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Persuasion Triggers In Web Design


How do you make decisions? If you’re like most people, you’ll probably answer that you pride yourself on weighing the pros and cons of a situation carefully and then make a decision based on logic. You know that other people have weak personalities and are easily swayed by their emotions, but this rarely happens to you.

You’ve just experienced the fundamental attribution error1 — the tendency to believe that other people’s behaviour is due to their personality (“Josh is late because he’s a disorganised person”) whereas our behaviour is due to external circumstances (“I’m late because the directions were useless”).

Cognitive biases like these play a significant role in the way we make decisions so it’s not surprising that people are now examining these biases to see how to exploit them in the design of web sites. I’m going to use the term ‘persuasion architects’ to describe designers who knowingly use these techniques to influence the behaviour of users. (Many skilled designers already use some of these psychological techniques intuitively — but they wouldn’t be able to articulate why they have made a particular design choice. The difference between these designers and persuasion architects is that persuasion architects use these techniques intentionally).

There are 7 main weapons of influence in the persuasion architect’s arsenal:

How do persuasion architects apply these principles to influence our behaviour on the web?


“I like to return favours.” Link

This principle tells us that if we feel we have been done a favour, we will want to return it. If somebody gives you a gift, invites you to a party or does you a good turn, you feel obliged to do the same at some future date.

Persuasion architects exploit this principle by giving users small gifts — a sample chapter from a book, a regular newsletter or just useful information — in the knowledge that users will feel a commitment to offer something in return9.

Fig. 1: Book publishers offer free sample chapters in the hope that you’ll reciprocate the favour and buy the book.

That ‘something in return’ need not be a purchase (not yet, anyway). Persuasion architects know that they need to contact prospective customers on several occasions before they become an actual customer — this is why regular newsletters are a staple offering in the persuasion architect’s toolkit. So in return they may simply ask for a referral, or a link to a web site, or a comment on a blog. And note the emphasis on ‘ask’. Persuasion architects are not shy of asking for the favour that you ‘owe’ them. (By the way, if you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it on Twitter!10).

Fig. 2: Seth Godin knows how to leverage the principle of reciprocation. This comes from one of Seth’s free PDFs and you’ll notice he’s not shy of asking you to return the favour. Large view12


“I like to do what I say.” Link

This principle tells us that we like to believe that our behaviour is consistent with our beliefs. Once you take a stand on something that is visible to other people, you suddenly feel a drive to maintain that point of view to appear reliable and constant.

A familiar example of this in action is when comments on a blog degrade into a flame war. Commentators are driven to justify their earlier comments and often become even more polarised in their positions.

Fig. 3: Flamewars.net13 contains many examples of people justifying their commitment to comments they have made on a blog posting.

Persuasion architects apply this principle by asking for a relatively minor, but visible, commitment from you. They know that if they can get you to act in a particular way, you’ll soon start believing it. For example, an organisation may ask you to ‘Like’ one of their products on Facebook to watch a video or get access to particular content. Once this appears in your NewsFeed, you have made a public commitment to the product and feel more inclined to support it.

Fig. 4: Oxfam15 uses the principle of commitment in the knowledge that a small change in behaviour will lead to larger changes later on.

Social Proof

“I go with the flow.” Link

This principle tells us that we like to observe other people’s behaviour to judge what’s normal, and then we copy it.

Persuasion architects apply this principle by showing us what other people are doing on their web sites. For example, researchers at Columbia University16 set up a web site that asked people to listen to, rate and download songs by unsigned bands. Some people just saw the names of the songs and bands, while others — the “social influence” group — also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by other people.

In this second group, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition, showing that people’s behaviour was influenced by the crowd. Even more surprisingly, when they ran the experiment again, the particular songs that became “hits” were different, showing that social influence didn’t just make the hits bigger but also made them more unpredictable.

Fig. 5: 1 million people can’t be wrong (from thenextweb.com18).

Some familiar examples of social proof on the web are, “People who shopped for this product also looked at…” feature and Amazon’s, “What do customers ultimately buy after viewing this item?”.

Persuasion architects also exploit this principle in the power of defaults. They know that the default setting of a user interface control has a powerful influence over people’s behaviour. We tend to see the default setting as a ‘recommended’ option — the option that most other people would choose in our situation. There are many examples of this being used as a black hat usability technique, where additional items (like insurance) are sneaked into the user’s basket.

