Photo by Damian Zaleski

Persuasive UX Design: How To Get Users To Do Stuff (Part 1)

While in San Francisco for the recent Smashing Conf 2016, I enrolled in a one-day workshop about persuasion in UX design, taught by Dr. Susan Weinschenk. With a PhD in psychology, she applies her research on brain science to predict, understand, and explain what motivates people and how they behave digitally. The one-day workshop summarized the key components of her 3 books, which I’ll partly break down for you here.

Before jumping into the tactics, there are 3 main concepts that must be understood:

How users make decisions

If we want to design an engaging and persuasive product, then we need to understand the psychology and biology of our users, including their vision, hearing and thinking capabilities. Did you know that 95% of mental processing is unconscious? Your unconscious mind actually makes your decisions 6–7 seconds before your conscious mind thinks it has made the decision. Fascinating, right?

There are 2 thinking systems

Our brain works with 2 different types of thinking systems. System 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, and effortless. System 2 thinking is slow, effortful and hard. When our brain switches from system 1 to system 2, our eyes actually dilate because we are processing more information. Our normal mode is system 1 thinking. For example when we see someone smiling, we know that they are happy, where as if we are given a math problem like 24 x 17, (assuming you don’t give up right away) you will enter system 2 thinking.

There are 3 “types” of brains

We have 3 distinct areas of the brain, and in order to grab attention and communicate persuasively, then we must target each of them. The first area is the “new brain” which resides in the front part of your brain, closest to your forehead, which is where all of your thinking goes on. Then there’s the “mid-brain” that consists of the top back part, which is the emotional part of your brain. And finally there’s the “old brain” which is the bottom back part of your brain, closer to the back of your neck. This part of your brain is in charge of your survival, which scans situations to know whether or not to put food, sex and safety as your number one priority.

So, how do I get users to:

Photo by Sean Brown

Pay attention?

If we know that 95% of mental processing is unconscious, it follows that most of this processing is happening through System 1 of the brain. Users will see it, but won’t actually pay attention to it. For example: you’re looking for ketchup in the fridge and even though it’s right in front of your face, your brain doesn’t register it. In order for the user to learn and remember things, their System 2 needs to kick in to seriously start using their “new brain”.

A real-life example of this is when a professor realized that his students weren’t doing well on their assignments because they were glossing over it with System 1 thinking. In order to force the students to access their System 2 thinking, the prof simply adjusted the font face of the print-outs. Instead of using Helvetica, he used a brush script. Not only did the students have to actually stop and pay extra attention to read the text, but it also made them slow down enough to allow their brain to process things into their long-term memory.

I’m not saying that we need to change all our clean legible fonts to a hard-to-read brush script, but when we need our user to actually pay attention, we must find a way to access their System 2 thinking in order for the content to be better learned and remembered.


Users LOVE to see all the possible options before buying. The more, the merrier, right? Wrong. Sheena Iyengar, a renowned expert on choice, conducted an experiment where she put this concept to the test, a tester table that is. She had 2 set-ups: on one table she had 24 open jars of different jams for users to test, and on another table she only had 6 jars to test. On the table with 24 jars, 60% of people tested them, but only 3% purchased, the equivalent of 2 sales. On the table with 6 jars however, 40% tested, and 30% purchased, the equivalent of 12 sales.

Why was there such a drastic conversion rate based on the number of jars shown? Because confidence helps users make a decision. If the user is able to easily recall all the steps that they took in order to make their final decision, the more likely they are to purchase. When there are too many options or steps, users don’t choose anything. So as UX experts, we need to give confidence to our users, by showing them their progress, thereby confirming that they have come a long way and have made the right choices leading up to their final decision.

Spend more?

Users “anchor” on numbers. Meaning, if they see a high number first, they will more than likely spend more. If they see a small number first, they will spend less. An example of this could be a donation website. When listing the amounts that the user can donate, always list them in descending order and have the highest amount auto-selected. For example, list them as $100, $75, $50 and $25 instead of the reverse (which is what is more commonly seen).

Users unconsciously love big numbers. If the donation site writes out what their goal amount is, or if they write out the amount already donated (assuming it is a high number), people will want to donate more. Also, the numbers need to be fully written out — $7,000,000 instead of $7M.

Kickstarter does a great job of this; although if they were to reverse the order of the rewards (further down the page) from highest to lowest, donors would be more inclined to spend more.

Get involved/sign up?

