The field of persuasive design involves the use of design strategies to influence user behavior. It includes both positive persuasive practices, as well as negative or deceptive persuasive practices. Leveraging human psychology through common heuristics must be implemented ethically in order to maintain the integrity of businesses, products, and the field of UX design as a whole.
This article explains the details of persuasive design, common persuasive principles and patterns, and how to determine if your designs are deceptive or persuasive.
Table of contents
What is persuasive design?
In essence, persuasive design refers to the deliberate design strategies aimed at influencing user behavior toward a particular outcome. The primary objective of persuasive design is to harness someone’s innate psychology in order to persuade them to choose a specific outcome or participate in a particular activity.
The human brain is highly intelligent, and therefore strives to be naturally efficient. It constantly seeks ways to conserve energy, creating shortcuts to help us quickly and efficiently make decisions. This cognitive phenomena is known as a heuristic, which is a mental shortcut or rule of thumb the brain uses to simplify the decision-making or problem-solving process. These heuristics enhance our decision making abilities, but can also lead to errors in judgment or other personal biases.
In the context of design, persuasive design is generally implemented through the medium of products or services that users interact with. Common design patterns and principles that solve recurring problems are often based on psychological research.
Persuasive design principles
The key to motivating users toward a desired outcome lies in finding the balance between increasing motivation and reducing friction. When making decisions, individuals tend to consciously – or unconsciously – ask themselves three basic questions:
- How much time or effort is this going to take me?
- How much will this cost me?
- How does making this decision benefit me?
Addressing these questions can provide designers with valuable insight into creating persuasive designs. The following principles are key factors that influence the answers to the questions stated above, and are commonly leveraged in persuasive design.
- Scarcity: the state of being scarce or in short supply. This principle is used to persuade individuals that supply is limited and encourages them to take action before it’s “too late” and they miss out on an opportunity.
- Social proof: evidence presented by others that helps reassure users that their decision will lead to success. The validity of another’s experience provides comfort that if users decide to make a similar choice as someone else they are likely to experience a similar outcome as them. E.g. product reviews.
- Authority: an individual or entity recognized as having expertise or power in a given domain. When making decisions, users will almost always select a choice backed by authority (unless a combination of other factors outweigh the costs and benefits of the decision).
- Reciprocity: the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. Individuals tend to feel obligated to repay favors in order to feel as though they haven’t taken advantage of another’s generosity. E.g. leaving a positive review after being heavily discounted or supported.
- Recognition (instead of recall): the brain’s tendency to identify something encountered earlier rather than recalling it. Recognition is a shortcut that saves energy and can be used to tailor user experiences. E.g. a ‘people also buy’ section that includes necessary utility attachments for a product users may not remember to buy separately or on their own.
- Sunk cost: costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. While these costs shouldn’t always influence future decision making, people tend to feel attached to a particular decision or outcome simply because of the time, energy, or money already invested.
- Convenience: the state of being able to make a decision with little effort or difficulty. Users may often be persuaded to make a decision based solely on convenience. E.g. pre-generated restaurant tips at a higher percentage vs. having to calculate manually.
While these and other principles are important in persuasive design, they must be employed ethically. The golden rule of persuasion states that designers should not try to persuade someone of something they wouldn’t want to be convinced of themselves.
What is deceptive persuasive practice?
Persuasive design is not inherently deceitful, but when it is employed deceptively, it becomes a harmful practice. Deceptive persuasive design is the manipulation of user behavior, achieved through an understanding of human psychology, for the benefit of businesses rather than users. This unethical practice, commonly known as “dark UX” or “dark pattern” design, erodes users’ trust in products, websites, or brands.
The Nielson Norman Group states that a pattern is only dark if it ”intentionally trick users into doing things they don’t want to do. This is different than persuasive UX which nudges users without deception”. Dark UX patterns are viewed as detrimental to the field of UX design.
Although dark pattern design may sometimes be perceived as “successful” design because it drives users toward a particular outcome successfully, it does not justify its unethical nature. The spectrum of persuasive design practice ranges from evil to commercial, and from motivational to charitable.
