The Bouba/Kiki Effect

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Bouba Kiki

This video is a three-for-the-price-of-one deal – today I’m going to tell you about not one, not two, but three psychological findings that you can use to improve the design of your website. And in this video, unlike the others in this series, I’m talking actually about the visual design of the website, rather than things to do with its functionality.

The first of these is the bouba/kiki effect. So, I’m going to hold up two drawings here, and what you have to do is guess which is the bouba and which is the kiki.

Easy, right? The round one is the bouba and the jagged one is the kiki. In fact, 95% of people give this answer.

Psychologists think that the reason for this is to do with the shape of your mouth when you produce these sounds: a big, open, round mouth for bouba versus a small opening with your lips stretched thinly for kiki. In other words, words like bouba literally ‘feel’ round, because you can feel your lips forming a round shape when you say them.

OK, but you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the design of your site. Well, there are quite a few studies which show that people like things that go along with this bouba/kiki stuff and dislike things that don’t, and this even goes as far as people’s faces.

That is, if you have a round-sounding name, people prefer your appearance if you have a more rounded than angular face, and vice versa. So, if the name of your site or your product is rounded sounding – if you sell boubas – this should be reflected in the visual design of your site – lots of curves and rounded edges. If the name of your site or product is more kiki-sounding – if you sell kikis – you want to go for the opposite- crisp, sharp corners.

The second thing I’d like to talk about is symmetry. We really like things that are symmetrical. And it’s not just humans.

For example, as I talk about in my book Are You Smarter Than a Chimpanzee? bees also prefer flowers that are symmetrical. This suggests that a symmetry preference is hardwired into us by evolution.

Why would evolution have done this? Well, for things that SHOULD be symmetrical, like flowers and human faces, any deviation from symmetry often means worse genes. For example, symmetrical flowers produce more pollen, and humans with more symmetrical faces are – on an average – both more intelligent and more athletic.

So, it’s no accident that most of the popular templates are designed to give a symmetrical site whatever device you’re using to view it; and this is particularly important for things like call to action buttons, which are likely to work best if they’re central, and not interfering with the visual symmetry of the site.

A third and final psychological finding that’s relevant for site design is something called the mere-exposure effect. An example of this is a study which showed English speakers a handful of Chinese characters. Then later, they showed them a new page of Chinese characters, some new ones, some they’d seen before, and asked them which they preferred.

Although they couldn’t pick them out consciously, the participants showed an unconscious preference for the things that they’ve seen before. And this is obviously how a lot of advertising works – just creating a feeling of familiarity with the brand that consumers interpret as a feeling of liking.

So again, in terms of site design, it makes sense to ensure that your logo, your core product or whatever you want people to like is repeated on every page, as well as of course in your advertising, your pitches, and anything else that you do, to create this sense of familiarity and liking.

So, to sum up, if you can create a site that a) makes use of the bouba/kiki effect, b) is symmetrical, and c) repeats your branding, you’ll have used some important psychological principles to create a site that your customers will love.

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