Don’t just copy persuasive design. It will backfire. Here’s how to successfully build persuasive design into your larger strategy.
Persuasive design elements like points, badges, reputation, and scarcity warnings are meaningless as stand-alone systems, but can be helpful in supporting a larger strategy as a use experience unfolds over time.
For Persuasive design elements to work together, they need to be stitched together into a coherent whole. In this article, we will explore several frameworks that will help you create such a design strategy as well as help you design for the changing experience over time. But first, let us explore why this is a problem in the first place.
Popular persuasive tricks like using Scarcity to push users into taking action or communicating Authority and using Social Proof to limit consumer choice are often used as stand-alone strategies to push users to take action. They work on the short-term and for designers, they are easy to understand and administer. However, they come do come with a danger. If overly used, they oftentimes fail to deliver ongoing engagement and sometimes even work against it.
You can’t force users to love you or your product. However, if you genuinely understand their journey and the needs, wants, desires, and pains they have, you can design that caters to them and helps them solve their problems. Understanding their journey will let you design an experience that evolves with the user over time – supporting, nudging, and facilitating progress and difficult decisions when needed.
Short-sighted persuasive tricks like points, badges, levels, leaderboards, and reputation systems often fail to deliver ongoing engagement as stand-alone systems. However, if used right they can help as powerful tools to support your overall strategy. They can be very helpful in helping users to gauge where they stand and how far they have progressed. They act as great separate elements, but to facilitate ongoing engagement, they need to be woven together into a larger and holistic persuasive strategy that accommodates for how users and their needs evolve over time.
The needs of the newbie users just on-boarded are most likely very different from the needs of an expert user having been with you for years. Users tend to use your product for different things in different contexts – pay attention to what those contexts are and how you can tailor the experience to the context of the user as it changes over time.
From individual persuasion paths to designing the full experience
Persuasive design has evolved from being focused on individual and independent persuasion paths to embracing the full experience. Instead of narrowly focusing on many individual behavior goals separately, designers are now increasingly accommodating the full life cycle. They are embracing the connectedness of many tasks and journeys to create an integrated and longer lasting lifetime experience – and possibly behavior change.
As companies like LinkedIn, booking.com and Groupon successfully started applying persuasive design to nudge people into completing their profile, booking a hotel, or snatching a deal one more than customers originally intended, the power of persuasive design was evident.
Booking.com is among the companies who use persuasive design patterns rigorously to nudge users to become customers. From top to bottom: Authority and Reputation of famous sights is used to instill a feeling of both being awestruck and familiarity. The subjective value of the famous “Tivoli Gardens’” attribute further value to the city of Copenhagen. Examining each listing, some are accompanied by prominent badges showing how one hotel is more special than the other. Familiar badges like this play on the principle of Authority. Each listing is rated with stars from booking.com (“Authority” of the reviewers) and with a metric rating by the guests, including a review count. These elements act to establish a sense of Social Proof: many reviews means that a lot of guests found this hotel valuable and according to the rating they gave, I can trust they had a good experience as well. Each listing further uses a variety of Scarcity elements to push the user to taking action. “Only 4 rooms left” and “You missed it!” help provoke a fear of possibly missing out. Finally, the list is closed with a classic Social Proof element originally made popular by Amazon.com: “People who looked at DGI-byens Hotel also viewed these:”.
As the power of persuasive design grew evident, designers started to copy the persuasive elements of the most successful persuasive experiences (Like booking.com, groupon.com, etc.) as is. Element by element. Without considering the full original context and how they were strategically intertwined with the experience over time at their origin.
Merely copying each persuasive element as is and not accommodating for the context of the user, can easily lead to simplistic and deterministic implementations, thereby tricking users into performing some sort of behavior. While this might probably work in the short run, it can hurt your business in the long run. Designing only for short-term conversions rather than accommodating for ongoing use (return visits, loyalty, evolving skills, appropriate challenges, etc.) can backfire.
This is what happened to GroupOn.com after an amazing launch with revenue figures so big they had never been seen that fast, largely credited to their use of persuasive design using techniques that utilized social proof, scarcity, and group pressure. However, the experience worked mostly on the short term and couldn’t be sustained to build loyal customers – neither for GroupOn nor for the companies who had deals on GroupOn.
Using persuasive design to build long lasting relationships
Let’s look at four different frameworks that can help you design persuasive experiences that work over time:
- Nir Eyal’s Hooked model. In the book Hooked, Nir Eyal explains how combining triggers and variable rewards can help create habit loops where users continually set themselves up for continued behavior. The Hooked model acknowledges the intrinsic motivation of users as they invest themselves into keeping the loop going. By designing hooks that help users set themselves up for having something to come back to, the Hooked model can help map and design how users go in and out of experiences and what is needed for that transition to work.
- Amy Jo Kim’s Player’s Journey. By “doling out just the right amount of challenge and learning to keep the player engaged and on the edge of her ability”. Amy proposes that we should construct our digital experiences like well-designed games where each stage is connected to the others and where all individual design elements coalesce into a coherent and satisfying journey of learning (newbies), practising (regulars), and mastery (enthusiasts).
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Channel. As users get familiar with a user experience, their skill level in working with that experience in time increases until the point where it gets boring. At that time, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that users will either abandon the flow as they are bored or look for harder challenges that is appropriate to their new skill level. This is why it’s necessary to design multiple appropriate challenges looping in to each other as users progress from being newbies to regulars to enthusiasts on their way toward mastery to ensure that users will keep an ongoing engagement.
- Stephen Anderson’s Platforms. Stephen Anderson asks designers to go beyond designing paths and instead focus on designing platforms. Customer journey maps and user scenarios keep us in an A to B mode, which leads to simplistic designs ending in an exchange. Instead designers should embrace platforms: open-ended generative systems that work through positive mimicry, pattern recognition, self-expression, and feedback loops among others to create experiences that end in learning and discovery.
As you design platforms in which users can play, you are designing to accommodate for users’ self-determined purpose which will lead to unknown outcomes. Their motivations for using your platform will differ greatly depending on the context they are in. In platforms, users have intrinsic motivations of their own and as a designer, the best you can do is to get out of the way as users progress from learning to mastery on their own.
Shifting your focus to designing for the experience over time rather than for a myriad of separate moments and persuasion paths is the recipe to build ongoing user engagements.
Designing for the experience over time is understanding how changes in one part of a system impact another part of a system, realizing that ecosystems are complex, and simple causality is hard or impossible to identify. It is about designing a series of touchpoints, treating each as part of a dynamic and holistic ecosystem. Using the mental models mentioned above will help visualize the narratives and stories of your users, bringing their stories to life in accessible and approachable formats.
The persuasive pattern card deck represents independent insights from psychology. Used individually, they can help nudge users into a desired behavioral goal. Used in combination with each other, they can help create habit-forming products, lead to users mastery, and create open-ended generative systems facilitating exploration and discovery.
Together, some persuasive patterns form persuasive recipes; combinations of persuasive patterns that have proven to be particularly powerful.
Want to learn more?
The Persuasive patterns card deck is a great place to start. It is a collection of 60 insights into psychology, presented in manner easily referenced and used in a workshop setting.
If you want take it to the next level, you should consider getting an industry-recognized Course Certificate in UX Design, Design Thinking, UI Design, or another related design topics. Online UX courses from the Interaction Design Foundation can provide you with industry-relevant skills to advance your UX career. For example, Design Thinking, Become a UX Designer from Scratch, Conducting Usability Testing or User Research – Methods and Best Practices are some of the most popular courses. Good luck on your learning journey!