May 11th, 2012

Persuasion vs Deception: Tactics on the web

As a newbie in the field of UX and having read tons of blogs and articles, one that caught my eye was ‘why UX practitioners should embrace Persuasive Design.’ Keen to explore further, I stumbled upon a a methodology that seems to have very little buzz around it, hence my debut blog post.

Pioneered by Human Factors Inc. ‘PET design’ uses psychology to encourage, engage and influence users to commit to a task or action.  Broken down, the three factors involved are:

Persuasion: Triggers to make people commit, take action and drive them to certain elements. This evolves from understanding human behaviour, for example, discovering beliefs or barriers that prevent people from completing tasks or following a particular action

Emotion: Emotional response during a process. Emotions can drive our buying decisions, advertising can do this well by almost ‘creating’ a problem that never existed previously… then offering a product to solve a problem.

Trust: Refers to the sites credibility, assurance and removal of risks. People like to do business with people that they trust and once this is established, we can then use research based methods of persuasion to entice users further.

This methodology, used alongside designing for usability can work together in creating successful online interactions, although the two can conflict, for example, our usability perspective (e.g. making the site simple to use) might differ from our persuasion perspective (e.g. feeling engaged and committed).

“If people can’t find something they can’t be persuaded by it… but [even if] people can do something doesn’t ensure that they will.” Eric Schaffer, HFI

So, let’s look at some characteristics of PET design:

Sequencing: We are more likely to take action when complex tasks are broken down into smaller chunks. Take Facebook for example, when creating a new profile, it manages to take you through all of it’s features through simple steps in the hope that you will share as much information as possible. Small tasks seem quick and easy to do so we’ll probably end up sharing more then we intended. We don’t really need to add our favourite films and TV shows, because quite frankly no one cares… but we still do.

Completion: We like a challenge and feel the need to complete what we started. LinkedIn shows an example of “progression dynamic” where the progress bar encourages us to explore all of LinkedIn’s features in return for more discoverability and a perfect 100% complete profile. This can seem like an achievement, so hats off to those with a 100% profile… a pat on the back is well deserved. It also makes goals seem more reachable. The progress bar will only disappear when our profile is complete, acting as a constant (nagging) reminder to share more information.

Value: There is an incentive or great deal if we complete our task. Pocket Gems’ Tap Zoo (or Farmville) is popular for this reason, once we’ve invested time into creating our zoo, we value it more highly and don’t want to lose all of our work. That means more time is spent on the app and constant challenges make us strive to complete them in order to earn more coins or XP (eXperience Points). The app also encourages us to return through offering a daily bonus of coins that increases each day you come back… what a lovely reward for all that hard work.

Similarity: Trusting people who are like us or similar to the people we like. The Armani Facebook page uses Rihanna as a celebrity endorsement as well as shows my friends who have also liked this page on the right hand side. I’m a Rihanna fan and my friends like Armani so this brand has got to be good right? Another tactic used here is hiding ‘exclusive to Facebook’ content so that Facebook users have to like their page in order to see it. This shows a public commitment to the brand to all their friends on Facebook through displaying on their Newsfeed. Good news for the brand… but I think it  kind of abuses the system and can potentially embarrass you in front of your Facebook friends!

Social proof: When uncertain we take cues from other people. Here, uses testimonials, reviews, ratings and pop ups showing last bookings and who’s viewing right now. This gives us a sense of trust. “Ohh, so if other people have been and are booking this hotel, it must be legit.” We can be easily persuaded by what other people say, especially if they have already visited the place we are interested in.

Scarcity: This tactic includes time limited offers or limited availability. Groupon’s time constraint (above) means that users have just a day to decide whether to buy the coupon to get the ‘great’ discount. If we don’t get it now, we will never be able to in the future. Here, we are left with a choice… get it now or regret it later. This taps into our impulsive buying trait… only with many of these ‘deals’ we’re only given 24 hours to cancel.

And one more example: Here’s is a nice little persuasive tactic from Comparing the price of the service / product to something we all buy on a regular basis that we consider inexpensive helps justify the cost. I can afford to miss out on two lattes a month for the price of this service.

The PET methodology should be used responsibly, not in a purposely manipulative manner intended to trick or fool users. Many tactics out there today are deliberately crafted to usually increase conversion rates, this is also known as Dark Patterns. Though legal, these are usually unethical and exploit users.

So let’s look at some common techniques used here:

Friend’s spam: Some apps and companies gain access to your social accounts and will auto post on your status as if it was you or send invites to friends. Take Cityville for example, a popular application that can get extremely addictive. Although it does tell you that it may post as you on your wall, you are faced with a choice, have access to the cool new app everyone’s talking about and let them spam your wall or don’t play the app at all… decisions… decisions…. Well not really, most people don’t realise the amount of access they are allowing these apps once they’ve clicked to play.

Disguised ads: Adverts that make users click on them by disguising them as something else. A campaign by Brazilian based company, Olla Condoms was disguised as friend requests from your ‘unborn son’ on Facebook. Receiving a friend request from someone with our own name can entice us to want to know more, especially as seeing our own name draws our attention and we are not used to this kind of marketing. Once accepted, there is a link to Although creative, it’s not really ethical is it? … Just a little creepy!

(Image: Steven Hall,

Sneak into basket: Sneakily adding additional items like insurance or complimentary items to your basket without you adding them. Users must uncheck the items or they will be charged for them. Websites that use this tactic typically make it look like you ‘need’ them. Here, cheekily added on £40 to the original price. Behind the link ‘Standard Booking Conditions’, for those of us that would click the link, we will see a checkbox to remove this additional fee, but many customers would assume this fee is standard, not optional. Also we must opt out if we don’t want Holiday Insurance, then opt out for the second time once another pop up appears to clarify that we do NOT you’re insurance!! Oh the guys at hoseasons are so good to us aren’t they?

Trick questions: For example, opt in and opt out checkboxes that appear to be one thing but in fact is something completely different, or uses clever wording to confuse the user. In this example from, the first sentence asks us if we would like to receive information and to ‘tick to opt out’, do we tick the yes or the no checkbox? This exploits the principle of the power of defaults, we scan when we read on the web and may only read the first few words of a sentence, most people will assume clicking ‘no’ means we don’t want to receive information but the ‘opt out’ wording could mean that clicking no, actually means that we don’t want to opt out.

And the final examples: Not so long ago many of us would have seen this notification from Google to add a phone to our account. The wording used scares and tricks us into thinking we need to give them our phone number otherwise something drastic may happen- ‘lose access to your account’, ‘hijacked’. Many of us wont notice the small link at the bottom to skip this step.

The final example comes from the Tap Zoo app again, many apps now ask us to rate, like, invite or sign up in return for something. This plays on our want to achieve and targets us when we’ve spent a fair amount of time on the app, therefore, we’re more likely to spam our friends for a few more coins. These tasks do not disappear until you do them… annoying right?

So, to sum up, watch out for dark patterns and use persuasion tactics wisely. It’s important to relate to your brand values and ask yourself how do you want your brand to be perceived? What is the experience vision for your users?

Fool us and we won’t come back… no skin off our nose.


Further Reading

B.J. Fogg: Persuasive Technology

Dan Ariely: Gamed 

Harry Brignull: Dark Patterns

Robert B. Cialdini: The psychology influence of persuasion

Spencer Gerrol: Power of PET design / PET toolkit

Stephen Anderson: Seductive interactive design

About the author

Ameri strives to create great user experiences and is also interested in mobile application UX. @AmeriRee
  • AndyAA

    Excellent read. Thought provoking and challenging. Il be using some of these to tips in my next projects!