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The Seven Psychological Principles of Persuasive Design

On Episode 20 of the Edge of Innovation, we discuss the psychology of design with researcher and author Victor Yocco. Learn more about Victor and his new book Design for the Mind, here: http://www.victoryocco.com/

Show Notes

Learn More about Victor Yocco
Download Victor’s new book: “Design for the Mind”
(Psssst! At checkout, enter code “39yocco” for a 39% discount!)



Paul: This is the Edge of Innovation, Hacking the Future of Business. I’m your host, Paul Parisi.

Today we have the pleasure of speaking with design researcher and author Victor Yocco about his new book Design for the Mind: Seven Principles of Persuasive Design. Over the next few episodes we’re going to explore the principles taught in Victor’s book and really try to get to the heart of psychology and web design. Victor, welcome.

Paul: Alright. I’m going to test you a little bit here. There’s seven psychological principles of persuasive design. Can you name the seven?

Victor: I can try to. Yeah, I think I can. It hasn’t been that long since I finished writing it. So it was something that was on my mind at all times. So first, I would lead with saying that I don’t feel like you need to use them all. And I certainly don’t think that somebody needs to try to follow them perfectly. I definitely think that they are pick-and-choose and use pieces and parts.

So, the way I came up with the principles, though, and the order that wrote about them in, there is planned behavior, which is really talking about the decisions people make when they’ve got information and they’re thinking about maybe making a big purchasing decision or something that’s sort of well thought out. And that comes from what’s referred to in the academic literature as the theory of planned behavior. And it’s a very popular psychological principle that looks at health behavior a lot when it’s being researched. Like, how do people try to quit smoking? How do people try to lose weight if they are more, really, obese? What are things that motivate people to either engage in certain behaviors or not? And so that’s one of the principles.

And then I followed that up with one that’s sort of the opposite, which is how do people make split decisions, or what’s often called risky decisions, where you don’t know…the outcome isn’t guaranteed. You don’t know. There’s a percent involved. So a lot of that research comes out of economics and behavioral economics. Like, when do people determine it’s good to gamble their money or play the lottery?

And that’s really one of the lines of research and one of the principles that fascinates me the most, because it gets into this whole realm of what’s called heuristics or mental shortcuts. And basically, it’s tools and techniques that people use to make decisions quickly when they either don’t have all the information or it’s not something that they view as being worth dedicating all their thinking resources to. And there’s dozens of heuristics that can be applied to design. And it’s things like people value a loss more than they value a gain. And so they are constantly risk averse, or they want to avoid a loss. And so how can you—

Paul: By “value,” do you mean attach a higher significance to a loss?

Victor: Yeah. Yeah. So, like, if you lost five dollars, you would feel worse than the incremental level of joy you would experience if you found five dollars. So, you would want to avoid losing something much greater than the act of gaining something would promote behavior. And so that’s where concepts like double or nothing come around. Because somebody loses something, they’re willing to risk something to just try to get back to what they view as even.

Or there’s the… There’s dozens of heuristics. Another one that I really like is called the sunk cost fallacy, or also there’s another term for it, but it slips my mind right now.

Paul: That’s okay.

Victor: What it is though, is people attach a high value to something that they’ve been involved in for a long per of time, even once it has stopped giving them back their return on investment. A real life situation would be something like a relationship that’s going bad. Some people have a lot of trouble leaving bad relationships because they look at the past and they say, “Look at all this time I’ve invested.” And where, from an economic standpoint, what they should be doing is saying, “I need to cut my losses and move forward.” But from an emotional and a not looking at all the facts as being equal, the way economics researchers would say a rational person would, they say, “Oh, but you know, I would lose all this time I spent.”

How that translates to things in the design and in the technology world is that a lot of projects that were originally budgeted and scoped at a certain length of time and a certain dollar amount, quickly becomes obvious that they’re going to go over budget in a lot of ways. And people can justify hanging on to these projects that lose a lot of money. And it’s because they say, “Well, we’ve already invested four years. If we cut the losses now, what will that mean? All that four years and all that money that we spent is for nothing.” But in reality, it might truly be more valuable for you to say, “Okay. And as of today, we’re done spending any money or time on this. We’re going to cut our losses, and we’re going to shift towards a project that is going to be more financially or valuable for our time.”

Paul: Well, let me ask a question about that. So, many times, the reason people put, let’s say, in retrospect, good money after bad is because they can’t see the future. You brought out the concept of a project or a technology project, and there are factions in that. One faction is saying, “Well, if you just give us another six months, we’ll have it done for you.” And that’s another contributory message that’s coming in in the heuristics, because you’ve invested four years. “Give us another six months. Give us another six months.” I mean, that happened, probably, eight times in a four-year project.

So, what leads, what psychological principles…? Is it just simple the sunk cost fallacy or are there other things that edge into that?