Fig. 6: When you book a flight, RyanAir sneak travel insurance into your basket too.


“I’m more likely to act on information if it’s communicated by an expert.” Link

This principle is about influencing behaviour through credibility. People are more likely to take action if the message comes from a credible and authoritative source. That’s why you’ll hear people name dropping and it’s also what drives retweets on Twitter.

Fig. 7: A tweet from @smashingmag is likely to be retweeted because the brand has such authority.

For design guidance, we can turn to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab19 (founded by B.J. Fogg) as they have developed a number of guidelines for the credibility of web sites. These guidelines are based on research with over 4,500 people and are based on peer-reviewed, scientific research. Thanks to their research, we know that you should highlight the expertise in your organisation and in the content and services you provide; show that honest and trustworthy people stand behind your site; and avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem.

Persuasion architects exploit this principle by providing glowing testimonials on their web site. If it’s an e-commerce site they will have highly visible icons showing the site is secure and can be trusted. If the site includes a forum, they’ll give people the opportunity to rate their peers: for example, some web forums (like Yahoo! Answers20) let users vote up (or down) answers to posted questions. The top ranked answer is then perceived to be the most authoritative.

Fig. 8: UXExchange allows users to vote up and vote down answers to questions, ensuring that the most authoritative answer rises to the top.


“If it’s running out, I want it.” Link

This principle tells us that people are more likely to want something if they think it is available only for a limited time or if it is in short supply. Intriguingly, this isn’t just about the fear of missing out (a kind of reverse social proof). Scarcity actually makes stuff appear more valuable. For example, psychologists have shown that if you give people a chocolate biscuit from a jar, they rate the biscuit as more enjoyable if it comes from a jar with just 2 biscuits than from a jar with 10.

Persuasion architects exploit this by revealing scarcity in the design of the interface. This could be an item of clothing that is running short in your size, theatre tickets that are running out, or invitations to a beta launch. They know that perceived scarcity will generate demand.

Related to this is the ‘closing down’ sale. One of the artists at my friend’s art co-op recently decided to quit the co-op and announced this with a sign in-store. She had a big rush on sales of her art. Then she decided not to quit after all. So pretending to go out of business might be a ploy!

Fig. 9: Phrases like ‘only 4 left in stock’ seem to stimulate a primal urge not to miss out.


“I’m strongly influenced by the way prices are framed.” Link

This principle acknowledges that people aren’t very good at estimating the absolute value of what they are buying. People make comparisons, either against the alternatives you show them or some external benchmark.

One example is the way a restaurant uses an “anchor” dish on its menu21: this is an overpriced dish whose sole aim is to make everything else near it look like a relative bargain. Another example is the Goldilocks effect22 where you provide users with three alternative choices. However, two of the choices are decoys: one is an overpriced, gold plated version of your product; another is a barely functional base version. The third choice — the one you want people to choose — sits midway between the other two and so feels “just right.”

Fig. 10: BT’s ‘Unlimited broadband and calls’ options24 seem deliberately overpriced compared to the ‘TV, Broadband and Calls’ option presumably since it wants to to boost its share of TV customers.


“My attention is drawn to what’s relevant to me right now.” Link

This principle tells us that people are more likely to pay attention to elements in your user interface that are novel (such as a coloured ‘submit’ button) and that are relevant to where there are in their task. For example, there are specific times during a purchase when shoppers are more likely to investigate a promotion or a special offer. By identifying these seducible moments25 you’ll learn when to offer a customer an accessory for a product they have bought.

Fig. 11: After placing an order for a TV at the Comet web site, the designers encourage you to add other relevant items to your basket. This is exactly the right time to make the offer: once you’ve ordered the TV they remind you that you’ll need to install it.

Where to go next Link

Here are some great resources to find out more about persuasion architecture.

  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion26 by Robert Cialdini: This is the book that started it all. Although it was first published in 1984, it still serves as a wonderful introduction to the research carried out in the area.
  • MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy27: A series of reports and guides from a UK Government think tank on how to apply these principles to improving public policy.
  • Design with intent28: A blog by Dan Lockton, providing many examples of how designers use these kinds of technique to influence behaviour.
  • The behaviour wizard29: A wizard-style interface that helps you work out how to create behaviour change, based on a model created by BJ Fogg.
  • The Nudge blog30: A blog by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein that describes many examples of behaviour change based on what they call ‘change architecture’.

