The Persuasive Web and the Effect on UX

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Persuasion is used throughout the web and comes in many different guises. In his book “The Psychology of Persuasion”, Robert Cialdini 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

Cialdini 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.

Cialdini 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 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.

Ability to sort by "best selling" on Amazon

Ability to sort by “best selling” on Amazon.

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.

Liking on Facebook

Give the “thumbs up” on Facebook and you will persuade others more easily.

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 ( again). Products are only available for a set period of time making them more desirable.

Scarcity of a product can drive demand for it

Putting a limited amount of time or products will encourage people to purchase the item. Only 7 left in stock!

Round up

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.

Although on a slightly different topic a special mention goes to: dark patterns ( This site details user interface techniques that are used to deliberately mislead the user.


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – By Robert B. Cialdini

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.

David Barker

David Barker, or Sheff, is a user experience designer and author of, often heard repeating the mantra "When you do things right, people won't be sure you’ve done anything at all" when deprived of tea. He can be found championing UX on twitter, and when not online, studying psychology or practicing Savate. You can follow him on Twitter.

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No responses yet to “The Persuasive Web and the Effect on UX”

  1. Great article David, thanks! At work, we’re planning on redesigning the webshops of our biggest publisher and I already pointed out this article to my colleagues for future reference.

  2. Newman says

    Cialdini is fantastic. I have a recorded lecture of his ‘The Power of Persuasion’ talk on a CD in my car. I’ve not read any of his books, but he is a very engaging speaker. I can only imagine he is a good writer.

    Thanks for illustrating these techniques. Very useful for design professionals. It’s seems the informerical and ‘hard sellers’ have figured these out – I wish the Non-Profit and NGO type would learn as well. What about Schools and teachers? – that would be cool if they jumped on board with these techniques.

    When done right, it feels natural and pleasant. When done wrong, we feel ripped off and swindled.

  3. @Newman – I found his books really interesting. I think it’s important that as many people as possible know about these techniques and in particular how they can be abused. The more knowledgeable you are the more informed a decision you can make on your actions.

    I think on an individual basis we each have our moral line, where some techniques fall one side and others on the “dark patterns” side. A good way to consider whether the approach you are using is acceptable is to put yourself in the situation of the user:

    would I be happy that the e-commerce site automatically adds extras peripherals to my order? – probably not.

    Would I be happy that the e-commerce site suggests what other users bought with the item? Yes.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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