The Fundamentals of Persuasive Design – An Interview with Brian Cugelman, PhD

Persuasive Design

Every once in a while something jumps out at you and screams learn more. That’s exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago when I saw a tweet about the “Psychology for Digital Behavior Change” workshop taught by Brian Cugelman, PhD. Brian has a unique perspective on digital marketing combining hands-on experience building websites with scientific research on human behavior. It’s not often that we get to take a step back from A/B testing, optimization and click-through paths and explore the why behind what our buyers are doing digitally.

Brian’s course put the why front and center. Best of all he was kind enough to indulge some of my curiosities in a follow-up interview.








The notion of Persuasive design is really compelling – In its simplest form what is it?


Brian: Persuasive design is used to achieve specific influence – it could be used to influence an attitude, convince someone of a fact, or incent them to a specific action. It differs from other design, like what you might see in an art gallery, it it’s focus on persuasion, shifting someone’s beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. The key to remember is that you must break down the behavior you want to modify into modest steps. When we focus on the end goal, for example buying a product or applying for enrollment, the thing that differentiates persuasive design from aesthetic design, is that we’re using design to specifically lead people towards these outcomes.

Marketers are often guilty of focusing on the end goal without considering all the little steps it takes to get the audience to come along with you. Perhaps the simplest but most powerful advice you gave in the workshop was not to ask people to do two things at once. This could be a good way to challenge us into modest steps.

Brian: People have limited time, and from a practical point of view, asking someone to change their habits or use new solutions has to cut through a massive amount of day-to-day competition and distractions. The cognitive load developers are trying to place on their audiences can be quite high. The more we can offer specific and simple steps for our audience, the more likely they are to act.

During the course you said something very scary. Good landing pages that drive action should be updated thousands of times per year. While I certainly understand that ideal, it sounds very impractical for most organizations. How does the average team apply the principle on a scaled down basis?

Brian: That is a scary reality! The point really is to test heavily upfront and go until it’s good enough. Work always reaches a good enough point and once it is reliably achieving your goal you can scale back the frequency of change. But never neglect it fully. There is a great Buddhist quote “You never step in the same river twice”. Similarly, you never step in the same marketing stream twice—as the market is in constant flux. The intensity of your effort will change, but if you never make changes overtime you may exhaust your audience and bore them. It’s like a joke you’ve heard a million times before – it stops being funny. But don’t worry – you don’t have to come up with a new joke every time. Making small contextual changes keeps things fresh without a burdensome effort. Also, it’s not a bad idea to rethink your messaging every so often, perhaps with new communication strategies, and communication tools. And I highly recommend to constantly test new ideas on a small scale, so that when it comes time to refresh your communications, you have a good list of new ideas that have already been proven to work.

The use of props to build credibility through imagery really stuck with me. For example the use of glasses to make someone look “smart”, or a stethoscope to make a doctor seem more qualified. Maybe even a library full of books to make a legal office seem more successful.

Brian: We see this technique used everywhere and don’t even recognize it is happening most of the time. By putting a little effort into asking a few sample audience members to rank pictures you’d be surprised how much you can learn. But don’t make the mistake of asking them if the person is credible. Instead ask a small sample of users to rank your photos, with these three questions.

  1. How honest does this person look?
  2. Do you find this person attractive?
  3. Is this person an expert on the subject?

Authenticity is also really key. In microseconds our eyes process an image and determine if it looks “off”. Is this really their office? Does that outfit look right? Are the body proportions correct? People tune out if the image doesn’t feel real to them. Try to avoid fake smiles, bogus contexts, and pictures of people that clearly have no connection to the business. As a rule of thumb, an authentic lower quality image that reflects your reality outranks a professionally looking clip art image that is clearly not related to your businesses.

In addition to my chat with Brian I wanted to share some of what we discussed in class. There are some wonderful basics that are easy to forget. Keep these top of mind when developing digital assets.

  • Humans are community driven beings that want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. See, there really is a reason McDonalds bragged for years about serving millions. But even if you don’t have lots of customer logos to showcase, you can help your audience understand they are part of a broader community such as expose testimonials, encourage the community to comment, ask for guest blog posts.
  • When we want someone to take an action – whether that is to read a research paper, buy a product or sample our new recipe, the audience has to believe they can take that action. Scientists call this “self efficacy”, but we frequently call this “self confidence”. Even small actions require that we acknowledge to ourselves that we have the time to not only take the action but also benefit from it. Why bother downloading that white paper if I’m never going to have time to read it? How can I possibly get excited about a conference if I don’t think I can convince my boss to pay for the travel? That form is going to take me forever to fill out, I’ll never be able to answer all of those questions? Don’t ever take for granted someone’s self-confidence. Help them build it with useful context.
  • When my children were very young and I had to travel for work I’d bring them home a little treat. Often it was some silly gadget I picked up at a trade show booth. They loved them. Then they started to expect a surprise. Every time I came home from work travel they welcomed me with knowing eyes. And the sparkle of joy I had once received wore off. They had gotten used to the reward and it was less exciting. The same principle applies to our digital behavior. If every time I flung my Angry Bird it scored big points the game would get boring and fast. Random rewards keep us motivated when placed at critical junctures. Scientists call this a “variable reward”, and it’s the same psychology used to hook people on slot machines, which we can also apply to building technologies that are good for people.
  • Don’t try to be too clever by inventing new user interfaces or ways of interacting with technology. Innovative design requires that your audience learn a new way of operating, which means you have to educate them, build their confidence, and boost the cognitive load you’re asking them to accept. It’s a barrier to your desired outcome, so be careful.
  • Ever hear of decoy pricing? It’s the practice of setting very high or very low offerings that surround the price you really expect the audience to pay. It provides context that makes the price feel like a deal, by offering a decoy product that’s not just expensive, but low value—basically a “rip off” that makes your desired product look like a “steal”. Framing doesn’t only happen in pricing. Every desired action is incredibly important to contextualize. Humans feel loss greater than we feel gain but being too negative can backfire – so tread lightly. 

The industry is a buzz with excitement around the concepts of Big Data. Yet all of our personalization and gamification strategies are incomplete until we understand not only what people are doing, but why. The workshop was a great reminder about what makes our audience act, think and behave.