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Beyond Usability: Designing With Persuasive Patterns

You probably have a great product. You’ve done your usability deeds and you have a few core customers who regularly use your product. However, it just doesn’t stick out from the competition. It has a high bounce rate, only few users return, users abandon your product faster than you would like and, in general, users never get far enough to experience all that your product has to offer.

Building persuasive user experiences is like a relationship and you need to treat it like one. So, what do you want? A one-night stand or a lasting partnership?

There are three common challenges when engaging users with a product:

  1. Sign-up challenge: seducing your users
    People seem interested in your software, but aren’t motivated enough to give it a try. Communicate effectively and use persuasive design principles like scarcity, completion, tunneling, the endowment effect and social proof to move intention to action.
  2. First-time use challenge: falling in love with your product
    People are giving your software a try, but don’t know what to do or how to get started. Better onboarding and motivational mechanisms from game mechanics can help get people started and discover all your product has to offer.
  3. Ongoing engagement challenge: staying in love
    People understand the idea of your product and use it, but they’re leaving you before you’d like. Mastery, habits, communities, sandboxes and flow will lead to true intrinsic motivation and ongoing engagement.

Your approach to engaging users should be appropriately adjusted to the relationship you have with them. We will examine the three stages of a user relationship and what tools are appropriate to use for each challenge.

Sign-Up Challenge: Seducing Your Users Link

When we design our own products, we are often too familiar with their inner workings to be good at selling them. Designers and developers tend to focus on all the features, attributes and technical problems solved, all of which they have been preoccupied with for as long as they can remember.

When convincing users to try out your product, focusing on its features is a bad place to start.

Features Versus Benefits Link

To sell your product, you should focus on the perceived benefits from your customers’ perspective. Instead of falling into the common trap of describing what your product can do, explain what customers can do with your product. Don’t sell the product, but what your users can do with it. People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves, accomplished through using the product. This should be your value proposition.

Communicating Effectively: What’s In It For The User? Link

The more value and relevance your message conveys, the better. Focus on what the user is going to gain by using your product, rather than what they have to part with. Focus on how your product will help users achieve what they want rather than how much it costs or how long it will take to sign up.

A good way to start thinking from the perspective of your users – to step into their shoes – is to ask: what’s in it for them? Explain why it is important for potential customers to spend their precious time on your product. Explain how will it help users succeed. A good way is to actually talk to people.

Communicating Efficiently: Aristotle’s Three Persuasive Appeals Link

Aristotle’s thoughts on effective communication are over 2,000 years old1, but they’re still regarded as the basis of rhetoric today. His theories on public speaking are easily applied to digital user experiences.

Some of his basic heuristics (rules of thumb) are his three persuasive appeals2: how we must consider at least three different aspects of an argument to persuade our audience.

Aristotle’s three appeals were:

  1. Logos: appealing to logic
    Appealing to logos is typically done by using facts and statistics, quotations from experts, and informed opinions.
  2. Pathos: appealing to emotion
    Appealing to pathos is typically done by using emotional outbursts, stories about emotional events, or using picturesque and vivid language.
  3. Ethos: appealing to ethics, morals and character
    Appealing to ethos is typically done by showing practical knowledge, showing moral character (areté), or showing good intentions and goodwill.

When introducing your product, consider covering all three persuasive appeals. Are you using convincing facts, telling exciting stories about how you have helped others, and are you showing off your track record? Let’s examine how the three persuasive appeals can help you improve your user experience.

Logos: Appealing To Logic Link

You appeal to logos when you have a sound argument that in itself will demonstrate that something is the case. For example, if your blog has a lot of readers, establish social proof3 by displaying how many. If you have helped customers earn money, show with facts and figures how much.

Pathos: Appealing To Emotions Link

Given you have established trust and your argument is backed up with facts and statistics, the use of emotions can be the tipping point of a user’s decision. Appealing to emotions can help reinforce positive arguments and dampen negative arguments. Examples of using pathos to persuade include overstatements, narratives about emotional events, figurative language, or conveying connotative meanings. You may use pathos to appeal to humor, fear, an unjust cause, imaginations, and hopes (when you present your solution).

Ethos: Appealing To Ethics, Morals And Character Link

Your audience will judge your propositions as being truer and more acceptable if you establish your credibility. Establish social proof with the power of authority4 through testimonials from credible customers; highlight how you are similar to your potential customers to induce liking5 and, in turn, their goodwill. Small adjustments6 like showing badges of affiliated industry organizations or well-known customers will help boost your credibility.

