What’s Lost at Launch : Persuasive Design

Oct 7 · 13 min read

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my incubator mentors gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind recently:

“Whenever you feel like offering more, just remember that you’ve got to get your product out, and everyone doesn’t need all the affordances you can offer. Consider building an MVP.”

Seven years ago, an MVP was a rebellion against the business plan, and it was how you started a business from a basement, which is what Andy, Danielle, and I did at LendingStandard.

Today, the bar for entry is higher as blitz-scaling, omni-channel delivery, and tailored services trend toward table stakes.

Recognizing this change, Roman Pichler coined the term minimal marketable product to describe the product with the smallest possible feature set that addresses the needs of the users in a general release. This wider release, and a larger but still ruthlessly culled feature set that comes with it, is what differentiates a MMP from a slimmer and less visible MVP.

What hasn’t changed, however, is that you still have to say no. Looking at your possible features, you have to separate the vitamins from the pain killers. So it goes.

One area of digital learning that is vulnerable to being relegated to a v2 is persuasive design.

Persuasive design is a subset of design that focuses on influencing human behavior through a product’s characteristics. Persuasive design manifests to users in the form of behavioral nudges — triggers, alerts, reminders, prompts — that seek to engrain an action into habit.

The Nike+ FuelBand is an iconic example of persuasive design. There are hundreds of videos of people talking about how they paced around the house late at night until they filled up the LED strip signaling their goal’s achievement.

A similar strategy was used several years later when the Apple Watch came with its layered loops that pushed people into reaching several goals each day.

Years later, TechCrunch began using a similar strategy to keep readers engaged in their long-form content. The checkmark at the end is a satisfying conclusion to reading beyond the headline.

While Nike may have been one of the earlier adopters of this UI element to drive user action, they likely made this design decision with the Zeigarnik Effect in mind. The Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks. Having the memory of this task prominently displayed drives the urgency to complete it even more.

The Nike+ FuelBand, Apple Watch, and TechCrunch UI all support the pursuit of difficult, but important activities: walking regularly, exercising, reading past a headline. Learning is a similarly difficult but important activity.

Persuasive Design and Learning

If the goal of a learning experience is to learn, and you consider learning to have taken place when a neatly organized set of knowledge in the long-term memory is easily and effectively applied across varying contexts, then habit formation doesn’t look supplemental, but essential. While persuasive design may not test well in early marketing research, it is an important component in the launch of a successful learning product.

To follow are 5 behavioral nudges, why you should work your magic to provide them early into a product’s lifecycle, and how you can do that when short on time. Along the way, each example will explain a bit more about the 3 factors involved in executing persuasive design effectively.

Persuasive Design Factors

Persuasive design is a field rooted in human factors and most recently advanced by BJ Fogg, the founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford. Fogg’s lab considers how we can use what we know about psychology and how humans interact with technology to create designs that foster positive behaviors.

In his model for what makes technology effective for changing behaviors, Fogg focuses on three factors:

  • Motivation: Users are sufficiently motivated to do behavior.
  • Ability: Users are able to perform the behavior.
  • Trigger: Users are triggered at the right time to perform the behavior.

In Fogg’s mind, a design is one where motivation and ability are present simultaneously in a nudge (trigger) that is delivered in the moment of need.

Let’s start with motivation and consider how a behavioral nudge could support motivation in digital learning.


Although death by powerpoint is a tired business cliche, motivation is an area that is still taken for granted in learning. Quite often there is an assumption that learners will be sufficiently motivated to learn what is put in front of them or complete a project solely because it is assigned.

This fallacy is perhaps most evident in digital learning that begins with “in this lesson you will:” and then lists a series of demonstrable events before getting into a context-setting slide.

As we get closer to a reality where users judge a learning experience for the utility of its earned competency and not the social signal of its completion, it will become increasingly important to sell the relevance of a learning experience to justify the commitment.


An effective way to get buy-in from learners is to invest in media that hooks them into a topic so much so that they will persist through difficulty because they are committed to the end reality that’s been envisioned.

Movie and podcast trailers are excellent examples of short-form media that are able to stoke enough curiosity into someone that they’ll spend $15 and three hours of their time sitting in the dark with strangers.

Resistance to trailers in a launch is often expressed in the pragmatic concerns of cost and time. There’s an assumption that trailers cost a lot of money. With affordable stock footage, Creative Commons assets, and pay-as-you-go tools like GoAnimate, videos and animation can be made in hours, not months. Out of necessity, many learning experience designers have developed the ability to work across mediums; narrating a video or even mixing background music is something many have had to figure out in order to get their experience they envision.

