Persuasive design: using 
advanced psychology 

“Emotions shape all activity in adaptive ways. In the absence of emotional markers, decision making is virtually impossible.” —Saver & Damasio (1991)


Websites have come a long way in a short space of time—it’s really quite amazing just how much some of the sites belonging to the last decade’s most established brands have changed from their first iteration.

When websites were first used for commercial purposes, they didn’t pay too much attention to user experience; the aim was to cram as much content into one page as possible. Now they are heavily researched, data-mined, and optimized in order to grab your attention and offer up the right content, functionalities, and options at the right time.

More and more companies are using advanced psychological research and in order to drive more engagement and purchases, have turned what used to be an art into a science.

Apple’s website from 1997

Persuasive design

In addition to many essential elements, good design will always take into account a user’s emotional and psychological needs. Let’s look at persuasive design and explore how the mental processes that influence how humans behave can be applied to design.

The word “persuasion” is often associated with manipulation, trickery, and—especially for a designer—the use of dark patterns. It’s earned itself a bit of a reputation. Nevertheless, let’s be clear that’s not what we are discussing here. Persuasive design can improve user experience by making a site easy to use—it understands psychological triggers, the behavior of users and engages them.

For example, Amazon persuades users to keep buying more by recommending alternative products and accessories, and employing mimetic, persuasive patterns by displaying “customers who viewed this item also bought…” options. In order to close the sale quickly, they also offer shoppers the ability to purchase items with one click.

We are all spending a lot more time in an online world, and designerscan use what they have learned from offline behaviors to craft better user experiences. Whether you want to tweak an existing website or build an app, persuasive design will guide and support the user’s online experience.

How can a designer use the latest research in psychology to enhance the impact of their designs?

Understanding the principles of psychology provides you with an ability to explain the underlying rationale of your work. It can:

Let’s discuss a few of the theories.

The perception of control

As humans, we have an innate need for control. This is traced back to our humblest of beginnings. In coining the hierarchy of needs, psychologist Abraham Maslow named our most basic ones: health, food, and sleep. All these require a level of control over our environment.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (courtesy

As UI designers, we need to ensure that our users have a positive experience within the environments we create for them. This means empowering them by offering tools that will make them feel as if they are in control of their journey.

UX Consultant Nadine Kintscher says, “Today, you can adjust your screens [sic] brightness, disable notifications, and decide whether your phone should connect to both data and phone network or not… Even if these adjustments only extend your phone’s battery life by a few minutes, it gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling of accomplishment. YOU are in charge.”

We need to create interfaces that are balanced between being functional and visually engaging and giving users some control so they have a more satisfying experience.

Realestate, an Australian property search website, succeeds in doing this by enabling users to filter all properties by their preferences, and giving them the option to sort by limited criteria.

Motivation, ability, and trigger

How do you design a digital experience that allows users to engage in desired behaviors that occur at the right moment? Motivation, ability, and trigger—a simple theory based on Fogg’s Behavioral Model—is ideal for anyone trying to come to grips with persuasive psychology. According to the motivation, ability, and trigger principle, behavior happens when a person is motivated, has the ability to partake in the behavior, and is presented with a trigger. When these three elements come together at the same moment is when a desired behavior can occur.

A good example is TurboTax, discussed in the book Design for the Mind: Seven Psychological Principles of Persuasive Design.

Even if we don’t enjoy it, we are highly motivated to file our taxes. However, the US tax system, like every other country’s, is too complex to easily understand. TurboTax has increased ability by allowing users to more easily complete their taxes by asking basic questions. Gone are the long documents—instead, TurboTax has created a workflow where users are taken through a simple step by step process. The final value proposition is the ability to easily file taxes electronically and send a payment—the trigger.

Finding situations with exactly the right combination of motivation and ability with an effective trigger may feel artificial or unnatural. It’s okay if one outweighs the other. A good example is tweeting—motivation could be low, but the trigger may be there and ability is super high.

As designers, we can use this theory to examine how we’re building our users’ motivation and ability before we ask them to engage in a behavior.

Both of these theories require some research but are highly useful in designing interfaces.

Alternatively, there are few simpler psychological theories that require less research and can be implemented into your designs immediately, such as the concepts of scarcity and fear of missing out (FOMO).

Amazon uses FOMO effectively by adding a note of urgency to a product (highlighted)

Capture your audience’s attention

For decades, psychologists have been obsessed with our diminishing ability to maintain attention.

Eye tracking that measures where and for how long a user fixates on one point has been around for some time. It shows that the average attention span on the internet is less than a few seconds—we make immediate decisions about a site and, if it’s not for us, we are gone.

EyeQuant has taken this idea a step further by building a predictive algorithm using eye tracking data. Instead of using an eye tracking program on your own site, you upload a design to their website and they will tell you how people would perceive and focus on your site.

Using German participants, they built a massive database of what attracts a user’s attention and what doesn’t—color contrast was found to attract the eyes, and so do faces and bold text.

Eye tracking software can be expensive. In lieu of it, online analysis software like Sumo Heat Maps are useful to show what and where your visitors are clicking, and what’s attracting the most attention. However, it’s essential to remember that while we may be capturing the brain’s attention, we may be pulling users away from something far more important.

Using eye tracking or heat maps allows designers to get immediate objective feedback on their designs. As a designer, it can serve as validation for your UX ideas and provide data for your design decisions, as well as allowing you to optimize your designs by running smart A/B tests.

Sumo Heat Map

Mimetic desire

Have you ever noticed that human beings naturally imitate the desires of other human beings? Human desire is, by and large, mediated desire. This theory, originated by Rene Girard, suggests that if someone shows a desire for an object, you will also desire that object. Advertisers love this—it has had demonstrated success.

You and I are mimetic creatures. Neuro Design by Darren Bridger explored this theory and found we have a mirror neuron system. In other words, just seeing someone perform an action like picking an item can cause your brain to mirror that activity.

Mimetic desire theory means we want something more if we see that someone else owns it—a designer can harness this by using social proofing.

An example of the “user proof” technique is testimonials. Testimonials work because they come from people who share the user’s desires and values. For instance, Foundrmag not only uses the voice of the user but also shows faces, thereby triggering the mirror neuron system.


Another implementation is “expert social proof,” where your product gets a stamp of approval from a credible expert, such as an industry blogger. This can come in the form of a Twitter mention, a press quote, or even a blog post. Google uses this technique in their latest campaign for the Pixel phone.

Psychology in design today and beyond

It is an exciting time for designers—we have the resources and research to underpin all our work.

Design trends are shifting to touch, voice, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and the Internet of Things (IoT); as we move toward these interaction technologies, people will require more intuitive ways to use their interfaces.

We will see many new design opportunities, and psychology in general will play a direct and essential role in these developments.

The next big change will be how we interact with our devices day-to-day—moving from touch to headsets that read our brain waves. This technology is already available and gives people the ability to control their devices directly through thought.

As we get closer to people’s actual thoughts, psychology in design—and the designer’s moral responsibility—will play an important and ever greater role.

Apart from using analytics, user research, empathy maps and other approaches to help make design decisions and iterate on the product, designers should consider rounding out their “bag of tricks” with the four persuasive design methods mentioned.

Persuasive design isn’t evil. It’s a tool, and like any tool it can be misused. However, with the right research and thoughtful application, it can be a valuable addition to any designer’s toolkit.

This article is brought to you by Toptal.