Persuasive UX Design: How To Get Users To Do Stuff (Part 2)

A few months ago, I wrote Persuasive UX Design: How To Get Users To Do Stuff (Part 1), which was inspired by a workshop that I took while attending Smashing Conf 2016, taught by Dr. Susan Weinschenk. It was so mind-blowing that I had to break it down into two blog posts. If you haven’t read the first part yet, it would be worth checking out for context before getting into this one.

So, let’s get to it!

How do I get users to:

Photo by Liam Welch

Trust technology, robots or AI

With the right amount of sugar and spice, and everything nice, people can trust technology, equally and if not more than they do humans. The BlabDroid is a perfect example of this.

Simply put, technology needs to meet human-to-human communication standards in order to create trust. It needs a voice, a name and needs to speak audibly and/or in writing, like a human. The language itself cannot be too forward or invasive sounding, but should be welcoming and friendly. The one thing to avoid (or people will definitely laugh at it) is choppy, cold computer-language, or broken English. If you’d like to learn more about this, Daniel Eckler wrote a great article about the future of conversational user interfaces (CUI). A highly-recommended read!

Engage more frequently

It’s important to reward your users with either a very particular pattern, or sometimes a lack thereof. B.F. Skinner coined the term “operant conditioning”, which essentially means an attempt to change behaviour through the use of positive or negative reinforcement. For example, if someone meets a deadline and receives praise for doing so, they will continue to meet more deadlines.

The key to hooking users is in the timing and frequency of rewards. Timing is broken down into two categories: interval and ratio. Interval is essentially based on how much time has passed by (i.e. every 6 hours) and ratio is based on of the number of interactions (i.e. opened the app or accessed a screen 5 times). Frequency is broken down into two categories as well, fixed and variable, which are equally self-explanatory. When you mix and match the categories, there are four possible combinations that Susan has noted:

Fixed interval — Reinforcement is based on time and the time is always the same interval. For example, every morning at 7:00 your alarm clock rings.

Variable interval — Reinforcement is based on time, the amount of time varies, but it averages to a particular time. For example, every couple of hours on inactivity, Facebook will send you a notification that one of your close friends posted or commented on something (that you may not have had any previous interaction with).

Fixed ratio — Reinforcement is based on the number of interactions, and the number is always the same. For example at a local café, for every coffee that I buy, I get 1 stamp. For every 10 stamps, I receive 1 free coffee. When using this schedule, expect a drop in usage after the user has received their reward. It will then ramp up again slowly.

Variable ratio — Reinforcement is based on the number of interactions, the number varies, but it averages to a particular ratio. An real-life example of this are gaming and lottery games. Being so unpredictable, it creates steady, but high response rate.

So, what type of ratios are we talking about? There are certain ratios that release a higher amount of dopamine than others, causing us to get hooked more quickly and easily. If we get rewarded 100% of the time, there is a relatively low dopamine release. If we get rewarded 25% or 75% of time, the dopamine release is about 50% more. And finally, if we get rewarded 50% of the time, the dopamine release more than doubles. The end result is that if you want a user to engage in a certain behaviours, then the use of a 50% variable ratio schedule yields the best and most consistent results in the long term.

There is also a 5th type of conditioning: continuous. For example, when you’re trying to create a new habit, such as training pets or kids. A small treat or positive reinforcement is given each time. Despite all of these positive outcomes in using rewards to create habits, please note that they are not the best motivator — we shouldn’t overuse them.

Get attached

Telling stories is more powerful than you would think. When listening to a story, the brain doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t. The stories activate various parts of the brain as if they were actually experiencing the events in the story. During this tension, cortisol is released. When empathizing, oxytocin is released. And finally when there is a happy ending, dopamine is released. In addition, during the telling of a story a neural connection is made between the speaker and listener, which essentially means that their brain waves match each other’s. Fascinating, right?

There are 7 archetypal story plots that resonate most with people. I’ll simply list them out — but if you’d like more context, I highly recommend Susan’s books or her source, The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. The archetypes include:

  1. Overcoming a monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. The quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth


Self-stories also drive our behaviour. We all have internal narratives about who we are, why we think and behave as we do. We all want our stories to be consistent, and will change our behaviour to fit our self-story.

Susan explained that all you need to do in order to instigate change is find a small crack in someone’s narrative. “If you can get someone to take a small action that does not fit with a self-story then it is likely that that person will change the self-story in order to match the action. In this way you can get someone to make a big change by getting them to make a series of very small changes over time.”

Story prompting is a good way to get people to change even in the smallest of ways. An example of this would be when graduate students give talks to undergrads. This gives the students hope, motivation, and a goal to work towards. Brands can also create a strong relationship with their customers to inspire them to make small changes in their lives. Buying certain products or services can serve to showcase a specific value or lifestyle that your customers want to be associated with. For example, someone who cares about sustainability, the environment and being socially responsible, may choose to associate themselves with an ethical retailer like Everlane, instead of supporting other less transparent big name fashion brands.

Increase the desire for mastery

We’re all born with the desire to master our environment. There are three techniques that when used together, make for one of the most powerful psychological weapons to trigger the desire for mastery in users.

  1. Give power and control to the users. Allow them the autonomy and the room to discover and grow.
  2. Give users lots of feedback on how to improve themselves to achieve a goal. Make sure not to mix this feedback with praise however — any type of reward or punishment will dampen the experience.
  3. Give just the right type of challenge, not too easy and not too hard.

In UX terms, this can be translated into reaching a certain number of followers or engagement level, achieving a level or score in a game, or just becoming proficient in the usage of the product or service. The app Monument Valley is a wonderful game example for a desire for mastery. From the very beginning, it gives the user the autonomy to explore, discover and see things form different angles, literally. The amount of challenge per level is just right, and even though they do not provide any feedback, they make up for it with a unique UX through the use of simple gestures, like swiping and pulling at the objects that are a part of the world. The app also provides a strong feeling of connection with the quest (an archetypal story plot).

Get hooked

When we think gamification, we often think, let’s just throw in a bunch of levels and rewards! You could choose this surface-level approach to get users hooked, but it won’t yield the best results. Here are three tips for A+ gamification:

  1. Don’t give rewards constantly
  2. Include challenges
  3. Include stories

Two Dots is a great game example for gamification. Upon opening the app, the user is provided with opportunities to get rewards to help them throughout the game. They are also rewarded with medals, treasures and postcards of the worlds they have completed. It also provides users with the perfect amount of challenge. If it becomes too hard for a user to continue, they’re encouraged to change modes and play a weekly treasure hunt. Stories aren’t a huge focus in this game, however there are plenty of worlds that the user travels through and treasure hunts that they can play. Two Dots also uses a fixed interval system, where the user receives a new life every 20 minutes, or replenishes all their lives in 1 hour.


It’s fascinating to see how we can influence user behaviour through some serious persuasive UX design tricks. As a user, I personally fall for them all the time, as I’m sure we all do. The difference is that now, with an increased understanding of user behaviour, we can add these tactics to our toolkit for any upcoming design projects.

Through Susan Weinschenk’s workshop, I’ve learned that the strongest motivators to influence user behaviour are through our desire for mastery, storytelling, and our need to belong. While I’m excited to put these techniques in action, I’m also mindful that too much influence can cross the line towards excessive conditioning and control — so in the meantime, enjoying experimenting to find the right balance towards effective UX design.