The other assumption is that the creative process for a trailer takes a long time and lots of inspiration. Even the best movie trailers follow a common pattern. The same is true for learning. Consider employing Sinek’s trusty triumvirate:

  • Why:

Sell the relevance of a skill gap that needs to be filled or stoke curiosity through an unresolved and dramatic dilemma that has to be answered.

  • How:

Share the interesting real-world scenario learners will be immersed in and how the challenges you’ll have to overcome en route to an answer tie back to the earlier gap or dilemma.

  • What:

Finish with what you can expect to learn and come out of this journey able to do that resolves the earlier gap or dilemma and how you are already have what it takes to be successful.

Using this setup, a trailer at the beginning of a learning experience hits all three of Fogg’s factors:

  • Trigger:

Its placement at the beginning of a learning experience is the right time, just as students are starting to decide if this is worth their time and attention.

  • Motivation:

A trailer engages students in the key topics and develops motivation through explicitly connecting its need and application to scenarios that resonate to the learner.

  • Ability:

To relieve any anxiety about the ability level necessary to be successful, making connections to skills and knowledge the learner already possesses makes the challenge less intimidating, but no less interesting.


Foggs’ second factor is ability, the ease with which the desired behavior is performed. While a trailer may relieve an initial anxiety around having the prior knowledge needed to build off from and be successful, there’s constraints other than prerequisite knowledge that influence ability. One of the most acute user constraints in digital learning is time.

Time estimates

People have crazy lives. Online learning fits into the crevices of our daily grinds. Having realistic expectations about what can be accomplished makes things easier. Just as I want to know how long it will take to commute home or read an article, knowing just what I can accomplish in a spare hour or afternoon helps with time management — a critical component to success online.

Providing estimates of how long chunks of material will take helps students plan out their weeks or see what scope of work can be realistically accomplished in that random hour that frees up. If a section takes learners longer than the expected time, it’s a great conversation starter for a check-in with the instructor. While overshooting time estimates may cause some distress up front, the feedback it provides about pacing is more helpful than being in the dark.

Time estimates could be left out of a launch because they’re hard to estimate. One workaround for this is to estimate time in wide brush strokes like how the UI of many video players shows where commercials interrupt a show.

Similarly, subway maps, like New York’s, which, while not geographically perfect, attempts to relate the physical distance between each stop by the length of its line segment. While the trains don’t run on time and the map favors legibility over accuracy below Greenwich Village, the map accomplishes a great deal.

LX vs. UX

What makes digital learning difficult from say, ordering a vacuum on Amazon or renting a movie on iTunes, is that a certain amount of struggle is necessary and beneficial for learning to take root.

While considerate learning designs will try their best to eliminate extraneous cognitive load, there are several strategies to reduce the perceived effort and time it will take to learn new material. In fact, many of these are familiar to those in education:

  • Chunking:

Break up learning into conceptual or procedural chunks that have a concentrated focus and can be accomplished within a scope of time your learner typically sets aside. This amount of time is going to differ between what users are trying to learn, and how they perceive the depth and immediacy of their learning need.

  • Sequencing:

Sequence these chunks so that they build on top of one another to accomplish a more complex goal, and provide a map that visualizes progress.

  • Priming:

Like restaurants where customers can see how their food is prepared, make some of this structure visible. Before the start of a learning experience, briefly orient students on where they are, where they will be going and why they should join, the stops along the way, how they will know when they’ve arrived, and what they already have in their packs that will sustain them on the journey.

Considering Fogg’s three factors, time estimates that are placed in the title view of a chunk, similar to how Medium displays articles, helps learners decide if they have the ability to finish at the point they are making the decision to click through to the material or to put it off for later.

This ability to judge time commitment is motivating, precisely because you’re made confident in your ability to fully complete a task.


The third factor in Fogg’s model are triggers. A good trigger is a noticeable and actionable cue that directs users towards a desired behavior at the opportune time time to perform it.

When there’s a traffic slow down, Google Maps sends a notice and asks if I would like to take an alternative route, which saves me time and reduces congestion.

During my commute, DuoLingo notifies me that I’ve been brushing up on my Spanish the last four days in a row. Should I keep the streak going?

What makes these triggers so effective is their timing — they anticipate your needs or availability and provide a utility.

Seen in this light, it’s easy to see triggers as technically advanced, at least for many e-learning tools or learning management systems.

The thing is, if a learning experience is well-designed, these nudges don’t have to be digital. In fact, text and image-based nudges might be the easiest way to incorporate persuasive design in the flow of a learning experience when you’re short on resources.

For example, consider a static call-out image that comes up when students have the opportunity to practice effective cognitive strategies like planning how you might solve a problem, or considering what relevant short cut they previously learned that could save them time.

