Persuasive design is the practice of using empathy to anticipate and meet your users’ needs before they arrive at your website.

By considering the types of potential customers your company is offering services to, we can design features into various parts of the online experience to influence their judgement and persuade them to act.

What Is Persuasive Design?

The word ‘persuasion’ is a bit divisive. A quick thumb through a thesaurus provides less than flattering synonyms such as coax, cajole or seduce.

When it comes to web design, many are quick to make associations with ‘dark patterns’, which are designs intended to hijack our hardwired unconscious biases for profit at the expense of the unknowing customer.

It’s important that we state at the outset that coercion or deception is not what we mean by good persuasive design. We want to frame the conversation in a far more positive light.

Using persuasive design, or ‘nudges’, involves convincing a user towards making a decision that will be mutually beneficial.

In other words, it must work in people’s best interests. These are subtle interventions that guide a choice without restricting it.

We want to make the decision-making process as easy as possible, but not encourage self-defeating behaviour.

Using a ‘shove’ instead of a ‘nudge’ would be a very short-sighted approach that wouldn’t do your customer retention rate any favours.

So, what does good persuasive design look like? How can we make sure we’re doing it correctly?

For the rest of this post, we'd like to highlight some of the core steps to take when persuading your customers online, starting with getting to know them.

Understanding Your User

Perhaps the single most important factor in good persuasive design is exercising your empathy.

It may seem obvious, but there’s a huge difference between the needs of someone shopping online for a new pair of trainers and someone looking to take out their first mortgage, so why should their experience be the same?

In part, how persuasive we are comes down to how well we can anticipate the expectations users have in their minds and how well we can cater to those expectations.

The more we can tailor the experience to our customers’ goals, needs and frustrations, the better chance we have of convincing them.

This is one of the many reasons we’re always talking about the value of customer personas.

Personas are an excellent stand-in for your real customers. If you spend the time to research and develop a set of core personas, it makes every design decision far more tailored to the target user.

Without them, we end up designing for anyone, no one, or even worse, the highest-paid person’s opinion.

So, take the time to flesh out your personas, do the research to verify your assumptions and then put them to work by sharing them with everyone who has a role in shaping the customer experience.

Getting the Bigger Picture

Creating a persuasive experience starts long before a prospect arrives at your website. Every interaction a person has with your brand is an opportunity to build trust and establish a connection.

If we have no idea of the steps a typical customer has taken on their journey to your website, we can’t hope to understand what they will be thinking, feeling and doing when they arrive. Or, perhaps even more importantly, how they will likely behave once they leave.

If we begin to map out the broader customer journey, we may discover opportunities.

For instance, a lot of our users are spending time on social media, so we can use this space to prime our target audience with messages before they arrive on site.

Map out the customer experience from start to finish and you will see that the average customer’s thoughts and feelings can swing from excitement to anxiety, or from contentment to disappointment.

Part of our job when persuading is to get the timing right for when they will be most receptive to emotional triggers.

For example, messages of reassurance will work most effectively when prospective buyers are in the final stages of assessment and need the decision to be de-risked.

Whereas messages of gratitude and reward may work most effectively when persuading existing customers to make a repeat purchase.

Principles of Persuasion

When it comes to persuasion, is there anything that we can confidently say is true for anyone, no matter what the service or product?

Well, yes to an extent. There are three things that are almost universally applicable to all brands: USPs, reassurance and incentives.

Figuring out what makes you unique, having a clear value proposition, and then displaying them clearly on the page means prospects won’t need to waste any time understanding your offering.

Highlight your benefits. Make them more compelling than your competitors. Display them prominently.

Secondly, reassurance can often be the deciding factor of why a user converts or not. There are dozens of small signals that users are unconsciously looking for to decide whether or not they can trust you.

These include evidence of happy customers, reviews, testimonials, ratings, third-party endorsements, logos from trusted payment providers, a secure website and even visual aesthetics.

Lastly, an incentive can be the difference between buying today or never returning.

The perception that the customer is getting something for nothing invokes a strong sense of reciprocity.

The ‘power of free’ is a compelling incentive, for many users the offer of free delivery or a free trial will be just too tempting to ignore.

Get Out of Your Customers’ Way

We recently asked one of our eCommerce clients what they thought was the most important aspect of persuasion.

They argued that the most important ingredient is simplicity: “If we want to persuade our users we just have to get out of their way and make it as easy as possible for them to do what they want.” And there’s a lot of truth to that.

Ultimately, persuasion is not about tricking the user, it’s about helping people get to where they want to go. They’re almost always going to take the option that gets them there the fastest.

What that means for your online experience is good usability and UX hygiene. Be aware that your site speed, accessibility, readability and learnability will all affect your conversion rate.

If users can’t figure out your navigation or struggle with reading your font on mobile, they will simply go to your competitor who has invested the time into fixing the problem.

So, spend the time uncovering what’s getting in your customers’ way, what’s tripping them up, so you can ease their path.

Final Thoughts

Digital marketers sometimes like to pretend that persuasion is more of an art than a science, but it’s not.

Persuasion is first and foremost about trying to understand who your audience is and where they’re coming from.

Once you have a grasp of their perspective, you can adapt your experience to meet their expectations.

The rest is a journey of building trust, clearly communicating your value, and not irritating them with poor usability.

Walk a mile in their shoes and you’ll spend a lot more time persuading and less time selling.