Three Reasons Why Persuasive Design Isn’t Enough to Influence Change

By Colleen Jones

Published: September 6, 2010

Persuasive design is designing to change people’s behavior, or actions.”

Persuasive design is designing to change people’s behavior, or actions. This design movement fascinates me, and I’m jump-up-and-down thrilled to see it get more attention lately. Forbes recently ran an article about Jon Kolko, creative frontman at Frog Design, and his perspective on persuasive design. Kolko noted:

“Good design is design that changes behavior for the better. I think it needs to take into account the context of the environment, of the human condition, the culture, and then attempt to make the things you do—make us do them better, make us do better things. It encourages us to change the way that we live.”
—Jon Kolko [1]

While there is a lot to like about using design to improve our behavior and our world, achieving that is a tall order. If persuasive design is going to work on a large scale—and I want it to work—it needs to be complete. Here are three reasons why persuasive design is not enough to make all of its good intentions come to life.

1. Persuasive Design Doesn’t Address What We Think

“Persuasive design does not take attitude into account much in its planning, even though attitude is powerful.”

Persuasive design focuses on people’s actions, or behavior, not their attitudes, or what they think. Why? The relationship between action and attitude is hard to measure. Despite that, most people—even academics—assume there is some relationship between what we think and what we do. In fact, there is a long-standing theory in persuasion circles called the theory of reasoned action. The evidence supporting it is considerable. [2] But, it will likely remain a theory, because it is difficult to prove entirely.

To me, the connection between what we think and what we do is like gravity. It is a long-held theory. As a theory, it makes sense and has supporting evidence. However, the exact nature of this complex relationship might be impossible to prove once and for all.   

Here is my challenge. Although gravity is a theory, we still respect it. We plan for it. We don’t jump out of an airplane without a parachute because gravity is only a theory. A parachute like that shown in Figure 1 lets people defy gravity.

Figure 1—Gravity—a theory we respect

A parachute lets us defy gravity

Persuasive design does not take attitude into account much in its planning, even though attitude is powerful. One famous example of attitude affecting action is the scientific taste test between the soft drinks Coke and Pepsi. (I mean the scientific one, not the tests for commercials.) When the taste test was blind, people chose Pepsi. When the taste test was not blind, people chose Coke. In other words, people’s attitude toward Coke was so strong, it drove people to choose Coke over their actual taste preference. [3] Brain scans showed that taste tests in which brands were visible actually triggered different brain activity than the blind taste tests did. That’s potent. Can we really afford to ignore it?

2. Persuasive Design Leaves Out Content

In my experience, content affects both what people think and what they do. Figure 2 shows a few examples.

Figure 2—A sampling of content types that affect attitude and action

Content types affecting attitude and action

When we include content in our planning for persuasive design, we gain greater opportunity to influence. Let’s look at an example from the health industry. CNN recently featured an exciting self-help treatment Kaiser Permanente launched to help people recover from an eating disorder. [4] Central to this treatment is content—a guide on how to overcome binge eating—and occasional coaching. As CNN described:

“When we include content in our planning for persuasive design, we gain greater opportunity to influence.”

“Half the participants were assigned to treatment as usual. They received notifications about available nutritional services, medical treatments, healthy eating, and weight management programs.

“The other half were assigned to a self-guided program for 12 weeks, detailed in a book called Overcoming Binge Eating … and met individually with a health educator for eight sessions. Under the program, binge eaters kept food diaries and wrote what triggered their behaviors.”

Researchers found statistically significant results in favor of the self-help treatment. After a year, 63% of the patients in the self-help treatment had recovered from binge eating—compared to only 28% of the patients in the healthy eating program. The right content and coaching changed these people’s eating behavior. Are we letting content be all it can be in our persuasive designs?

3. Persuasive Design Gets (Mis)Applied As Optimization

“We’re told to optimize our text, buttons, and pictures until conversion rates rise. But, we’ve had years to experiment. If testing and tweaking optimizations worked so well, wouldn’t the global conversion rates have improved by now?”