(ik) (vf)

Footnotes Link

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  2. 2 #trigger1
  3. 3 #trigger2
  4. 4 #trigger3
  5. 5 #trigger4
  6. 6 #trigger5
  7. 7 #trigger6
  8. 8 #trigger7
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DDavid Travis is a user experience consultant and trainer at Userfocus. He has a BSc and a PhD in psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist.

  1. 1

    Thanks for the article guys. I always love the psychological side of design.

  2. 2

    Great article. I will be checking out his books.

    Just to argue semantics…I’d rather call the fourth weapon of influence expertise instead of authority, simply because I have come across several people in my life in authority positions who don’t know their ass from their elbow.

    Thanks again.

  3. 3

    Brilliant article and food for thought here.

  4. 4

    Niels Matthijs

    November 29, 2010 7:30 am

    On commitment: actually, this also has a negative effect when people aren’t ready to commit. I usually stall when I have to “like” something to get to certain content on Facebook.

  5. 5

    I agree – nice article. Props to David. (and retweets.)

  6. 6

    It’s great to read articles by true professionals, like David Travis, in Smashing Magazine. I’ve been always compelled by the psychological aspect of amazing designs and the effect they have on people and why. I might be a victim of point #4, authority, now, but I’m going to add this article to my ‘design bible’ as a chapter to visit again and again.

    Thank you, David, for an amazing article.

  7. 7

    really interesting article, it’s really easy to understand and for me, the information is truly well explained. I learn reading what every day we see but we don’t analyze…

    thanks for share, awesome as always !

  8. 8

    Fantastic post, thank you.

  9. 9

    Jonathan Weiss

    November 29, 2010 8:06 am

    Very well done. Definitely something all designers and developers should think about.

  10. 10

    Really great! I always looked for an article like this at SM.
    I really think designers should know about this stuff.

  11. 12

    Yeah, Good one & Helpful.

  12. 13

    Very good article! Remembers me of what I read on Dan Ariely’s books. Congrats!

  13. 14

    thanx fr the valuable article

    very good

  14. 15

    Wouter De Bruycker

    November 29, 2010 10:50 am

    An article (very) highly influenced by Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” it seems. Nevertheless it’s always good to recap on these things once in a while.

  15. 16

    I think good design makes many of these automatic. It’s like a constant subtle voice in the back of your head saying “is the volume right?” To me it’s all noise control.

  16. 17

    very, VERY nice article. extremely interesting to see unlikely connections.

  17. 18

    It’s amazing how much of a tangible effect you can have on the consumer if you play the right hand. I’ve even found myself at times thinking “Oh man, only 2 left in stock!”

    Rationally, I could devise that “If it goes out of stock, it will be back in stock in time”, but the impatience in me usually drowns out that voice pretty quickly.

  18. 19

    Alexey Sinkevich

    November 29, 2010 1:04 pm

    Thanks! I have never thought about it – just did it.

  19. 20

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  20. 21

    An interesting read in this context is Susan Weinschenk’s “Neuro Web Design – What makes them click”:

  21. 24

    When you pay with Paypal, (on the “Pay Now” page) i cant find a Cancel button,
    as in the Ebay page “Commit to buy” page.

  22. 25

    Articles like this are the reason I read Smashing Magazine

  23. 26

    This is a very good article. I have a website that I have been working on and I was looking for something like this. It is hard to figure out what others like to look at and what influences their clicking.

  24. 27

    Great article. It’s hard to find a quality marketing article that ties in design; this is as good as any that I’ve read. Thank you.

    I actually just touched upon the psychology of reciprocity in a recent post. It’s a short video which showcases how powerful this persuasion tactic really is. I hope you enjoy:

  25. 28

    Senthil Kumar RSK

    November 29, 2010 11:35 pm

    Interesting article. Thanks :)

  26. 29

    More than interesting article. I’d love to see more of that!

  27. 30

    Articles like this are the reason I read Smashing Magazine

  28. 31

    Vishwakumar Patil

    November 30, 2010 2:05 am

    nice business tactics huh…
    gr8 post

  29. 32

    If you are interested in these techniques you should also consider reading Dan Ariely’s book ‘Predictably irrational’ (the summary can be read here: ).

    Also the (already mentioned) book by Cialdini is worthwile reading.