Persuasion Must Be honest Link

You may think of these practices as being psychological triggers that exploit human behavior in some sort of questionable way, somehow similar to mind control. You might also wonder if these tactics are ethical and if they are at all something you are ready to use.

If you do have these concerns, you have the right attitude, but let’s clear up one important truth: what I explain in this article is how to tap into existing triggers based on desire, which is already part of who we are as humans. You aren’t going to convince people they want something that they would otherwise not be interested in.

Persuasion must be honest and ethically sound to continue its effect beyond just a brief encounter. If you approach persuasion in a dishonest way when trying to get your users to sign up, it will eventually backfire when users find out once they start using your product.

Closing The Deal Link

Now your users are interested in what you have to offer, your next job is to close the deal. There are a number of techniques that will encourage users to make a decision, but we will focus on these four:

  • Using the principle of commitment and consistency.
  • Utilizing the power of scarcity.
  • Close off detours by tunneling your users.
  • Provide samples: give a piece of the action up front.
Commitment And Consistency Link

People want to act in a manner consistent with their stated beliefs and prior actions. We like to be seen to honor our commitments consistently7; as somebody who can be counted on, instead of somebody who flip-flops, and is without self-control.

By getting users to state their position, declare their intentions, or show a small gesture of support, they will generally act in a manner consistent with these small requests, even if later on they’re asked to make a much larger, but consistent, commitment. Getting just a small commitment from your potential customers, like signing up for your newsletter or liking your page on Facebook, will make them more likely to purchase from you in the future. Also, getting a small commitment is its own test, whether people are interested in the product in the first place.

Scarcity Link

If something is promoted as being scarce, it can be perceived as more desirable and of more value to us. Simply put, people want more of those things they can have less of. The scarcity principle8 focuses on persuading people to make a decision, within a small window of time, by emphasizing the future unavailability of something. If you give people all the time in the world to make a decision, they will either take up every minute of that time, or never make a decision at all.

The successful application of the scarcity principle in design and marketing campaigns curtails the amount of time users take to think about their decision, and instead tries to push people into making a decision immediately. However, there’s a careful balance to be struck; stressing users too much will make them run away.

Tunneling Link

Close off detours from the desired behavior without taking away the user’s sense of control. Tunnel users through a decision process by removing all unnecessary functionality that could possibly distract their attention from completing the process.

Lead users through a predetermined sequence of actions or events, step by step. When users enter a tunnel, they give up a certain level of self-determination – once they have entered the tunnel, they have committed to experiencing every twist and turn along the way.

Guiding users through a process or experience provides opportunities to persuade along the way. The tunnel provides opportunity to expose users to information and activities and ultimately to persuasion.

Give Users A Piece Of The Action Up Front Link

Allow users to access a limited set of features, functionality or content without an account. As a consequence of interacting with your product, it is natural for users to give up information about themselves or their context, which is why the distance to actually creating an account becomes shorter and shorter. The traditional approach requires account registration9, but lazy registration10 can help build up users’ investment and endowment11.

It is easier than you think to deliver value to your users without them signing in. Some options include limited content, limited time trials, limited capacity, drafts and guest checkouts.

Some of the most common design metrics are registered users or paying users. If you share these goals, you will want to prompt users for conversion at some point, but make sure that point is after you have delivered value.

Trying to convert users before delivering on value only increases the chances of them leaving you before you get the chance. Don’t let someone into your product and have them realize that all of the features are locked until they sign in; that won’t feel very free. Engage users early into your product and get them past the need to supply their information to register or sign up.

Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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Anders Toxboe is a writer, blogger, developer, and designer. He manages Digital Development for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and cares deeply about building engaging user experiences, which he blogs about on Previously, he managed Digital Development for Bonnier Publications and before that worked as a developer at the same place.

To learn more about persuasive patterns, visit his blog at, buy his Persuasive Pattern card deck, or take his video course on building persuasive products.

  1. 1

    Awesome stuff, Anders.

    For anyone who’s interested in BJ Fogg’s behavioral model, I would also recommend some of his other resources, such as the Behavior Grid:
    He also runs small in-person bootcamps.

  2. 2

    Cairo Cananea

    October 15, 2015 8:30 pm

    Great article. Consumer-centered mindset is the way to get things done. We need to help our customers to get they job done easily.

  3. 3

    One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time! Thank you!

  4. 4

    Thank you

  5. 5

    i saw your talk about that topic in munich @ push conference. really appreciate to have a written version of it now! thanks :)


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