To this point, I’ve discussed some lofty ideas for improving the effectiveness of persuasive design. Now, let’s look at how people currently apply persuasive design.

To make a sale or get a lead, many Web sites use persuasion like a pushy salesperson, aiming high-pressure ploys at people as if they’re stupid targets. One trick I love to hate is a countdown timer on a sign-up form. Every tick of the timer tries to rush me into signing up. Such tricks act like prods to push people along. But do they get results?

Let’s look at one important type of results—conversion rates. Conversions occur when users take an action you want them to take, such as when they sign up for a service or make a purchase. The Fireclick index measures global conversion rates. This index has hovered around 2–4%  since 2003. That means, most of the time, people don’t convert. These results are disappointing.

How can we improve our conversation rates? Ever since multivariate testing tools came on the scene—such as Google Website Optimizer in 2006—the industry producing them has encouraged us to rely heavily on testing design optimizations as the answer. We’re told to optimize our text, buttons, and pictures until conversion rates rise. But, we’ve had years to experiment. If testing and tweaking optimizations worked so well, wouldn’t the global conversion rates have improved by now?

Now, allow me to clarify. I’m not saying conversion rates are unimportant. And I’m not telling you to stop optimizing and testing your landing pages. I simply mean that this focus on tactical design isn’t enough to bring big results. I also doubt that focusing only on tactics is what proponents of persuasive design intend. However, if we say persuasive design addresses only behavior, we shouldn’t be surprised to see practitioners focus on optimizing conversions, the most coveted online behaviors.

If we say persuasive design addresses only behavior, we shouldn’t be surprised to see practitioners focus on optimizing conversions, the most coveted online behaviors.

To better persuade, let’s also address what people think, and let's do it with content. What if we created quality, relevant Web site content that attracts people who already have some interest in our products, services, or causes? That would let us avoid manipulation altogether. In fact, Brian Eisenberg, a best-selling author in interactive marketing, has suggested that driving a lot of the wrong people—people who have no interest—to our Web sites is a major reason conversion rates stay so low. [5]

Beyond attracting the right people, I like how content strategist Shelly Bowen explains the possibilities for content in “The Big Picture: End-to-End Content Strategy.” [6]

The sum of the parts is larger than the whole. Just consider content marketing, content strategy, branding … each piece might be brilliant, but still not drive results. A cohesive message and creative across all content delivery vehicles will help raise awareness and need and make you memorable and trustworthy.”—Shelly Bowen

So, What Now?

“To accomplish the good intentions of persuasive design, we need to do more than design to get people to act. We need to create content that influences people’s thinking in a positive way, motivates them to act, and makes acting easier.”

To accomplish the good intentions of persuasive design, we need to do more than design to get people to act. We need to create content that influences people’s thinking in a positive way, motivates them to act, and makes acting easier. As the UX design industry pays more attention to content, we’ll be better prepared to influence what people do and think—and have a real chance at making the world a better place, online and off.

References

[1] Laneri, Raquel. “Jon Kolko on Design That Changes Human Behavior.” Forbes, June 15, 2010. Retrieved July 1, 2010.

[2] Hale, Jerold L., et al. “The Theory of Reasoned Action.” The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice. James Price Dillard and Michael Pfau, eds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002.

[3] McClure, Samuel, et al. “Neural Correlates of Behavioral Preference for Culturally Familiar Drinks.” Neuron, Volume 44, Number 2, October 14, 2004.

[4] Park Madison. “Self-Help Treatment Effective for Binge Eating, Researchers Say.” CNN, April 1, 2010. Retrieved July 5, 2010.

[5] Eisenberg, Bryan. “The Average Conversion Rate: Is It a Myth? ClickZ, February 1, 2008. Retrieved August 20, 2010.

[6] Bowen, Shelly. “The Big Picture:End-to-End Content Strategy.” Pybop, October 21, 2009. Retrieved July 24, 2010.