    There are lots of books covering this topic, and it’s a good thing that there is more interest in these items.

  30. 33

    Interesting, but God knows, I hope the term ‘persuasion architect’ doesn’t catch on…

  31. 34

    Brilliant article.. “sinister” yet effective techniques. Definitely something to think about, that’s for sure.

  32. 35

    Great read! I’m always amazed by the factors that influence our simplest decisions. I have a great lecture by Dan Gilbert (Harvard psychologist, if I remember correctly) that I listen to every once in a while to remind myself of how goofy our decision-making can be. It’s called “How to do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times,” from SXSW in ’06. It’s about an hour long and actually pretty funny. Not sure it’ll make it through the spam filter, but here’s a link to the mp3 if anybody’s interested.

  33. 36

    Agreed – really interesting read. I tried to post a link to an mp3 of a great lecture by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, but I’m sure it looked like spam. It’s called “How to Do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times,” and it deals with a lot of our human decision-making blunders in a really entertaining way. If anybody’s interested just email me and I can send you a link.

  34. 37

    Very interesting article. I think the part about Scarcity works especially well. People tend to think that they are getting an even better deal if they are one of the lucky ones that get that item before it runs out. That’s why on HSN & QVC they are always saying, “We only have XX number of these left.” It works!

  35. 38

    Great read, thanks a lot for the article! Also subscribed to blogs you recommended for further insight into the topic.

  36. 39

    Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  37. 40

    I rarely comment, but this article knocks it out of the park. A fast read + lots of great info. Thanks for the ‘Where to go next’ list of reading materials. I will be spending some quality time on that!

  38. 41

    From the enthusiastic response to this article, I get the impression that many of the readers here are in marketing. Or maybe they wish they were.

    Personally, I think my goal as a designer should be to present all the relevant information and control to the user in the most functional and usable manner, in the hopes that they can make the decision that’s right for their circumstances. I strive make this an aesthetically pleasing experience at the same time. That is design: form and function, not “how to mess with people’s brains so they make decisions that benefit us”.

    Employing exploitative techniques like these is what you do when the product or service being offered isn’t good enough to stand on its own merits. Unfortunately that will often be the case for many of us, as we are “guns for hire” in this industry and don’t always have the luxury of picking our clients. However, that doesn’t mean we have to stoop to underhanded and exploitative tactics.

    I thought this article was very interesting, but please people have a care before you run out and start manipulating your users.

    *In before the discussion devolves into a “but the competition will be using these strategies” justification-fest.

    • 42

      I was thinking the exact same thing but didnt want to pipe up

    • 43

      Lindsay makes a great point. The potential for manipulation is something that should trouble any ethical web designer.

      But the fact is, these techniques are out there. Not knowing about them won’t stop them being used. In contrast, by having the knowledge, we can achieve two things. First, we can inoculate ourselves from overt manipulation (and discourage our clients from using black hat usability techniques). Second, we can use these principles to encourage the right kinds of behaviour in users. For example, Dan Lockton’s blog (cited in the ‘Where to go next’ section) contains lots of examples of how to use these techniques to help people save energy and be generally less wasteful. Similarly, the MINDSPACE project provides examples on how to use these techniques to encourage people to make healthier lifestyle choices.

      A great example of this is in the power of defaults. Countries where organ donation is opt in (“Tick this box if you want to be an organ donor”) have massively lower rates of organ donation than countries where it is opt out (“Tick this box if you’d prefer not to donate your organs”). Imagine you were designing an online equivalent. You can’t possibly phrase this choice and think only about ‘form and function’. Your decision on which design to use literally has life and death consequences.

      • 44

        Yes, these techniques are out there and yes they are already being used. And as you say, this article merely explains and puts names on strategies that many of us are already aware of. However, when an influential site like Smashing Magazine presents these techniques as ‘weapons’ in a designer’s ‘arsenal’, you are implicitly condoning (and actively encouraging) their use by every designer and web developer out there. To not even touch on the ethics of using such techniques in our work is, in my opinion, a fairly crucial omission.

        Your reply to my comment cites some fairly lofty examples of how these techniques can be used for good. I can’t help but notice that the examples you used in the article itself were mostly related to selling things.

