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Book Review: How to Get People to Do Stuff

May 21, 2019

Cover: How to Get People to Do StuffSusan Weinschenk is known for her psychological approach to User Experience. She holds a PhD in Psychology, worked with Human Factors International, and created a following by portraying User Experience through the lens of brain science. Weinschenk is a well-known speaker and the author of several books that discuss the application of psychology to User Experience, including How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation.

In descriptions of User Experience, it is common to see phrases such as ease of use or removing friction. We often talk about reducing barriers to user goals. However, we can hypothesize that User Experience exists on a continuum, ranging from difficulty in achieving goals, to making things easier or even enjoyable for users, to pushing users toward a specific outcome, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Continuum of User Experience
Continuum of User Experience

Book Specifications

Title: How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation

Author: Susan Weinschenk

Formats: Paperback, Audiobook, Kindle, MP3 CD

Publisher: New Riders

Published: March 21, 2013, First edition<

Pages: 216

ISBN-13: 978-0321884503

From Persuasion to Manipulation

Empathy with users is central to UX design. As UX professionals, we incorporate empathy and user-centered thinking into our design processes, which we ultimately intend to serve the needs and goals of users. While we can easily see that this approach should be well received by product-development teams—whether creating a Web application, mobile app, or physical product—many UX professionals work in marketing departments that have responsibility for conversions. Such conversion-centric organizations apply User Experience to further the goals of marketing and persuade prospective customers to perform an action their organization wants.

In these environments, UX professionals may find themselves advocating for the customer in ways that are not aligned with the goals of their marketing colleagues. However, by understanding the research behind persuasion, these UX professionals can advance the needs of their organizations through their skills.

Weinschenk’s Approach

Evil by Design organizes methods that nudge users toward a particular goal that the owner of an experience has defined around seven deadly sins. Coincidentally, in How to Get People to Do Stuff, Susan Weinschenk also organizes her methods into seven drives, or deep-seated motivations, that influence users’ behavior. These include social motivations such as wanting to belong, positive and negative reinforcement, instinct, and others.

Weinschenk presents the psychological basis for many of our behaviors and attitudes, explaining in an accessible manner how our physiology and psychology affect and control us. As Weinschenk explains, it is well understood that team-building exercises or encouraging people to work and play together, even recreationally, engenders a positive feeling among them and bonds them together, strengthening the ties that create a high-performing team. While we might attribute their performance to shared goals or familiarity, we can also identify a specific hormone—oxytocin—that is released when people work together or bond by performing activities together. Following her explanation of this concept, Weinschenk offers a brief summation and describes how to apply this concept. For example:

Strategy 11: To get people to do something, first bond them together as a group with some kind of laughter or synchronous behavior.”

Familiar Territory

Certain topics in How to Get People to Do Stuff are likely very familiar to readers who have researched emotional intelligence, basic sales techniques, or presentation methods. Being aware of body language and mimicking the behavior of others are well-known methods of establishing rapport with others and developing likability.

In particular, Chapter 8, “Tricks of the Mind,” will be very familiar to people who have read Designing with the Mind in Mind and Thinking Fast and Slow. In this chapter, Weinschenk discusses a variety of optical illusions and cognitive challenges that illustrate the limits of our cognitive abilities. She also provides advice on how to create persuasive experiences by leveraging our knowledge of these limits. For example:

Strategy 88: When you want people to make a quick decision, make the thinking easy for them.”

Evolutionary Basis

Understanding the psychological background behind decision making gives us insights into why we make the choices we do. Understanding that the fear of loss is a much stronger motivation for people than the prospect of gain can reveal tactics that we can use to encourage particular behaviors.

Therefore, while positive psychology and happier messaging can encourage certain behaviors and even create sustainable behavioral change, using negative imagery that arouses fear can lead to sudden, dramatic changes. For example, consider the messaging and imagery of political speeches or propaganda. So, while acknowledging this might make us uncomfortable, stirring up fear of loss or death is much more effective in manipulating people than conveying positive messages. Which of these messages do you think would resonate more strongly?

  • Universal healthcare would enable more people to live longer, happier lives at a lower cost to everyone.
  • Universal healthcare would take away your right to choose the doctor and treatment you want, and the bureaucracy of administering universal healthcare could lead to delays in your care and, possibly, your untimely death.

As Weinschenk describes:

Strategy 57: “Understand that people are more motivated by the possibility of loss than the possibility of gain.”

I mention politics only because we’ve seen how people’s aversion to loss frequently influences policy discussions—whether about healthcare, higher education, or taxation. The messaging tactics of political speeches also demonstrate another concept: the strongest messages appeal to our emotions rather than relying on facts.

Ethics

No book on persuasion or behavior modification would be complete without at least a brief discussion of ethics. In Weinschenk’s words:

“Some say that if you’re trying to get people to do something, no matter what it is, then that is unethical. Others say that if you’re trying to get people to do something that’s good for them (eat healthier, quit smoking), then it’s OK. I fall somewhere between these two ideas.”

Weinschenk makes the point that you can’t persuade someone to do something unless some small part of them already wants to do it. Using the methods that her book describes simply encourages people to do what they already want to do. They’re looking for a reason to justify their desire.

Of course, this is not the same thing as deceiving people. Clearly, hiding information or telling outright lies—as we often see in dark patterns—crosses an ethical boundary.

Conclusion

How to Get People to Do Stuff is a collection of established and accepted theories on the psychology of incentives and deterrents. This book does not break new ground or have its basis in new research. However, it does provide a concise, well-cited background on human behavior along with recommendations for putting these ideas into practice. The book is a good compilation of existing research on the psychology we frequently use and refer to in our work. 

Lecturer, UXD Program at Kent State University

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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