The title is an actual quote I heard years ago when testing an educational site with 5th graders. This particular user could not get over the fact that the overall color used was green, which she interpreted as a “mom” color, not for kids. What do research and practice have to say about the psychology of colors used on websites?
This question strikes close to home for me, as the science, or lack thereof, behind color-related decision making has been popping up a lot lately for the Mediabarn UX team. In client meetings and presentations the question has been “why did you pick blue/green/yellow, etc…” for this site/app?” How we justify our choices is a hot topic. Does color choice matter? What were the thought processes behind the choices we made?
We all know that if you are designing a site with an existing brand, you need to honor that brand’s style guidelines, but what if you have an opening to choose the colors or are able to expand or change what is already present?
I decided to do a little further exploration on this subject. To help me, I asked some of my UXPA peers (some of the most experienced professionals I know in the area of UX and design) their thoughts. They all had valuable insights that help to understand the bigger picture that I wanted to share in full color.
Color for Accessibility
There are different aspects that go into your color choice – one being accessibility. You always want to make sure the color contrast you choose is optimal, and ideally works for all user types. This is especially true when designing for the government or a site where the user’s ages vary greatly.
Chris LaRoche, UX Consultant at MIT and Senior Lecturer at Northeastern recommends a tool from the Paciello group to check for appropriate contract. Chris urges that the colors you choose must be of solid contrast to work most successfully.
Color for a Better UX
Chris Hass, Sr. VP if Experience Design at Mad*Pow in Boston had an interesting take on color in relation to usability. He notes that while color choices are important, successful solutions often nail the UX components first: easy interactions, clear nomenclature, fantastic taxonomy, clear rationales for inclusion and placement of key elements, straightforward messaging, etc. Once we have those in place, and validated, visual design choices have a foundation, and are empowered to be a harmonious blend of what we know of color theory and design (how humans perceive and react to colors), what the aesthetic of the product is intended to convey, how it fits into both the company goals (branding, styles, etc.) and the end-user’s culture of use, rather than contributing to or compensating for sub-optimal UX design. You’ve probably seen websites that are beautiful but functionally difficult, artful but inaccessible. By focusing visual design choices on supporting clarity, ease of use, and satisfaction, creative color choices support a coherent, artful, and useful product.
Chris goes on to explain that “we take end-user comments (“Yuck”, This makes me happy”, “It’s too dark”, etc.) into account of course, but we’re also looking at their use success rates. Did they see what we wanted them to see most? Were the action points easy to find and did they convey their function well? Do colors support use well? Blending emotion and utility is always a tricky prospect. With clients we want to make clear that there is a rationale for decisions made, and that they can of course suggest something different, but their suggestions should solve our outlined problems as well as this solution does. Our goal is to help them see that just as we design websites to be functionally useful based on foundational research and industry best practices, successful color choices come from a similarly systematic framework of research outcomes, experience, and creativity rather than trends or personal opinion.”
Similar to the way Mad*Pow approaches color design, when we design websites and mobile apps at Mediabarn we listen to what our clients say, learn about their user types and discuss how the client wants their product/service/brand to be portrayed. We ask questions about tone, personality and the emotions they want their users to feel during and after experiencing their online product. We want clients and users to provide input and opinions, but we also let the designers do what they do best – creative design.
Color for Personal and Cultural Preference
Color preference is highly subjective, as different types of people have their own unique feelings and thoughts that resonate with different colors. This also applies to users in various countries or across subcultures.
Jakob Biesterfeldt, Managing Director for UserZoom Germany, elaborates on the cultural aspect stating although color preferences and meanings are subjective, to some extent individual cultures share common preferences and meanings. An interesting example is listed here.
What then, does the above-mentioned academic research say regarding how to make effective color choices? My former UXPA 4014 co-chair Danielle Cooley, Principal at DGCooley Consulting, writes that for every study that says pink is calming or orange increases creativity, there’s another study that says blue is the most calming and creative people are drawn to purple. Danielle believes color from nature tend to be the least offensive, as our brains are evolved to notice and appreciate them, but there are always anecdotes like this one: “I once designed a meditation guru’s business card using a fresh lime green background, wanting to conjure up feelings about nature, bamboo leaves, and relaxation in general; only to find that this went down like a lead balloon. Apparently, green brings bad luck!” (One of many comments found here). Each color has seen great success (and, surely, failure) across different industries and domains, and sometimes disruption is a key. For example, Scottrade’s purple really stands out in the financial services sector, at least in the US.
What’s the Answer?
Is there a solid one size fits all formula or process for picking the perfect color scheme? Sadly, no. Color is truly situational, dependent upon user types, their emotional color associations, the culture a company is attempting to communicate visually, and the creativity of your visual designers. Brand, accessibility, use case, and cultural preferences all play significant roles. Do your research, plan, and test. Maybe your mom likes green, but somebody else’s will always prefer pink. And that’s good news: as always, know the “rules,” and be prepared to break them in amazing ways!