User Motivation Determines the Best Color Scheme for Your Website
Note: this post is based on a part of my Bachelor’s thesis, The Role of Online Store Atmospherics in Consumer Behavior [pdf]. Check it out if you want to see the references and learn more about the subject.
Why the Web Is White
The majority of websites are composed of a bright, usually white background and dark text. Then there’s the small minority of the web: dark websites, colorful websites. Why is the bright background used by the majority of websites? There are many possible reasons such as it skeuomorphism: it resembles printed paper. This post focuses on another reason, and one that’s been verified in research. User motivation.
Utility is defined as the quality or condition of being useful. Utilitarian motivation refers to seeking utility. For example, every time you use a calculator, you probably have an utilitarian motivation.
Research shows that consumers with a utilitarian motivation find a low-arousal environment more pleasurable than a high arousal one. The degree of arousal refers to how exciting the environment is to our senses. In simpler English, users motivated by usefulness want a non-exciting environment.
Example: Google. The whole Google network of websites and applications is based primarily on white. They aren’t very exciting or arousing to our senses. But what if they switched the background color to a different one, such as red? My guess is that while the sites might look more exciting, you wouldn’t be as comfortable using them. The color red causes a non-conditional physiological reaction, increasing your heart and respiratory rate. This reaction is something we humans are born with.
On the other end of the color wavelength spectrum, blue has the opposite effect. It decreases your heart and respiratory rate. It’s no wonder why most business’s logos and websites make extensive use of the color blue.
However, the greatest effect on both relaxation and perceived quickness comes from brightness. The optimal color for relaxation has a blue hue, low saturation (a grayer blue, that is) and high brightness. [Note: relaxation here does not refer to pleasure, it refers to a low-arousal positive state.]
Optimizing for relaxation has the benefit of creating a sense of quickness. Relaxation during a wait makes time seem to go faster, and tension (such as one caused by color red) will make it seem go slower. The benefit of creating a sense of quickness is that people are more likely to recommend your site. So chill out your website!
Hedonism is defined as the pursue of pleasure, especially the pleasure of our senses. Research shows that consumers with hedonistic motivations find a high-arousal environment more pleasurable than a low-arousal one. In simple English, users motivated by pleasure prefer an exciting environment.
Example outside the web: nightclubs. Colorful lights flash, music pounds and beverages satisfy your taste buds. It is truly a high-arousal environment designed for a hedonistic experience.
Nightclubs often have websites with exciting dark color schemes. Dark websites are said to facilitate elegance better than their white counterparts, and many fashion and apparel brands have adopted black on their websites. Take Chanel, for example. It’s black website is clearly targeted for shoppers with a hedonistic motivation. Large photographs showcase the products, while little factual info is communicated. And that’s alright, the user just wants to enjoy the products and the experience of the site.
But what if you were the owner of an apparel store, and had to order new Chanel products to your store each week? You would probably prefer an interface that is low-arousal, enabling you to order those products effectively without distracting stimuli. Chanel most likely has a website dedicated to this task.
We’ve established a pretty strict rule: bright, blueish and low-arousal color schemes for utility websites, and colorful, high-arousal color schemes for hedonistic sites.
However, the division between an utilitarian and hedonistic motivation might not be clear in every situation. For example, is Facebook for hedonistic or utilitarian tasks? Reading status updates and stalking other people’s profiles might give you hedonistic entertainment, while the message and events sections might serve a more useful purpose. It definitely has a pretty low-arousal design.
So while the strict dichotomy between utilitarian and hedonistic doesn’t apply to every situation, you should now have a good idea whether to go for a low or high arousal color scheme.
Does your website design take user motivation in to account?
Update: Check out the discussion on Hacker News as well.