progression of technology, and has only been accelerated by the innovation in the mobile device market. There are many browsers, with multiple browsers holding more than 10% of the market share. There are thousands of apps for all kinds of mobile devices. There are hundreds of different mobile devices. All of these mobile, semi-mobile, and stationary devices have access to the same web.

The way that we shape content is absolutely paramount to the success of our ventures on the web

This is hugely important. We won’t dive into the discussion of responsive design deeply in this article; rather, we will talk about a strategy for creating content that revolves around its portability to multiple scenarios, devices, and access frames.

The way that we shape content is absolutely paramount to the success of our ventures on the web. Beyond this, the way that we design and craft user experiences should forever be considered not only important, but an integrated part of our content. With that said, this article is not an attempt to pit content against design. Instead, I will simply make the claim that good design is an integrated part of the content.

Beyond this, we must understand that content, like user experience, has its different levels of accessibility. In the same way that one may design for progressive enhancement based on capabilities of browsers or devices, one must also strategize for content that works as standalone text or pictures as necessary, but is augmented as the user’s access frame changes from, for instance, a simple mobile RSS reader, all the way up to a 20" screen accessing the web interface via a modern standards compliant browser.

But today we will talk less about how to make your content look and feel the same on multiple devices. Instead, we will talk about creating content that taps into multiple strong consumer motivations, and is consequently richly valuable to consumers.

So how do we get to a place where our content strategy is as widely motivationally accessible while remaining as deeply engaging as possible? Let’s approach this from a psychologically informed perspective.

Image: PhotoDune

A Hierarchy of Needs

Psychologists for years have studied human motivation. There are plenty of theories of structure for human motivation; perhaps the most famous of these is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow was a psychology professor who wrote about the hierarchy of needs in 1943. The hierarchy consists of five basic parts. The first four are called deficiency needs:

  1. physiological (food, water, basic functions)
  2. safety (financial, health, and family security)
  3. love/belonging (friends, family, romance)
  4. esteem (confidence, respect)

Each of these moves closer to the fifth need, which is self-actualization. The fifth need is different from the others, as it goes beyond need and strives for constant self betterment. This is what Maslow called Metamotivation. Under self-actualization, we see things such as moral rightness, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance of facts, social awareness, and plenty of other things that are integrated by choice into one’s life and identity.

Maslow argued that each of these needs precluded the next. Essentially, one would have to have all four of the deficiency needs met before they could move on to self-actualization.

So how can this apply to the way we create content on the web?

If you were to sit down and talk to Maslow about his theory, it’s likely that he would admit to the fact that everyone responds and behaves differently, and his theory is a framework, not a scientific proof. With that assumption, we must build on the knowledge of some structure of need only as a theoretically solid construct, and continue to be responsive to our userbase.

With that in mind, let’s consider how we may begin to allow our content to span the entire hierarchy.

First, Define Your Subject

Begin by clearly defining your subject (or subjects). This is a prerequisite to understanding how your content will work. This may mean creating clear categorical separations for your content (for instance, the Tuts network doesn’t just do one big site of tutorials). It may also mean cutting out a large amount of content entirely (the Tuts network probably wouldn’t do opinionated political news stories). By defining these categories, you help create a specific landing place for people who are looking for exactly what you are producing.


While this one doesn’t have much to do with your content, it’s still absolutely important to think about the physicality of our users. This most often means creating sites that are accessible. It also means being aware of this in the articles or copy that is on your site. If you produce instructional material, being overdemanding of peoples’ time or physical abilities will immediately turn them off.


Safety is absolutely a concern with web content. Maslow’s definition of safety would arguably have been augmented to include "identity security against fraud" and "safety against digital intrusions". These ideas can help us shape our content in ways that are subtle or obvious. Providing users with a privacy policy and genuine disclaimers or "don’t worry, we won’t email you gigabytes of spam" messages is invaluable to garnering returning readers’ trust.

Love and Belonging

Here is where we go a little deeper. How can we, as objective and distant content producers, make our users feel loved? How can we make them feel as though they belong? Just like there is a large amount of recorded legitimate research into human motivation, there is exponentially more research into the concept of love.

What does it mean to feel loved or accepted? Perhaps it is being a part of a "Tribe", as Seth Godin would claim. Dale Carnegie would tell you in his incredibly popular book How to Win Friends and Influence People that in order for people to feel loved (and more specifically, for people to like you), you have to make them feel important and heard. He would also tell you that the only way to do this is to actually allow them a place of importance and a stage on which to speak.


When it comes to web content and creating a more engaging platform, this need is an extension of love and belonging. Esteem comes from a person’s feeling of rightness and relative position. By offering people the power to assert their opinion or desire, and by giving a sincere response to that person, content producers can build into the lives of people. Esteem is closely tied to identity; the holy grail of branding and user engagement is to integrate your brand and identity into their personal identity.


Most web content already attempts to fall into this category. Self-actualization is a process of going beyond what most would consider "given" necessities of life. To really allow for self-actualization through content, we must offer users a way of learning and responding to our content. This doesn’t mean neceessarily concretely offering a response platform, but rather by encouraging and affirming a response. Self-actualization is a response to life; it is active and voluntary. Because users are actively seeking out content, this is a prime arena to target on the web.

Competition, Comedy, and Hyper-Actualization

While these standards of Maslow’s Hierarchy may be a great starting point, we must understand that humans, though scientifically observable, are not completely scientifically predictable. There are other motivations that we can consider as content producers that are seemingly separate from Maslow’s ideas.


Image: PhotoDune

One such concept is competition. We are competitive by nature, arguably derived from pride. Thus, we can create systems that model our competitive natures. This doesn’t mean simply gamification. Consider forums, for instance; labels and ranks are given to forum members. The reasons for this are both to offer more information about the validity of the content the member posted, and to offer an incentive of competition for lower-ranked users to post and increase their status. This can be compared to Maslow’s need for Esteem; however, esteem on its own doesn’t necessarily mean from a specific set of people. Competition creates an unspoken agreement between participants that the victor earns respect and clout.


Image: PhotoDune

Maslow’s Hierarchy also fails to mention the human need for "entertainment". In this specific instance, we will discuss it in the light of comedy. Comedy itself does not fulfill a personal need; it doesn’t make one feel loved or respected, nor does it instruct or incite betterment. It simply offers entertainment and pleasure to the consumer. This type of content is valuable in a different way than by meeting the traditional hierarchy of needs.


Image: PhotoDune

It is important to understand that self-actualization is not a simple need. It is separated as its own category because it is subjective and voluntary, in contrast to the involuntarily experienced deficiency needs. Understanding one’s own identity is not a task with an end, or a measurable void. Rather, it is a task that people continually challenge. Hyper-actualization may help define the redefinition of self-actualization. One may change their moral prespective, redefine or reject their acceptance of facts, or defy their own identity and rebuild from the ground up. This is entirely a different process than the first experience with these concepts, and is often used to help build very targeted content on the web.

Bringing it Together

So all of these motivations that humans experience are worth understanding in order to create deeply engaging, broadly accessible content. It is important to remember that, at the end of the day, users are unique; it is most important for you to understand the person for whom you are creating. Consider these psychological motivations to be a starting point to approaching your userbase, and remember that content and design are integrated entirely with one another; neither should stand in the way of the other.


So, what motivations have you uncovered from your users? Do you consider the psychological impact of your content, or do you believe in absolute expressive content void of external influence? Tell us in the comments!

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