The Persuasive Web and the Effect on UX
Persuasion is used throughout the web and comes in many different guises. In his book “The Psychology of Persuasion“, Robert Cialdani identifies six key principles of persuasion: Reciprocation; Commitment and consistency; Social proof; Liking; Authority; Scarcity.
These principles are used in many different areas of life and often by sales people. I will be looking at how these techniques are used in the context of web applications and the effect they have on the user experience:
Reciprocation: repay gifts
Cialdani identifies that people are more likely to perform an act if they feel they have received something first. An example of this would be mail order TV ads where they give you free gifts with your purchase, including “no questions asked” money back guarantees. This triggers the reciprocity principle and the consumer is more likely to buy the product.
There are many examples throughout the web of actions that could trigger the reciprocation effect. Many sites offer you limited time access to an application or limited functionality for free. Whether the aim of this act is to trigger the reciprocation principle is debatable. The main aspect in a lot of these situations is that they are also giving you the opportunity to try out the product before you buy.
Commitment and Consistency: follow through.
Cialdani found that “People are more likely to follow through with a purchase if they have already committed to it either orally or in writing”. I believe to a lesser extent this technique still applies online. Actions that could trigger this commitment could include agreement via clicking a button or ticking a checkbox. Research also shows that even when the original incentive, such as a 20% off promotion is removed or the price goes up, people are more likely to buy as they have already made the commitment and decided to buy.
I have come across examples where consumer is promised something for free and, as they go through the very extended process, at the end you are asked for a monetary commitment. Good (or bad) examples of this approach can be found on Dark patterns where it is referred to as Bait and switch.
Another take on this is when, during a purchasing process, a small processing fee or similar is added. Even if customers notice this, they probably won’t bother dropping out due to the commitment and consistency rule. Also take a look at the various online luxury stores that are popping up such as achica.com. They ask you for a monetary commitment up front before you even see what products they have.
Social Proof: when in doubt, follow the crowd.
People are more likely to complete tasks when they see other people doing them. Various experiments have displayed this effect. One famous example of this are the Asch conformity experiments, that demonstrate the power of conformity.
Looking towards the web we can see the social proof principle used frequently – for example, ratings and review options on many e-commerce sites. Amazon’s “people who bought this item also bought” is a good example of this. Twitter also shows what’s “Trending”. People see these popular links and often click on stuff they otherwise would never have thought about. The most prevelant example of this is probably ability to sort by “best selling” which is available on many e-commerce sites.
Liking: believe those you like.
It has been found that people are more likely to do things that people they like do. Many social media tools now use this knowledge, showing you what applications/products other people within you social groups use. One of the best known examples of this is Facebook and its “thumbs up”. This technique can also be applied in varoius other ways: Applications can be given a friendly face and personality. People are more likely to believe what the site tells them. Sites also often use a strong customer identity that matches your own – so you identify with them.
Authority: be part of the team, listen to experts.
People tend to obey authority figures. The most famous experiment displaying this is probably the Milgram experiment which measured the willingness of participants to obey figures of authority. This if often used in TV ads: For example toothpaste ads where a dentist recommends a particular brand.
Many review sites use this idea. On Gamespot, you can see what score professional reviewers have given games.
Scarcity: value what is rare.
Scarcity of a product can drive demand for it. Putting a limited period on something will encourage people to purchase it.
Many e-commerce sites now use this information to their benefit. Amazon is again another good example: “Hurry only 2 left” it screams at you – well you don’t want to miss out do you?! Another example of this technique can be found on lifestyle stores (achica.com again). Products are only available for a set period of time making them more desirable.
To review these six techniques are just one way of categorising persuasive techniques. The techniques are used in many different ways, some scenarios seem quite acceptable, others sit in a very grey area morally. There are instances where these techniques are abused and used to deceive and manipulate the user.
Keep an eye out for sites that use these techniques, if you are aware of them then you can make sure that you make an informed decision and not get caught out. For more information on the principles of persuasion see Robert Cialdani’s book. Although on a slightly different topic a special mention goes to: dark patterns (wiki.darkpatterns.org/). This site details user interface techniques that are used to deliberately mislead the user.
Influence, the classic book on persuasion, explains the psychology of why people say “yes”—and how to apply these understandings. You’ll learn the six universal principles, how to use them to become a skilled persuader—and how to defend yourself against them.
Receive updates via RSS mail
Subscribe to the email newsletter for the latest articles and valuable resources, sent out every second Wednesday.