4 Comments

Colleen,

Thanks for writing a thoughtful piece that extends the dialogue related to interaction design—the design of behavior, with the intent to drive change.

I don’t agree with two of your three points.

First, you said that “Persuasive design focuses on people’s actions, or behavior, not their attitudes, or what they think.” Noting that you are using persuasive design and interaction design interchangeably, I beg to differ. From an academic perspective, you might consider the four orders of design, offered by Richard Buchanan, that drives from signs, to things, to actions, and to thought. The last order describes system thinking, related to organizational change, and empowered by strategy and discourse. From a pragmatic perspective, I would consider a directive toward attitudes fair game in contexts of branding, policy making, advertising…. Any design researcher I know attempts to understand aspirations in order to drive design change.

Next, you said that “Persuasive Design Leaves Out Content.” That’s simply not true, as interaction design is fundamentally about value structures, where generic placeholder content simply doesn’t work. Design is all about details, and those details are commonly in context and content. I’ll give you an example: Project M included the development of prototypical HIV testing material. The content for this material is the instructions, and the form factor, and the illustrations, and the other various design elements—color, composition, and type. And the content was defined in excruciating detail. It had to be; content and context largely speak to value systems, which drive interaction design work.

I completely agree with your final point, that “Persuasive Design Gets (Mis)Applied As Optimization.” We can do a better job of articulating and constantly reminding our colleagues of the value of interaction design on an emotional and fundamental level rather than on a process optimization or usability level.

Thanks,

Jon

Got it. Like it. Thanks.

Note that persuasive design is just plain hard. It is hard to get a grip on context factors, attitude, and appropiate content. Just as it was hard to defy gravity back in the day. (Note here that only a guy named Leonardo Da Vinci could come up with this kind of stuff.)

Hi Jon,

First off, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule for offering such thoughtful comments. I appreciate it, and I’m sure the readers of UXmatters do, too.

We might have to agree to disagree on points 1 and 2. But, I think point 3 is related to, if not somewhat caused by points 1 and 2. So, if you agree with 3, maybe you’ll concede a bit about the other points. At the least, you can’t blame a girl for trying.

Regarding reason 1, I tried not to get too academic. But, if we need to get academic, the article “Interactive Technology and Persuasion” in The Persuasion Handbook explicitly recommends focusing on behavior over attitude. Much of the work content does is influence attitude. When persuasive design focuses on behavior, it excludes much of the work related to attitude and, consequently, much content work.

About using persuasive design and interaction design interchangeably, I see persuasive design as the whole kit-and-kaboodle, from surface graphic design to deeper interaction and system design. I like the idea of including organization design, too. I find that runs in parallel with content being everything from the surface copy to the deeper structure, system strategy, and organizational process to create and manage content.

Regarding reason 2, I see two ways that persuasive design leaves out content: how it’s discussed and how it’s applied. From the example you described and everything I’ve heard, Frog Design doesn’t leave content out of its application. That’s awesome. However, I still don’t see or hear much about content when persuasive design is discussed. (In fact, your comments might be one of the first times I’ve seen such a discussion. I look forward to more.) I suspect that, if I did a text analysis of how many times the term content is mentioned in persuasive design articles and books, I’d come up with a low number. Maybe even a big, fat zero. I’m concerned about content being excluded—intentionally or not—from the discussion for three reasons: 8d22ab7a50d2d19432d6e3897cd3689a

Even though we might have to agree to disagree, I see having this discussion as huge progress. Thanks again.

Hi Tommy,

Many thanks. I couldn’t agree more that persuasive design is just plain hard. But, I think it’s worth the effort.

Colleen

I really enjoyed this article, thanks.

I found particularly interesting the third point. Optimizing and tweaking design widgets and calls-to-action is not the only way to improve conversion.

Yes, you can test which label works best—whether this is Buy or Proceed—but are you sure that buying or proceeding is what the user really wants to do on your page?

As you write, we must look at the situation from a higher level—and gathering insights into users’ attitudes, needs, expectations, and journeys is one of the best ways to do that.

Great article!

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