Victor: There are definitely… So, another concept is that people tend to cash out gains much quicker because they want the guaranteed win, and hang on to losses in the hopes that it will turn around. And while I think it’s similar, there’s a slight difference, which is that if the comparison were that the project was being profitable, that it’s something that people would possibly then move away from quicker, because they would say, “Look, I’m making money off of this venture. It’s time for me to start something new. And this was a success.” And also, the fact that it’s guaranteed. So, again, that sort of brings in the risk aversion or the loss aversion, which is to say, “I don’t want to stick around long enough to where this is going to turn into the potential for a loss. I want to take my five dollars and run because now I’ve gained something. But if I lose this money, I’m going to feel really bad.” And so it’s wanting to avoid that.

But there’s also other things. So I think that in terms of, like, the principles that I write about, the two that we’ve spoken about so far are very much related to how individuals make their own decisions based on the information they have.

And I wrote about one more, which is called Fogg’s Behavioral Model, and that is a fairly simple concept. And BJ Fogg is a professor out of Stanford, and Stanford has a good lab called the Persuasive Technology, or I think they call it captology Lab. And that’s a word meant to mean persuasive technology. But BJ Fogg talks about and explores with his research how technology can be used to help change behaviors and persuade people to engage in different behaviors, and he identified — and I think this is really…it pinpoints what you said as being so simple it’s obvious, but you don’t know it until somebody else tells you, or… So, it’s sort of like, maybe in academic, it’s whoever gets there and writes about it first gets to take the credit, or whoever just takes credit the loudest gets to take the credit.

But it is… His concept, his model, is that there is sort of these three things that go into somebody’s decision to engage in a behavior. And it’s motivation — so, how motivated are you? Is it something that you’re really excited to do? Or is it something that you’re dreading?

Your ability — so, are you capable of doing it? An example I like to give is something like, maybe it’s buying a luxury car. You might be super motivated to do it, but if you’re bank account is at zero and you have bad credit, you might have zero ability at the time to do it. So, there’s those two.

And then, his model posits that when motivation and ability reach a certain point, that’s when you need to introduce the trigger or the call to action. So, if it were buying a luxury car, it would be, I’m super motivated. My ability is to either save money or secure a loan. So you have to understand what point I’m at. Maybe if I can’t secure a loan, then it’s saving money. And so if I walked into a car dealership with zero dollars and a lot of motivation, them presenting me with the “Do you want to buy this luxury car?” is a trigger that’s going to fail because I’m not going to end up having the ability. But if they say, “Here’s a loan that will allow you to increase your ability to afford this car,” then my ability and my motivation might be at the right place. And when they say, “And now do you want to buy this?” I can say, “Yes.”

Another way of translating that into a digital setting is sort of just like the “Buy now.” Or you don’t want to necessarily present somebody “Buy now,” until you’ve told them why. And that’s going to be increasing their motivation, and then the “Buy now” has to be presented in a way that’s clear and effective and shows somebody that they’re capable of doing it. And that’s the ability part. And then, at the right time.

So, you really have to study your users’ behaviors in saying how motivated are they coming in? Is this a product that people are dreading? Or is a product that most people are really dying to buy? And then, so how can we enable them?

Digital, actually, is an enabler in itself, you know. Somebody who wants a product really badly but it’s on another continent and it’s sitting in a store, they might never know about it. However, if you’re delivering that product through a digital interface and saying, “Look. This is sitting on the shelf in an entirely different country, but you can have it shipped tomorrow. Buy now,” that’s when the effective digital interface really presents these opportunities that maybe other mediums don’t afford, which, you know, is sort of the cool thing about designing for digital context.

So there’s that. That’s the third principle. And then I move towards the real influential and persuasion through other people, through groups and through influence of social settings. So, there’s a chapter that’s on what’s called social influence and social identity, where it really is how are people perceiving the people around them or famous people. Where are famous people doing? How are they going about doing things that you would like to emulate?

And there’s a lot of literature out there that says one of the key concepts for social influence, or for influence, is reciprocity. And that’s when people give you something or when you give somebody something, then it creates this sense of obligation that they would give you something back. And if you think about that on like the level of a birthday present, you give birthday presents, usually, to people who have given you a present on your birthday. Or you would sort of think, oh, it’s not poor taste for me to not give a birthday present to somebody who has given me a birthday present. Or, you know, something maybe even less devious would be like, if you gave me a ride to the airport next week, then I would be certainly happy to give you a ride when you call me the next time you need one.

So, how do we do that in a digital setting? You see in things like, “Here’s a free pdf of this content that you’re going to find valuable. Oh, but if you’d to have it, I’d really like you to give me your email address so that I can add you to my mailing list.” Or, “Here is a free 30-day trial of my product, and now I would like to present you with the opportunity to purchase it, rather than going on and getting a free trial of my competitor’s product or trying that.”

So, there’s a lot of ways to create this sense of reciprocity in people who are potentially interested in your product. And that’s something that I think also is something that we see when we think of like sales. And so you have to sort of be careful in how you engage in these things to not come across as overly salesy.

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