Our approach to persuasive design at HFI—called PET design™, which stands for Persuasion, Emotion and Trust—has its basis in a deep understanding of customers’ subtle emotional triggers and employs a rigorous set of new, research-based methods and techniques. This article presents a strategic overview of HFI’s take on persuasive design, or PET design.
To be clear, persuasive design is not entirely new. It builds on the work of many researchers and innovators over many years. Systematic and scientific methods of persuasion have been in use since 1920, when Dr. John Watson applied conditioning methods to sales of Pond’s Cold Cream and other products. Continuing that innovative tradition, HFI’s approach, methodology, and insights are advancing the dialogue about and practice of persuasive design and demonstrating that online persuasion’s time has come.
User engagement rather than classic usability is what sets effective Web design apart today. While great usability is a baseline requirement, there is far more involved in engaging customers on a Web site than simply making sure they can find specific content and perform particular transactions. Today’s mandate is to move beyond traditional usability. Instead of designing only for what visitors can do on a site, superior Web design is now responsible for determining what customers will do—whether it’s to
- buy a product or service
- ask their doctor about a new drug
- decide to vote for an issue or a candidate
- donate to a particular cause or philanthropy
With its foundation in usability best practices and psychology, PET design is the result of HFI’s extensive research, pilot programs, and client engagements with Fortune 500 companies. It is based on a new model that employs a holistic view of user experience design in which persuasion objectives lead to business success.
The Critical Persuasion Objective
Most e-commerce sites used to be the equivalent of bricks-and-mortar stores with barbed wire fences. Customers could barely find their way in, no less find what they were looking for or complete a transaction and check out with ease. Now that usability practices have become widely adopted and the barbed wire is gone, it’s necessary to go beyond just providing an open door. We need to create an online shopping experience that is persuasive.
The online shopping experience must be motivational for customers, not just easy and satisfying. A rating of high satisfaction does not ensure a conversion. We need to create an experience that motivates action.
Once a customer has entered a Web site, we must create a sense of trust, or there will be no transaction. Users assess a site’s credibility in a moment, then also make a longer-term evaluation of its trustworthiness. Two different sets of markers in a site’s design provide the basis for these two evaluations:
- Superficial markers like layout and graphics provide the basis for fast, thin-slicing evaluations.
- The quality of information, credentials, and references are the focus of more involved evaluations.
Only once we’ve established trust can we apply specific research-based methods of persuasion to drive a customer to make a transaction, or convert—that is, to achieve the persuasion objective that is the focus of PET design. For example, a usability engineer can make it easy to purchase insurance online. But ease of use is not the main driver of why people buy a policy—rather they buy a policy because a site has persuaded them to buy it. This could be accomplished by appealing to someone’s sense of security, safety, and responsibility. What might happen to their family if they don’t buy insurance? Through persuasion methods, we might make a policy seem inexpensive or make someone feel obligated to buy a policy.
Persuasive Design and Research
For companies and designers, persuasive design changes virtually everything about planning a Web site. Standard usability research and testing are often no longer adequate. Persuasive design is fundamentally more qualitative, deep, and subtle than usability.
Consider this scenario: Meet Sam, who’s a usability test participant for a site that sells spa products. Even though Sam is not a target user, researchers could still evaluate whether Sam can find particular spa products on the site and purchase them easily.
However, persuasive design also requires examining how participants feel about buying a product, whether they would buy, and whether a site motivates them to buy. So Sam—a 50-something-year-old male with two 20-year-old sons, no daughters, and no interest in spa products whatsoever—is just about useless for a PET design evaluation of a spa Web site.
Who the test participants are, what questions the test facilitator asks them, and how she frames the questions—all matter a great deal more in a PET design evaluation. The research and testing are more exacting, because we’re looking at human preference and decision-making. So we need to go further in our research. We probe the depths of customers’ drives, uncover their deep beliefs and feelings, and understand the blocks and fears that keep them from taking particular actions.
Emotion, Decision-making, and Optimizing Engagement
The thinking processes that guide our commercial choices are complex and emotional, not logical and linear. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, deals with the primary role that snap judgments play in consumer decisions. Gladwell cautioned marketers to be careful about using what people say while sitting around a table responding to what-if scenarios.
While Gladwell’s point is a good one, at HFI we’ve shown it is possible to design for persuasion by modeling what the deep parts of the human brain are doing—going further than simple what-if scenarios. We’ve also found it’s possible to do so in a methodical and scientific manner that is informed by research and validation rather than guesswork. Understanding this framework is one of the keys to persuading someone to make a decision. We must model the implications of a user’s old brain—the amygdale, hippocampus, and basil ganglia. Charting a user’s completely unconscious cognitive processing can be as critical as looking at beliefs and feelings. This is how PET design results in desired actions and, therefore, meets business objectives.