Deceptive design continuum: Evil -> commercial
Persuasive design continuum: motivational -> charitable.
The ethical implementation of persuasive design is crucial to maintain trust with users and uphold the integrity of the field of UX design.
Deceptive design patterns
To apply the principles of persuasive design in an ethical manner, it is crucial to recognize and understand the common “dark” UX patterns prevalent in the industry today.
When users set out to achieve a particular outcome, but a different and undesirable outcome occurs instead.
This occurs when a company “baits” users with a product or service at a low price point to attract customers, but then “switches” the offer to a more expensive or less desirable product or service once the user is committed to the purchase. This is generally viewed as unethical and is even illegal in some countries.
This dark pattern refers to expenses not immediately apparent or visible at the time of purchase or decision making. These costs may not be stated in the price of a product or service, and are often easily overlooked.
Hidden costs can include fees, taxes, maintenance or shipping costs, or other expenses. E.g. purchasing a ticket or item believed to be a certain price, but then adding on additional fees before submitting a purchase. Hidden costs may also occur after an initial purchase, through costs of repairs, replacements, or upgrades.
Forced continuity is the practice of enrolling a customer or service into an ongoing subscription without their explicit consent or understanding.
The goal is to bill customers for services even if they no longer wish to pay for them. Forced continuity typically results in loss of trust and frustration with a product or business. E.g. offering a free trial but requiring payment information up front in order to set up automatic renewal or payment without clear notice.
The concept of a “roach motel” is the idea of something being very easy to get into, but difficult to get out of. The term dates back to a 1980 marketing tag line for insect traps, “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out.”
This dark pattern is similar to forced continuity, but different in that it makes getting out of a subscription or service almost difficult or impossible. E.g. hiding cancellation services or contact information that a user needs in order to cancel or remove a service.
Sneak into basket
The “sneak into basket” technique involves sneaking additional items into a user’s shopping cart in order to induce purchasing more than initially intended. It employs the brain’s decision making heuristic that because a user has already made the decision to purchase, they are more likely to make or be okay with another purchasing decision.
This technique commonly utilizes opt-out radio or checkbox buttons, and is often seen in e-commerce and online shopping portals.
The human brain is wired to recognize patterns and take shortcuts in decision making. The “trick question” dark pattern takes advantage of this tendency by reversing common patterns, tricking users into doing something they wouldn’t normally opt into or agree to.
E.g. changing a common privacy or terms and condition checkbox into a recurring payment or donation. This technique can be particularly deceptive and unethical because it preys on trust and familiarity with known patterns.
Confirmshaming is a manipulative technique where users are made to feel guilty for not opting into something.
It’s employed to push users toward certain actions (like subscriptions or upgrades) by implying that not doing so would make them appear foolish, selfish, or ignorant. E.g. messaging that reads similarly to “No thanks, I don’t like donating to refugees.”
How do I know if my tactic is Deceptive vs Persuasive?
To determine whether the design tactics you’re employing are deceptive or persuasive, consider the following:
- Intent: what’s your intent behind the tactic? Is it to benefit the user or the business?
- Transparency: how transparent are you being with the user? Are you up front about the implications of their decisions and the outcomes of the actions you’re encouraging them to take? If you’re intentionally hiding information or misleading users, you’re likely employing deceptive practices.
- Consequences: what are the ultimate consequences of the action you are promoting? Are users aware of the potential negative consequences of their choice?
Considering these factors can help you determine whether your practices are deceptive or persuasive. Building trust with users should always be a priority. However, whether you’re certain about your practices or not, it’s important to test early prototypes and obtain feedback from users. UXtweak makes it easy to test your prototypes for free, and offers additional tools to help gather feedback as needed.
In conclusion, persuasive design is an effective practice, but must be used ethically. When focused on the benefit of the business alone, persuasion becomes deceptive. There are many principles that can influence users toward a specific outcome, but using deceptive patterns erodes trust with users and the product or business they interact with.
Designers need to keep in mind the golden rule of persuasion: don’t try to persuade someone of something you wouldn’t want to be convinced of yourself.