Assuming that students are motivated to complete an activity and that it has been appropriately scaffolded and sequenced so that they have the necessary abilities, placing visual nudges at the moment of need within a learning experience provides the trigger for this action to be brought to attention. Repeated enough times at the right time, the more likely this nudge is to lead to a permanent habit that no longer needs to be suggested by instruction.

Bringing it All Back Home

Knowing what we know now about persuasive design and the three factors that go into a good nudge, here are two final examples that are extremely important to retention and application and should try to be delivered in a launch.

Retrieval Practice

One of the most harmful ideas that persists in education is that if you cover it once, you’re covered. We expect students to apply concepts on a final exam that are taught at the beginning of a course, and never touched again.

Customer care employees that are taught how to de-escalate a call in a thirty-minute workshop are expected to apply this a month later when the occasion arises. In order for learning to stick, it needs to be applied and revisited multiple times over the course of several weeks.

Retrieval practice is an instructional strategy that allows time to pass after a learning event, and, near the point when new knowledge developed from that event is about to be forgotten, the topic is revisited through a problem to be solved. This problem differs from the scenario in which it was learned or previously assessed, but has learners applying the same knowledge as in these previous experiences — the very one you are working to have learners retain.

This intentional gap in time between learning and retrieval practice, and the different context of the retrieval practice make the process of retrieving and applying that knowledge difficult. However, it’s exactly this struggle that ultimately helps cement the knowledge into long-term memory.

Retrieval practice can be an after thought to the first release of a learning experience, be it a micro-learning, module, or course. However, if it is to be judged on its ability to change behaviors that are consistently evident, then retrieval practice is a must.

An easy way to get started with retrieval practice is to alter the knowledge check questions that are often core to an MVP, and resurface them back to your users every few weeks for a few months. Down the road, you’ll want to change these questions so that they differ from the context of the original knowledge checks to better support this new skill to be applicable in scenarios that differ from the ones in which it was taught and practiced.

Goodie Bags

All parties should end with a goodie bag. What makes a good party favor? It’s something that useful to you, invokes a memory, and keeps a strong connection between people.

Generally speaking, learning experiences bridge a gap between a current reality and a desired one by developing new skills and mindsets. This manifests in different ways, of course: starting a new career, upskilling your sales pitch, being effectively onboarded at a a company.

Traditionally, however, after a learning experience, you’re on your own. While all good things must come to an end, providing a pack of resources to keep the momentum is a great way to set them learners off into a hero’s sunset.

The end of a course is a particularly auspicious time to provide extended resources because they are aware of how much effort they’ve put in to get this far. The Sunk Cost Effect says that people place high value in areas they’ve invested their time, effort, or money, and will continue to invest. For once, the Sunk Cost effect is beneficial here, as it motivates students to continue developing.

A goodie bag for your next learning experience can include several items that are specific to your scenario. These categories can apply across many different focuses and industries:

  • Jobs to Do:

A combination of short-form work students can do daily to build a habit of daily practice, as well as longer projects and material students can do asynchronously that couldn’t be offered because of time constraints.

  • Interview Prep:

Materials to prepare students for common interview scenarios and questions they may encounter

  • Community:

Access to a social platform to engage with their colleagues, structured in a way that organizes dialogue by need and can be run at scale with little administrative oversight.

  • Networking:

A curated list of relevant meetup groups and professional communities that exist in your local community, or in chapters nationally and internationally.

  • Help Wanted:

Local or national non-profits seeking volunteer assistance on a scope of work where newly developed skills are applicable.

Providing more quality content for learners to engage with is a helpful way of keeping a bridge between the current and desired realities intact. This content obviously entails more work to support, but if you’re short on time, one way to start in this direction is to facilitate group projects and encourage collaboration.

As the course come to an end, encourage students to reflect about what side projects they would like to continue afterwards and to find classmates who might be interested in joining.

If a learning experience doesn’t have this social component, consider how retrieval practice material, particularly focused on material later in the course, can be offered well after the party ends.

Your Goodie Bag

In parting, here’s a few extras that inspired this post:

Mel Milloway recently recommended Growth Design Case Studies on LinkedIn. These case studies have provided helpful examples of how persuasive design leans on human factors and cognitive psychology. The case study on DuoLingo was particularly good at showing how different user engagement strategies apply to learning experiences.

My interest in persuasive design was re-ignited by a recent Netflix documentary on Ian Spalter. It’s a great look at the work he’s done for Nike and Instagram. Similarly, the episode on Cas Holman was very inspiring doc on a learning designer I had never known about, but now enjoy following.

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EdTech Product Design & Management

The Startup

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