UX and psychological persuasion in design (Part 1)

by Jack Josephy on 15 October 2015

In 1957, a market researcher called James Vicary made an announcement that deeply troubled the world. He claimed that 45,699 cinema-goers in New Jersey were exposed to subliminal messages during movies, telling them to 'Eat Popcorn' and 'Drink Coca Cola'. During films, only a single frame would display the message, and while the viewers wouldn't pick up on it consciously, it was claimed that their subconscious did, resulting in a 57.5% increase in sales for popcorn and an 18.1% increase in sales for Coke.

Even though it was later revealed that Vicary made it all up to save his failing marketing business, it caused a panic and raised ethical concerns. Were we going to spend the foreseeable future being manipulated and tricked by corporations trying to sell us products? Would psychological persuasion/manipulation be the new strategy for customer experience?

Luckily that doesn't seem to be the case just yet. But the implications remain interesting, particularly as UX continues to grow in importance, playing a key role in effectiveness of products and services. UX design strives to make things easier for users, but what is its relation with psychological persuasion?

UX design looks at how users interact with a service, while psychological persuasion looks more closely at the 'why'.

What's the difference between UX and psychological persuasion in design?

When we come together here at Webcredible on a new project, we always consider a business' goals, and compare those with what the business' users need/want to do. We see the overlap between those two areas as what UX is all about: helping the business deliver the best experience possible to its users.

But other elements are also at play, with one key issue being the users' motivation. This is where persuasion design starts to come in. While UX can cover the 'how' of people interacting with your website/app/digital channels, persuasion design also looks at the 'why': why are people coming to your site, and why do they take the actions that they decide on?

How do UX and psychological persuasion relate to each other?

The above definitions make sense in terms of drawing dividing lines, but what's the relationship between the two areas? There are a few models that I think are worth considering here, one of which is BJ Fogg's Behavioural model. It looks at the relationship between motivation and how difficult a task is to do. Put another way, what's required for an individual to take action or respond to an issue or task?

The above graph shows the relationship between the two variables:

  • If you're on the curve and something triggers you, you're likely to take some kind of action to fulfill your need or want.
  • If a task is very hard to do, and your motivation is low (i.e. you aren't on the curve of 'action'), then it's unlikely that you'll do something to complete the task.
  • The curve tails off both vertically and horizontally: if the task is too difficult, no amount of motivation will help users complete it. Alternatively, if motivation is too low, even the easiest action won't be taken.

I think this model helps us make sense of how user motivation and the complexity of a task come together. As UX designers, we strive to make tasks easier, moving users further to the right on the curve.

However, there's something Fogg's model doesn't consider: motivation isn't static. When someone visits a website for example, they may not be immediately motivated to purchase the service it provides. It could be their first visit, and their motivation to buy could be low, only rising as they get more information.

This is where I feel the AIDA framework comes in handy.

Originally put together as a model to understand how people might be affected by print advertising, I think it also works nicely as a model of the user's "motivation journey" as they go through a business' website or app. After getting their attention, users' interest is raised, before it is gradually converted into desire. Finally, they may choose to act and fulfill a website's call to action, which could be just one action or a series of actions e.g. click on a 'contact us' link, or go through multiple stages in an online purchase.

Combining models of user motivation

Here I've put together a simple diagram showing how I see motivation changing over the AIDA journey. This model is not a literal interpretation of someone's internal motivation level, but a representation of an ideal. Motivation is more static during the initial few seconds of attention and likewise once the user has decided to take action it often remains quite static unless barriers get in the way. But at some point, the user's motivation rises as they become more interested and desire to complete the goal more. In reality if we could measure motivation levels over time the line would oscillate a lot more and would not follow a smooth curve.

Motivation increases over time on this journey until the user hits the point of action. As designers, what can we take from that? If we want to make sure users can hit the point of action as easily as possible, there are two options to consider:

Option 1: UX design

We can make the task simpler for users, so less motivation is required to accomplish it.


Option 2: Psychological persuasion

We can try and persuade users and increase their motivation.

The first option is our bread and butter here at Webcredible. We want users of services to have an easy and great experience when they use our clients' digital channels. But what kind of persuasion tactics can designers use to increase motivation?

This is where I feel questions of ethics start to come into the picture. For example, is it too manipulative for e-retailers to list that only x amount of stock is left of a product? Or to include a time limit for visitors to complete a purchase to get a small discount?

Stay tuned for Part 2 in this blog series, where I'll try and look at answers for these questions, as well as practical examples of methods designers use to increase users' motivation on each step of the AIDA journey.

Chris Peacock says 05:15am 29 Oct 2015

Love your simplicity and thoughts on this. The fascinating area for me is helping people take actions and go through an AIDA process for each stage they are at in the overall AIDA process; essentially using direct response marketing and quickly going though a micro AIDA to raise their hand and raise their hand and take action at the awareness stage when they first visit the website.

Aaron Y says 11:30pm 09 Dec 2015

Saying that B.J. Fogg's Behavior Model "doesn't consider [that] motivation isn't static" is a mischaracterization. You can see on the video on Fogg's website that his model takes into account a dynamic model of motivation that fluctuates in waves: http://www.behaviormodel.org/motivation.html

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