As humans, we have a need to belong. Our need to belong is hard-wired into our psychology and biology. When experiencing something with others, our brain releases the chemical oxytocin, which is how and why a synchronous behaviour bonds us to others (sometimes even the rhythms of our hearts match!).

Through simple wording and the use of nouns instead of verbs, we can create the illusion of belonging. For example we should ask “How important is it for you to be a voter in tomorrow’s election?” instead of “How important is it to vote in tomorrow’s election?”. The same logic of evoking the idea of identity and group bonding can be applied to call-to-actions. Instead of using the typical “donate now” or “join now”, instead use “become a donor” or “join our team.”

Donate or try something new?

Users don’t have a problem with donating, but they do have a problem with non-reciprocal gift giving. If a charity provides a small gift to their donors, 35% of users will donate, whereas if the charity does not give anything in return, only 18% of users will donate. Users just simply feel more comfortable giving when they receive something in return, however small.

Another example of this concept could also apply to a free product trial. Users are more comfortable trying out a product for free for a predetermined number of days before subscribing or purchasing.

Buy something new?

We need social validation, point final. Because of this, we are highly influenced by those around us, whether or not we know them personally. For example, if you’re walking down an empty street completely alone in the middle of the day, and see someone that gets hurt, there is an 85% chance that you would help that person because there’s no social pressure to help them, or not help them. Ironically, if you’re walking down a busy street and see someone who gets hurt, and notice that others are not helping them, there is only a 31% chance that you would actually help that person because social pressure dictates that you shouldn’t help them.

To bring this back to a digital situation — if you’re selling a product or service, providing testimonials, reviews or personal stories are highly influential for your users. Peer-to-peer reviews have the strongest influence, while an expert or website recommendation has less influence. When displaying peer-to-peer reviews, it is very important to include as much information as possible about the reviewers, so that other users can identify with them.

Create a new habit?

Habits are mainly created unconsciously, but we can condition ourselves to create new habits with a stimulus. Surprisingly, a new habit can be created in as little as 3 days. The easiest way to create a new habit is to attach it to an existing habit. It’s best to start with something small and manageable, and attach it to a visual or auditory cue. Keep in mind that the easier the action is, the easier the habit is to pick up.

For a digital example, a notification from an app or an email from an admired company can use unpredictability, sound, and/or a visual alert to increase the likelihood of conditioning (as creepy as it may sound).

Buy, NOW?

Users are more motivated by fear of loss than anticipation of gain. By presenting the user with a loss-free situation, such as free shipping and returns, they are more likely to buy. The sense of scarcity also increases the value of an object by enabling users to access their “old brain” survival instincts. By noting that there are “only a few left” under a product description, or even a “limited time offer,” it will increase purchasability because of the user’s FOMO (fear of missing out).

A tried-and-tested example of this is yet another grocery store test: two giant jars of the same types of cookies, one jar that’s full and the other jar only has a few cookies left in it. Users instinctively want the cookies from the jar that’s almost empty, even if there’s no difference between the cookies themselves.

Tesla asks for a minimum down-payment of $1,000 before their cars are even made. Once you purchase one of their cars, you become part of a VIP list where you get first-dibs on new car releases. This is a perfect example of how scarcity equals value.

In a wine-tasting example, two wine glasses are presented to testers, although they are exactly the same. One is said to be higher quality and more expensive, while the other is ostensibly cheaper and not as delicious. Upon tasting, our brain sends out a signal to the rest of our body saying that the first glass is better, and therefore we truly believe it is. It’s essentially the same concept as the placebo effect: our brains release a chemical to make users believe that it is actually true and working.

What this all means

As humans, we are very susceptible to various psychological tactics, almost like loopholes in our DNA. Even after learning about all of these tips, we will all still continue to get caught falling for them, because the majority of it happens subconsciously. With a renewed sense of awareness, however, you should start to be able to point out when companies or services are using these tactics.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any tips connected to the “mid-brain,” the area where our emotions reside… It actually plays a very important role as one of the biggest motivators for a user, and those tactics will be summarized in the soon-to-be part 2 of this article.

Until then, if you’d like to find out more, I highly recommend taking a deeper look into Susan’s books to learn in depth how to apply psychology to create a persuasive user experience.

Update 08/12/2016: Make sure to check out Part 2!



Dynamo offers world-class expertise in design and full-stack consulting. We help startups build & refine their digital products.

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