        • 45

          Lindsay, you seem to be advocating Security Through Obscurity.
          In some of our insurance forms we’ve actually put the incorrect answer first (select drop-downs, and no I could not choose radio buttons): this means users MUST read and answer that question before the form can be properly submitted (unchecked “I agree” checkboxes, “no” as the default answer to payment methods they must choose “yes” on due to the other options they’ve chosen, etc). It reduces usability a bit because more people will be getting an error message (and the form again with the selections to be corrected) but it gives us a legal leg-up: we can show that users MUST explicitly choose payment methods, extra services, and state they have read whatever they must read. In a litigious society, some businesses need to do this.

          Knowing these techniques definitely helps developers like me to know how to do the opposite. Sometimes it is necessary.

        • 46

          (this was not meant to be a reply but a stand-alone comment. But the requests fail. WP Ajax fail.)

          Many of the techniques described above can push people away as much as bring them in, as some of the other commenters have mentioned:

          – I won’t go through the work of “liking” something just to reach content. I’m too lazy and don’t like commitment to casual things. Similarly, I won’t fill out a form asking for much personal information just to test software in a free trial (see ALA articles by Luke Wroblewski about sign-up forms). I’d better already be convinced I want/need to try that item.

          – So what if others bought something else? If I don’t feel they are my peers or have similar interests (despite buying something I’m looking at), their votes for things may convince me to not even look at the product.

          – Expert has more influence than Authority (and when everyone upvotes incorrect answers it shows you how non-expert (or political) the “judges” are). Like the famous Yahoo Answer to “Why do my teeth hurt?”: “You probably have scurvy.” It was upvoted as Best Answer! It must be true! Or even the truth in the parody by Andrew Clover:
          If it’s real trust in real experts, it can work.

          – Samples are not gifts: they are options to test the quality of something before you spend for them, and one would think sellers would rather have fewer but happier customers (especially since customers are reviewing products nowadays, and they will be repeats) than more dissatisfied customers (they will not be repeats, but one-offs). And aren’t many of us obnoxious web users who actually *expect* things to be free as if they were our right or something? For reciprocation to work, it really does have to seem like a gift. It may work better if it’s unexpected.

          – Framing prices by posting high prices may convince the shopper that “this place is too expensive for me”… while making the lowest prices loud and obnoxious tells the shopper “these people sell cheap crap.” The technique likely needs the shopper to be already dedicated (the customer is already sitting down in the restaurant, hungry; the pre-existing customer of [telephone company] already knows that s/he wants internet) to work, and if you have casual visitors it may backfire.

          – “Seducible moments” may just clutter pages or slow down a shopper in the process of buying something. Last thing you want is a committed buyer who stops filling in their info halfway through the process due to confusion, suspicion, or frustration/hassle.

          If research is showing that these techniques work in general, that’s great: but as Jakob Nielsen tends to say, research done somewhere else with “average” users may not apply to you, your site, your business or your customers/visitors/readers. You have to do your own user research as well.

      • 47

        I’m afraid I also have to rise to the bait with these statements: “You can’t possibly phrase this choice and think only about ‘form and function’. Your decision on which design to use literally has life and death consequences.”

        I will re-iterate that as a designer, I feel that my role is to put that choice into the user’s hands with all the information they need to make an informed decision. The more important the choice, the more that we should make it as easy as possible for the person to make the correct choice *for them*.

        It’s possible to design that organ donor form without a default and without implied bias in the question itself, and still give people incentive and information to help them make the “right” choice.

        “Would you like to help save lives by being an organ donor?” with two unselected radio buttons for Yes and No puts the choice in *their* hands. Accompany the question with a clear infographic showing the number of lives saved because of organ donors, and the number of people who will die from curable illnesses because there weren’t enough donated organs.

        The problem with manipulating people to make the “right” decision is that what is right and wrong is often totally subjective. As a designer, what gives me the authority to make a decision for someone else as to whether or not *they* should be an organ donor?

        Basically, I think we should help them *choose* to do the right thing, not trick them into doing it.

        • 48

          Your argument/point makes this article a great read overall! I’ve raised similar concerns in other forums but have been blasted into orbit every time :) At least I know that I’m not alone

  39. 49

    “A tweet from @smashingmag is likely to be retweeted because the brand has such authority.”

    LOL. Really subtle…

    Anyway, I would argue that the book publishers don’t offer free sample chapters as a way of playing the reciprocity card. It could have started that way, but now free samples are not only expected, but demanded.

  40. 50

    What an excellent article! Persuasion architecture is an amazing field!


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